Football has long been the athletic stepchild at inner-city Crenshaw High School. Trophy cases are crammed with basketball awards. Gym walls are lined with hoops championship flags. But the football team is undefeated this season and headed for the California state championship bowl game this weekend, and the coach attributes part of the success to an unlikely off-field source: rapper Snoop Dogg.
Nine of this year's Crenshaw High School Cougars went through the 5-year-old Snoop Youth Football League, representing the first crop of varsity players to cut their teeth in the program. The league has produced standouts at other schools, but none has more players or a better record than Crenshaw.
The league has made Snoop Dogg, whose real name is Calvin Broadus, a savior of sorts for football in an impoverished area of Los Angeles where gangs roam many of the streets.
"It is more of an advantage to have kids who played in the Snoop Dogg league," coach Robert Garrett said. "They also have the experience, the fundamentals and the attitude that guys who started from scratch don't have."
Broadus' reputation for raunchy lyrics and run-ins with the law brought some initial apprehension from the mostly single mothers who wanted to enroll their sons.
"It was kind of hard to separate Snoop Dogg the entertainer from Snoop Dogg the coach, the father," league Commissioner Haamid Wadood said.
But the league soon caught on, especially when fathers with criminal records learned they could coach, unlike most other youth sports. Broadus, himself a former gang member, has several convictions for drugs and weapons offenses, and if the league didn't allow ex-cons, there wouldn't be enough coaches.
"When you look at the demographics of the area, this is the reality of the situation," Wadood said. "We don't condone any of that, but we look at the nature of the offense, how recent it was."
Sex offenders and domestic violence convicts, for instance, are banned from the sidelines.
The coaching exception has also reconnected boys with their dads, or at least with positive male role models in neighborhoods where fathers are often behind bars or otherwise absent.
The dads, many of them members of the rival Bloods and Crips, must agree to leave their gang disputes away from the field.
"This is kind of like a peace treaty," Wadood said. "Everybody wants something better for their kids."
Broadus, 38, launched the league in 2005 with $1 million of his own money after noticing that much of urban Los Angeles had no football for boys ages 5 to 13. He's since invested about $300,000, Wadood said. The league now has 2,500 kids enrolled.
Broadus, who was promoting his new album "Malice in Wonderland" this week, would not comment.
The camaraderie that developed from playing together in the Snoop league has made the Crenshaw team a more cohesive, confident unit on and off the field. In a steamroller season, the Cougars have earned a 14-0 record, nabbing the Los Angeles city title.
"It's like a big family," said running back De'Anthony Thomas, a junior who sports a big gold and diamond cross pendant around his neck and who got his nickname "Black Mamba" in the Snoop league because of his speedy agility similar to the dangerous African snake.
It also helps team members fend off peer pressure to join gangs.
"It keeps me out of trouble, from hanging in places I shouldn't be," said wide receiver Geno Hall, a senior with diamond stud earrings. "It's helped me to grow mentally."
While Broadus' larger-than-life figure was not the motivation for the kids to play football, his personal involvement boosts the self-esteem of boys who often receive little attention at home. The rapper attends games and allows his bodyguards to let players approach him freely.
Those intangibles, said coach Garrett, are invaluable for inner-city youth. The burly coach sees his job as much about taking a troubled team member home for food or clothing as it is about football. He lectures about keeping up grades and has imposed a rule requiring neckties, dress shirts and trousers on Fridays during season to get players out of the "hood culture."
The success of Crenshaw and the Snoop league is capturing widespread attention. College recruiters have already approached players such as Thomas and Hall, and the league is fielding calls from cities such as Dallas and Pittsburgh that want to replicate the Snoop model.
In the short term, though, all eyes are on Saturday's championship game against Concord De La Salle, to be televised statewide from the 27,000-seat Home Depot Center in nearby Carson.
For Crenshaw, where almost 40 percent of students drop out and about 70 percent of students receive free or cheaper lunches, excitement is high.
Students have held fundraisers to buy tickets for families who cannot afford them and provide bus transportation to the game. News crews have trooped across campus to film the team, but players are working to stay focused.
"I just get down on the field and play football," Thomas said. "I'm blocking all that out."
© 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.