The Rams see “something really powerful going on” with this youth football team run by local law enforcement in gang-infested Watts.
LOS ANGELES — Officer James Holliman likes to say — with a smile, not as a joke — that he quits every day. As a member of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Southeast Division, he has entrenched himself within a community of underprivileged children in Watts, a South Central L.A. neighborhood that stands among the most dangerous, gang-infested areas in the country. Holliman originally signed on to help run a Pop Warner football program, but he and the small handful of police officers alongside him have become so much more than that.
They’re the ones listed on emergency contact cards. The ones who check in with kids at school and ensure they’re eating healthily at home. The ones who drive them for their physicals and field late-night calls to pick them up when they’re in trouble. The ones who provide structure and, on far too many occasions, educate them about sex.
The inner city can be oppressive. The overwhelming presence of drugs and violence creates a vicious cycle that often makes reaching children from those communities, particularly Watts, an exhaustive, consuming, unrelenting task littered with setbacks. Often — always — the men who take on the burden feel overwhelmed.
“But then you see stuff like this,” Holliman said, scanning a classroom hosting a couple dozen children intently listening to their teacher, “and it keeps you going.”
The Watts Bears began in 2012, one year after the LAPD launched its Community Safety Partnership program to help bridge the gap between police officers and their communities. Twenty-two kids signed up to play free football that first season. This year, the Watts coaches are expecting close to 100. The animosity directed toward cops by the people of Watts — a tension rooted in the infamous riots of 1965 — has begun to diminish. An entire calendar of events has been incorporated, including coed track and field in the spring and mentorship programs in the summer. Countless children who were once considered hopeless have begun to turn their lives around.
The Los Angeles Rams have been particularly drawn to the Watts Bears, enough so that they have decided to make them one of the major pillars of their philanthropic efforts. On Sunday — after hosting the children, their parents and their coaches to a picnic at the beach and a visit to training camp — the team will announce an immersive partnership that will turn the Watts Bears into the Watts Rams, the culmination of a relationship that began more than two years ago.
The Rams will fund every component of the Watts football program, including uniforms and equipment. They will host a career seminar and monthly engagement programs. Players and coaches will visit children who are in search of role models; tickets and autographs will be dangled as incentives for good behavior. In short, the Rams promise to be a constant resource.
“We can love on them in the present, but we can also inspire them to dream,” said Molly Higgins, the Rams’ vice president of community affairs and engagement. “I think this is a program that the entire Rams organization is going to wrap their arms around.”
The scope of this task hit officer Zarren Thompson early in that first season. A 10-year-old boy who had enrolled in the program ran away to Inglewood, California, roughly 20 miles west of Watts, and was found by a member of the local police department. Thompson was awoken by a phone call around midnight. He picked up the boy and delivered him to his mother, who hadn’t even noticed.
“I walked away from that door that day and said, ‘You’re really jumping into deep water now with these kids,'” Thompson recalled. “I didn’t stop. I just kept pushing.”
Thompson, a muscular 54-year-old with a fiery personality, sees a lot of himself in the kids he now mentors. He grew up so poor in South Central that he remembers constantly opening the refrigerator door hoping food would magically appear. The electricity once went out in his house for three days, so his mom read to her children under candlelight. Thompson grew to love books from that experience. He escaped the inner city by listening to his mother’s advice and maintaining his faith in a higher power.
Thompson constantly tells kids stories like these; tells them that he had it worse than most of them and found a way, and that they can, too.
“It’s something about being able to take a young man at this age and kind of mold him in the right direction,” Thompson said. “No, they’re all not going to be the CEO of some multibillion-dollar corporation or anything like that. But the act of taking a kid who still is not contaminated with none of this stuff yet — so I can still get him — and having the passion to change somebody’s life, it’s a beautiful thing. Yeah, we have our ups and downs, don’t get me wrong. But it’s just autopilot and I go. I don’t even think twice.”
Thompson and Otis Swift, 46, teamed with four other officers — Grant Goosby, Sergio Sanchez, James Kelly and Keith Linton — to help start the program. Thompson and Swift are now joined by Holliman, 37; officers Jose Soto, 33, and Joshua Juneau, 37; along with several volunteer coaches and teachers who drop in from time to time.
It began as football, which revealed that help was needed in every facet. The officers found they could mentor kids while they were under their watch, but because most of the kids’ time was still spent at home, on the streets, with their neighborhood friends, a lot of the values that were implemented would fall by the wayside.
“You build a bridge,” Thompson said, “and then it’s torn down within seconds.”
