LAPD form a pee-wee football team for young boys living in the Watts area

LAPD Pee Wee Football - 1

Maya Sugarman/KPCC

The Watts Bears are a football team of nine through eleven year olds in the Pop Warner Pee Wee league. Four LA police officers coach the team, which heads to a bowl game in Murrieta, Calif. on Saturday.

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The Watts Bears practice at the 109th Street Recreation Center on Thursday night, two days before their bowl game. The team practices three times a week at the center.

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Maya Sugarman/KPCC

Coaches James Kelly, left, and Keith Linton watch players during a hitting drill at the beginning of Thursday's practice.

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Maya Sugarman/KPCC

Offensive and defensive line coach Otis Swift simulates plays with the Bears. The team started with 36 players, 20 have continued to play.

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Maya Sugarman/KPCC

Eleven-year-old Robert Turner, a running back and cornerback, looks up as rain comes down during practice.

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Maya Sugarman/KPCC

Eve Walker, left, and her son, Christian, watch Walker's son, eleven-year-old Steve Jenkins, practice in the rain on Thursday evening. "You got to come prepared," said Walker of the weather.

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Maya Sugarman/KPCC

The Watts Bears do 20 push-ups after making a mistake on defense during practice.

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Maya Sugarman/KPCC

Assistant coach James Kelly, left, and head coach Thompson Zarren, both police officers, make sure players hit the pads.

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Maya Sugarman/KPCC

Head coach Thompson Zarren hands off the ball to running back Robert Turner during an offensive simulation.

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Maya Sugarman/KPCC

Head coach Thompson Zarren talks with players during a huddle at the end of practice. The Bears will practice again on Friday in preparation for their important bowl game.

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Maya Sugarman/KPCC

The Watts Bears cheer at the end of a two-hour practice on Thursday. The players are from different neighborhoods throughout South Central Los Angeles.

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Maya Sugarman/KPCC

Players load equipment into Police vans after practice on Thursday evening on 109th Street.

Because football is such a big part of the Thanksgiving holiday, we wanted to share with you some pictures from a hometown neighborhood team we thought you’d might like to cheer on.

For the last six months or so, a group of about 25 kids from Watts have traveled throughout the Southland playing other  9- to 11-year-olds in Pop Warner football games. They just finished their last game of the season, a bowl game against the Temeulca Wolfpack. The players outdid themselves, taking home a big W to close out the season, 28-8.

The Watts Bears are a new team formed and coached by the Los Angeles police officers at the Southeast station. Coach Z -- a.k.a. senior lead officer Zarren Thompson -- heads the team.

“The purpose was just to bring kids from different neighborhoods and showing that you can be friends no matter what street or what neighborhood you live in or what housing development you stay in or what my uncle or my dad used to do,” he said.  

Many of the kids live in areas with rigid neighborhood gang turf boundaries that can split apart neighborhoods, families and friendships.

The officers pick the players up from school to practice and return them home. Lots of them don’t have steady transportation. More than that, it’s pretty dangerous and tempting for the youngsters to walk the streets at night and find themselves in trouble.

In order to stay on the team throughout the season, the kids have to keep up their grades at school and the middle school principal has to sign off on behavior reports. Guess who comes in to check on them at school? The coaches/officers. 

“I played a lot and it’s just the same as regular coaches. You can’t tell they police officers, they regular coaches,” 11-year old Curshawn Snelson told me.   

Snelson hopes football will get him into college where he wants to study engineering so he can build houses and buildings. Lots of the kids on the team harbor dreams of college.

“I wanna buy people cleats,” said one boy named Robert Turner. “We should start a business like that and just give kids cleats for all the kids in Watts that wanna play football.”

All of the boys on the team said the easiest part of playing for the team was that it was free.

Coach Z gets that.

“I grew up without a dad and a single mom. Never had an opportunity to play any organized sports because mom couldn’t afford it so coming here and giving back to these kids and letting them play free, it’s great,” said Thompson.

Next year, they hope to expand the program to a second squad and involve younger kids. They’ll need more coaches, Thompson said. So they’ll be looking to Watts parents or other local adults who might want to volunteer time coaching practices and games and mentoring the players. 

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