By Steve Flores
It is a scene played out hundreds of times almost every evening throughout the fall. Depending on your neighborhood or which area of town you live, the ritual varies greatly.The youth arrive by bicycle, parent drop-off, or bus. And then there are others who walk through suspect neighborhoods deemed unsafe by most people -- just to get to football practice.
No matter the neighborhood or arrival mode, football practice is the shared destination for these young children. For some, it's a unique safe sanctuary with new friends and rare opportunity for positive peer interaction.
Their practice field can be on a borrowed school playground with minimum, if any, lighting at night. A park sump converted into a temporary practice field. Or a brightly lighted, meticulously manicured playing field in a school stadium or nearby park.
At each practice, it is normal to hear the clacking sounds of football pads, coaches barking instructions and the thudding sounds of cleats pounding the turf. And when you are a kid practicing in some parts of the east side, it becomes second nature to hear a police helicopter whirling overhead or the blaring of sirens of a rushing ambulance or in-pursuit patrol car.
I was recently within such an area, visiting with the East Bakersfield Sheriff's Activities League "Stars" youth football team who were practicing at Williams School. Their ages ranged from 11 to 13.
The sun was just beginning to set and the only available lighting for practice were the dim Niles's streetlights near Virginia Avenue and the bluish glow of fluorescent bulbs bouncing off nearby businesses signs. Cars rumbled by, some with loud music. Groups of strangers strolled by.
Regardless of the neighborhood's commotion surrounding them, the young players stayed focused, undeterred by a variety of activities just beyond the school fence.
They knew they were safe with their coaches on the practice field.
Their leading proud coach is Kern County Sheriff's Department Senior Deputy Derek Brannan who is also the coordinator for the East Bakersfield SAL. After spending time with him and his wife April on the practice field, I felt safe, too. I was afraid to ask her, but she must have been an Army drill instructor in another life. Her inner and outer beauty cannot mask her intensity and dedication for the success of the players, on or off the field. She directs youth mentors and coaches in ensuring every single Star player is focused and respectful, factors contributing to the team's success.
Under Coach Brannan's leadership, the coaches and volunteers have a "win-at-all-cost attitude." But this attitude is not about sports. It's about improving their young player's lives, many who have become like family to their coaches.
"Sports and other activities are the hook by which we recruit youth," coach Brannan said. "We don't recruit for their talent in sports. We find youth who are most at risk, and we try to give them the best chance at improving their lives."And improving their lives they have.
Since the program started seven years ago, the Stars coaches have become familiar with each player's school progress and report cards. No hiding grades from the Brannan coaches. The Stars players have an impressive win record on the field but an even more impressive graduation record.
Since its inception, these Stars players have graduated from high school, no small feat for this plighted East Bakersfield neighborhood that has been known to rob a few youth of their innocence and lead them to a grimmer world.As practice began to whine down, and darkness set in, it was still easy to see and hear the player's respect give to their coaches.I am glad I got a chance to meet these dedicated coaches and players. It's comforting to know the Sheriff's Activities League is successfully active in many areas of disparity and of enormous need in Kern County.
As I walked to my car in the darkness, I passed a parent sitting in a lawn chair watching her son finish practice. I realized then coach Brannan and his fellow coaches had confronted enormous obstacles to successfully and literally turn William School's makeshift practice area into a field of dreams for parents and more importantly, for many of these young players.
Corny, I know, but absolutely true.
If you don't believe me, I dare you to go ask April.
Steve Flores is a contributing columnist for The Californian. These are his opinions and do not necessarily reflect those of The Californian.