Gary Robinson and The California Cowboys

By Kurt Streeter
Updated: October 18, 2008

LOS ANGELES — What with all the activity, all the laughing and kids running around and families sitting on park blankets eating turkey sandwiches, this could be the suburbs.

But it’s South L.A., next to the Harbor Freeway and El Segundo Avenue, one of the most blighted pockets of urban America.

It’s 7 at night at Helen Keller Park. The baseball field and the basketball court glimmer under tall lights. Over by the small Rec Center building, where a gang member was once killed, little girls practice cheerleading routines.

Over by the swimming pool, long the site of gang initiations, an old coach counsels a young boy. And on the potholed baseball field that sat unused for years because gangs claimed it, scores of kids in helmets and pads sprint every which way, chasing footballs.

Football? You walk around and talk to people who’ve lived their whole lives in these parts, and nobody can remember there ever having been a league or a team here. Life being hard as it was, nobody ever gave it much thought. Nobody, except Gary Robinson, a.k.a. “Nugget.”

Not so long ago, the only people you’d find in Helen Keller at night were members of Robinson’s former gang, the Raymond Avenue Crips. This was their place to smoke weed, drink and plot trouble.

That’s why it has been a shock to nearly everyone familiar with the park — even sometimes to Robinson himself — that Helen Keller has blossomed, a turnaround that happened largely because Robinson took a stab at redemption.

“I used to be like Don Corleone,” Robinson says. Now “I’m Jerry Jones. . . . This was always my dream, football . . . and it feels good.”

Lanky, sharp, coarse-voiced, 48, Robinson freely admits that he was one of the people responsible for bringing pain to South L.A.

Says Ken Bell, a retired sheriff’s deputy who patrolled the park for more than a decade: “Gary Robinson was one of those criminally minded guys that if I was working and I saw him, he is going to get stopped, because you never knew what he was up to and you wanted him to know you were on him good. . . . Honestly, it would have been the furthest thing from my mind to have guessed he would ever change.”

By 2004, pushed by an unyielding community organizer named Cameron Bonner and supported by another former Crip, Reynaldo Reaser, Robinson began to take responsibility for the chaos he helped create. “I’ve got to change. We’ve got to change. We’ve got to fix the mess we made,” he told anyone who would listen.

He did something too few gang members ever have the notion to do: He went to his own gang with a plea. Let’s have no more violence at Helen Keller or the area around it, no more initiations, no more recruiting.

Because he was respected and he showed respect, his plea stuck. Then he and Reaser traveled to neighborhoods where longtime rivals lived, asking for peace. This plea stuck too.

All the while, Robinson was figuring that if he could make the park a spot parents and kids no longer feared, he could bring football to the mix.

“I saw a place where kids could breathe, a place where we could help turn the kids into responsible adults. I want some doctors and some lawyers from this neighborhood, not some gang members. . . . I want these kids to have what we never had.”

By 2005, the park had grown more peaceful. It still had gangsters, but there were fewer of them, and they mostly stayed to the side and didn’t make trouble.

Robinson joined a nonprofit that Bonner, the community organizer, had started: CURE, Common Unity Reaching Everyone. Through CURE they got volunteers to serve as tutors. They held pancake breakfasts and cookouts and movie screenings.

Two years ago, they scraped together enough money to buy football gear for 40 kids. So it was that the California Cowboys, named for the NFL team owned by Jerry Jones, were born. They played their first season in the Snoop Youth Football League, an inner-city league formed by the rapper Snoop Dogg.

This year, financial support is growing, some of it coming from Los Angeles County, some from individuals, some from A Better L.A., USC football Coach Pete Carroll’s gang intervention nonprofit.

Robinson says 120 grade-school and junior-high-age kids have signed up for football. It’s apparent he’s not fudging numbers when you show up at the park on a midweek evening.

On the gently sloping baseball outfield, scores of small and skinny youngsters move through their football paces, watched by a large crew of happy parents, guided by Robinson and a group of coaches he recruited, some from rival gangs.

Among the bustle, the old Crip plays the role of team president, coach, trainer and prime motivator. When he speaks up, his voice booms across the field and everyone turns to listen. Sometimes he pushes hard.

Sometimes he gives a shoulder to cry on. In my time around him, a few warm nights, I never saw anything from Robinson other than encouragement and love.

“We gonna win this weekend, right?” Robinson asked an 11-year-old boy who needed his chin strap fixed before a recent practice.

“Yes, sir.”

“The grades, you staying on them, right?”

“Yes, sir.”

“That’s what I like to hear. Doctors and lawyers. . . . Now go out and do some damage!”

The boy trotted off, looking like a bobblehead doll, his helmet too big for such a small body.

Robinson watched him and scanned the park and all of the activity there. Families, football players, little girls cheerleading: peace. He shook his head, as if he could not quite believe the change.