Sunday, August 4, 2013

Berkeley: Free Football Camp Aims to Keep Kids Off The Streets

By Doug Oakley
Staff Writer
Bay Area News Group
This articel was first published on June 11, 2013

BERKELEY -- Breathing hard, the kids gather around and take a knee. 

Todd Walker, their football coach for the next seven weeks, gets right down to business during a rest between sprints and foot drills. 

"All right, who got in trouble this week? Who was the class clown?" he says. "You giggling? We're not playing that. The class clown is the one who ends up on the street corner; then it's jail or the mortuary." 

Walker's free camp for at-risk youth runs every Saturday in San Pablo Park through July 27, and it's open to anyone, although most of the kids are African-Americans who don't have dads at home. 

During breaks, the ones who can't pay attention get what Walker calls the "6 inches treatment." You're on your back with your feet 6 inches off the ground, stomach muscles burning, while Walker talks for a long time about the importance of staying in school, keeping out of trouble and listening to your mother. 

"Most of the parents of these kids are single moms or single grandparents raising two or three kids themselves," Walker said. "The kids don't have a man figure in their lives. We try to give them some structure. At this camp, you have to go to school and listen to your parents and if you don't, you get the 6 inches from me." 

But it's not all the iron fist of discipline. With the younger ones, ages 5 through about 8, there are a lot of hugs and head rubs and sometimes free toys at the end of the day. Three or four other volunteer coaches work with the older kids up to about age 15 or 16. 

Older kids who sign up for the camp and who may be going down the wrong road, might get a home mentoring visit from Walker at the invitation from a struggling parent. In those cases they get the 6 inches treatment in their living room. For the hard cases he brings over a body bag from his job at an Oakland mortuary, where he often has to pick up murder victims from the coroner's office, to show the kid exactly where the consequences of their behavior can lead. 

"I just did it for a 14-year-old on Tuesday," Walker said. "I lay the body bag on their living room floor and make them get in and zip it up. 'One size fits all' I tell them. So I make sure the kids understand perfectly well where they'll end up if they keep it up, and I let them know their mothers are not someone you disrespect; this is someone who works and buys your clothes and food." 

Walker's job as an undertaker is a constant reminder of the nearly daily murders and destroyed lives the streets of Oakland and other East Bay cities render. He also did five months in county jail in the late 1980s for selling crack, so he understands how kids can end up in trouble. 

Walker said he started the camp 10 years ago when he was coaching youth football and he "lost a couple of kids to the streets. That's what really did it. A few of them were 14 or 15 that got murdered. 

"Then when I started working for the mortuary, I had to go pick up some ¿kids' bodies that were our friends or our friends' grandkids," Walker said. 

In Oakland and to some extent Berkeley, Walker said a funeral for someone slain can be a routine experience for a kid by the time he's just 10 years old, something they come to see as cool. 

"A lot of these kids by the time they're 10, they've been to 10 or 20 homicide funerals where 200 or 300 people show up, and they think that's great," Walker said. "They think 'if I die like this guy did, I'll have all these people at my funeral with the T-shirts with my face on it and everything.' So I tell them yeah, everyone will be talking about you for five days after your funeral, but after that nobody talks about you except for your family. And after the funeral, there's only person who doesn't go home that day." 

Walker's camp runs from 1 to 3 p.m. every Saturday at San Pablo Park and is free and open to anyone. For more information, Walker can be reached at 510-761-4515. 

Doug Oakley covers Berkeley. Contact him at 510-843-1408. Follow him on Twitter @douglasoakley

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