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No-Nonsense Football Coach Brings Good to the 'Hood

LACounty_articleThe Falcons' motto says it all: "Teaching New-Style Kids Old-School Values."

Coach Keith Johnson takes that very seriously - even when some of those "new-style kids" are the parents of children on his football team.

Johnson runs a 10-year-old youth program that goes beyond gridiron X's and O's.

"It's not about just making football stars," Amber Pumphrey said as she watched her 7-year-old son, Antonio, practice with the Falcons' Tiny Mites. "It's about building character, being men. The things that they need to be something someday."

It's hard to build character if kids are hungry, unhealthy or can't read and write. So Johnson has turned a football team that once played in the Snoop Dogg league into the Falcons Youth and Family Services, a program that feeds 1,400 kids - from Santa Ana to the Antelope Valley - every day during the summer, hosts a fitness and nutrition camp for children every spring and monitors the school performance of every child on its football and cheerleading squads.

"I wanted to bring something good to the 'hood," Johnson said Wednesday when I visited his warehouse, where the walls are lined with boxes of football equipment and pallets of canned vegetables.

"It irritates me when people think our neighborhood has nothing to offer," he said. "When a kid leaves us, he'd better know more than how to throw a football."

Johnson is a no-nonsense type with a soft spot for the kids he calls his "babies" long after they're grown - and zero tolerance for adults who don't take their jobs as role models seriously enough.

He rattled off for me the speech he gives parents at the start of every season:

"There's no drinking or smoking at practice; no getting high in the parking lot. You can't come in with your pants sagging...or in your pajamas with curlers in your hair. You can't look like you're going to the club, with your boobs hanging out. There's no cursing, no berating kids from the stands."

So. Cal. FalconsMost parents clap when he finishes, Johnson said. "But some walk away [saying]: 'I don't know who he thinks he is.' I tell them these are our standards. If you don't want to meet them, that doesn't make you a bad person. But it does mean this is not the place for you."

I met Johnson two years ago when he was grilling burgers at Cathedral High while his Falcons played the Watts Bears, a team culled from housing projects and coached by LAPD officers.

As the Falcons crushed the Bears, 32-0, the coach's biggest concern was the decorum of his fans. "The parents can be a bigger problem than the kids," he told me then.

He understands the social forces that converge on his field: Single mothers are flummoxed by sons they can't control or don't understand. Unemployed fathers feel angry and ashamed when they can't support their families. Weary grandparents struggle through retirement, rearing wayward children's kids.

But Johnson doesn't indulge any version of woe-is-me.

"I know a lot of men didn't have fathers in their lives, but that is not an excuse," he said. "I say to them: 'Give your kids everything you wish your father would have done for you. Make sure they have that.'"

He encourages the single moms to reach out: "Don't isolate yourself. Talk to the parents of kids a few years older than yours, so you can plan to handle the issues that come up."

Johnson, 52, grew up in South Los Angeles. He spent time in foster care, then lived with his grandparents. "I was angry and fought a lot," he said.

Still, he graduated from Locke High and attended UCLA for two years before transferring to Biola University to study for the ministry. After traveling the country giving motivational speeches, he decided to concentrate his efforts closer to home.

He and his wife, Karen - his high school sweetheart - have two grown sons. The boys taught him that, platitudes aside, parenting isn't always easy and is never really done.

As a teenager, Johnson resented his grandparents' old-fashioned ways. But when he began counseling troubled kids and teaching foster parents, he realized how much he relied on the foundation his grandparents had provided.

"I needed to resurrect for this generation what made them so strong," he said. "So I went to the elders in our community for advice. I wanted to know, in their words, about the values and thoughts that ought to be passed down."

The Falcons' creed - displayed on the side of the team's mobile homework van - was built, word-for-word, on what those older people said:

Never get too busy for God. Baby, get a good education. Respect your elders at all times. It's Yes Sir and No Ma'am, not Yeah and Naw. Never call adults by their first names. Stay out of grown folks' conversations. All money ain't good money. Keep your hands to yourself. Dress like you have some self-respect. Don't embarrass me in public. Be in the house before the street lights come on.

It may look hokey on the page, but I could feel those sentiments in play Thursday night on the practice field at Gompers Middle School.

I could hear it in the players' every rousing "Yes, Coach!" I could see it in the properly dressed parents, not embarrassing anyone.

And when the sun went down and the field lights came on, dozens of tired boys hustled over and dropped to one knee in front of their head coach. They listened quietly as Johnson droned on about parking directions and football tickets and weekly homework reports.

Then they draped their arms around their teammates and bowed their heads in prayer.

About the So Cal Falcons:
The mission of the Falcons Youth and Family Services and the Southern California Falcons Youth Football and Cheer Organization is to use the social capitol of youth sports empower underprivileged and undeserved youth to excel in life. We have broken down the walls that once separated sports from public, private and foundations support and through community service programs created partnerships throughout the country.  Recently, the Rachel Ray Show highlighted the work of the So. Cal. Falcons, here is a link to the episode.  Visit the So Cal Falcons Website.