Parents initially used fake addresses because they didn’t want involvement with local police. To this day, Holliman said, some still believe the officers are trying to mold their kids into informants. Others within the department will wonder why merely coaching football is a full-time job, and coaches on other teams often talk about how successful they would be if they could field some of the raw talent coming out of Watts.
“They don’t get it,” Thompson said, shaking his head.
They don’t know about the random school visits that are required to make sure their kids aren’t acting out. Or how difficult it is to convince most of them to be offensive linemen, or to focus altogether. They don’t know about that time Thompson got a call from a mom asking him to talk to her 13-year-old son about sex because he was beginning to express interest. Or about the father who asked Swift to help him discipline his 12-year-old boy.
Rather than get bogged down by the obstacles, the Watts coaches have drawn inspiration from the small victories. From the shy kid who opens up as the season progresses. From the one who goes from failing grades to a C average. From the subtle improvements of their teams, one of which finished a victory shy of the national semifinals. From the increasing number of kids who want to participate, and the dwindling percentage of those who cause problems.
“It makes you feel like you’re doing something,” Thompson said. “It makes you feel like your hard work is paying off.”
Higgins first met the Watts Bears during a ride-along in the spring of 2017, a little more than a year after the Rams moved from St. Louis back to Los Angeles. The officers rolled into one of the public housing developments, spotted a gang, honked their horn and got a salute. Higgins was stunned that police officers in that environment could elicit that response. She was told it was a long process.
“Right then I’m like, ‘There’s something really powerful going on here,'” Higgins said.
Bitterness over their departure aside, the Rams were commended for their charitable work in the St. Louis community. They arrived in L.A. with a successful blueprint, but Higgins suggested embarking on a listening tour. The dynamics were so different, the needs so wide-ranging, that she wanted to spend time with various community leaders before jumping into commitments.
The Watts program, however, continued to grab her attention. It used football to combat many of the issues the Rams wanted to help address — poverty, social justice, education inequities, police-civilian dynamics — and did so with officers who grew to inspire her.
“They’re not just police officers; they become so invested in these kids’ lives,” Higgins said. “They become their father figures and their male role models.”
Higgins has made so many trips to Watts in recent years that the coaches think she should run for local office. On one visit, to a local elementary school, the principal told her that 96% of the kids suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder because they don’t know where they’ll sleep that night, or how their lives will be in danger, or what they’ll face when they get home.
“This community needs the Los Angeles Rams,” Higgins said, “and we want to be there for them.”
Prior to this agreement, the Rams maintained an intermittent involvement with the Watts Bears. They provided tickets and cleats, invited them to attend practice and announce a draft pick. At one point, they hosted the program’s end-of-the-year banquet, throwing an extravagant party that ended with a night at Dave & Buster’s and asking for nothing in return. It stuck with Capt. Louis Paglialonga, who oversees the Southeast Division.
“There’s so much more beauty here,” said Paglialonga, who has held four separate positions in Watts during his career. “It’s just getting people to invest in it, and understand that, and be wanting to be here. There’s a lot of people who will write checks. A lot of people. But they won’t put their feet here. The Rams putting their feet here, to me, is a game-changer.”
Dominic Conner, now approaching his sophomore year of high school, grew up being told the police were there to put him in jail and nothing else. Several members of his family were gang members, and that could’ve been him, too, if not for the Watts Bears.
“With them,” Conner said, “it stopped me from even thinking about it.”
In Watts, you’re either involved in sports or in gangs. That’s the thought, at least. Within a 3½-mile radius are somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 gangs and five housing projects. One of them, Nickerson Gardens, houses the notorious Bounty Hunter Bloods and stands as the largest housing development west of the Mississippi River. On the wall outside a gymnasium are names, painted in black letters, of all the people from Nickerson Gardens who have died. There are hundreds of them, and hundreds of others that need to be included.
Children walk the streets constantly looking over their shoulders. They build hard exteriors at an early age for the sake of survival.
Conner, who always makes sure to wear neutral colors, wanted to play football but couldn’t afford it. A basketball coach told him to ask one of the Watts coaches about the cost of their program, and Conner waited a week before finally summoning the courage. He was told it was free, then was driven in the front seat of a police car to his house to sign the registration forms. Conner spent four seasons with the Watts Bears, from 2015 to 2018, and now returns year-round to help.
He personifies their pursuit.
“I miss them,” Conner said when asked why he keeps coming back. “I miss the Watts Bears. They’ve helped me so much, so why shouldn’t I come back and help them, and pay back what they’ve done for me?”