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Gridiron gangs: New team aims to keep players out of trouble

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This spring marks the debut of the Salt Lake-based Stripling Warriorz in the Rocky Mountain Football League.

Like all teams, the Warriorz hope to make an impact with their play. But assessing this group of players won't just come in wins, points scored or other traditional yardsticks for success.

Rather, success will be found in grades and scholarships, in the number of people who get a second chance at going to college, or those who safely abandon a gang lifestyle.

The biggest successes may be those that can't be measured. There is no way to know how many convenience store robberies, drive-by shootings or even homicides will be prevented because of the football team and its impact.

"The idea was to come up with a way to pull kids away from gang violence," head coach Kaisa Kinikini said. "They've all learned to just let all of that go."

The Rocky Mountain Football League is a semipro league with teams from Utah, Idaho, Colorado and Montana. The name Stripling Warriorz comes from a story in the Book of Mormon that tells of an army of valiant young men who were all wounded at one time or another but never died in battle.

Many of the league's players have had careers in high school or college football. Some even played professionally. For those players, the league is an opportunity to continue playing the game they love.

But for many of the players, championing adversity is more than playing through an old knee injury. Many of them are either ex-gang members or are related to, or friends with, current members of some of Salt Lake City's most active and violent gangs. The majority of players are Polynesian and come from the Glendale area, where there have been two high-profile homicides in the past year.

Earlier this month, Wally Knapton was shot and killed while working at the Family Dollar Store, 1145 S. Glendale Drive (1350 West). The next day, nearly every player on the team was questioned by police. All were cleared. But the players were well aware of what was happening. One of the alleged shooter's cousins currently plays for the Warriorz.

Kinikini said he and other players actually encouraged the accused shooter to come out to practice and play as a way to stay out of trouble.

"But the gang thing was too strong," he said. "He wanted to be in the gangs in our area."

Kinikini, a former gang member from Glendale, is trying to build team spirit — both on and off the field and from within and outside the team. The team's defensive coach is a Salt Lake police detective who acts as both a football coach and mentor. The team also has the full support of Salt Lake City Councilman Van Turner, who represents the west-side communities.

But it can be a struggle.

While many of the players had standout high school careers — coming from celebrated teams at Skyline and East high schools — many were unable to go on to college.

Trouble off the field led to juvenile criminal records, bad grades and, in some cases, being yanked off the football team their senior year.

"After football season, a lot of times the kids have no motivation to do anything," said Warriorz general manager Vangana Maka. "People are not always fortunate enough to go straight from high school to college. And so they just waste their talent, and it's really sad watching all these boys over the years ... they end up doing stuff, we end up losing a lot of them to gang fights, murders ... it's sad."

Standing taller

Kinikini reminds his players every day to "stand a little taller." The acronym for that slogan, SALT, is also the namesake of the program aimed at helping at-risk youths. The football team falls under the Second Chance program of SALT. Those who are seniors in high school through age 24 are eligible.

"They can get away from the gang life. Most of our kids think that being Polynesian is being a thug or being a gangster. We're smarter than that. We're better than that," he said.

Players have rules to follow and must sign a "behavior" contract before they can play. One requirement is they can't be in a gang.

"We check on those kids every day, at school, at home, make sure they're checking in," Kinikini said. "We're like big parents."

When it comes to standing taller, no one exemplifies the notion more than Rene Martinez. While not the tallest member of the Warriorz — "I'm 5-3 1/2, 5-5 with cleats," he jokingly says — few on the team can measure up to his toughness, both mentally and physically. At 26, Martinez is one of the oldest players on the squad and the glue of the team.

Four years ago, Martinez was convicted of a drive-by shooting. After pleading his charges down, he was sentenced to prison for attempted discharge of a firearm from a vehicle and attempted possession of a firearm by a restricted person.

"When I got out of prison, I set some goals," he said. "The odds of me succeeding out of prison are 2 to 10, so they're pretty stacked against me."

But Martinez says the chance to play football is giving him the spirit of competition and the drive to prove wrong those who predicted he would fail. He has also used the opportunity to mentor some of the younger players who find themselves in positions similar to his before he was sent to prison.

"I'm out here just to hopefully set a better example for the kids that came after me in what I did in gang bangin' and stuff. Hopefully they can see that ... if you come from the ghetto that doesn't mean you have to be a gang banger or a drug dealer or live on welfare your whole life. You can go somewhere, as long as you dream and set goals, you can go somewhere ... doctor, lawyer, professional athlete.

"No college scout is going to look at me and say, 'Hey, I want that guy.' I do this for the fun, for the experience when I get into (coaching). You guys have the chance. You have the shot. For me it's for fun. You guys have a chance to be bigger than this, than what's perceived to be the ghetto. They have to realize in their hearts they've got to want it."

The makeup of the Warriorz includes players from at least four different gangs — some of them rivals, Martinez said. But all have put those conflicts aside and worked closely as teammates.

Like Martinez, 23-year-old Paseni Makoni was unable to play football his senior year of high school due to off-field troubles. But he still has hopes of playing college ball.

"A lot of people say West Valley and Glendale kids don't get along, especially among us Tongan kids, rival gangs. But I love the sport of football. That's why I'm out here," he said. "I wanna do something instead of hanging out with friends and so-called homies causing trouble and stuff."

Paul Tuakalau, 20, was an All-State player at East High School and was invited to Louisiana where high school talent from across the nation was showcased. Tuakalau still has dreams of playing college ball one day, but in the meantime is happy to help with the Warriorz.

"There's still young guys going through the things I used to go through. I can help them change right now with this football program before they even go through it. So this football program really is helping," he said.

Financial struggles

Although the Stripling Warriorz have the fighting spirit, what they don't have a lot of is money.

Each team is supposed to have two sets of jerseys, for home and away games, and matching helmets. With three weeks to go before their first game, the Warriorz were having trouble coming up with even one set of matching jerseys.

Players and coaches are constantly asking local businesses for donations. Membership in the Rocky Mountain Football League costs $1,000, Maka said. Ironically, it was a local bail bonds company that donated the full entrance fee and jokingly told them the football team would be taking away business, Maka said. It's business, however, they're happy to lose.

Donations and sponsors have come from many places, such as the football department at Brigham Young University, which donated used cleats, Kinikini said.

The team practices at Poplar Grove Park on 800 South on an open grass area. There are no goal posts, yard markers or anything that resembles a football field. Their home games were supposed to be played at the Sorenson Multicultural Center, but the field still lacks goal posts.

During the league's kickoff meeting in February in which other teams voted on whether to allow the Stripling Warriorz into the league, Maka said the gridiron gang from Utah generated the most discussion. Some, she said, did not want the Warriorz. At least one coach questioned whether his family members and fans would be safe attending a Warriorz home game, she said.

"It was hard to hear that. It hurt and it motivated me more to get the team going. Nobody took our team seriously when we were there. But they don't know what's in store for them," Maka said. "Don't underestimate this team."

The Stripling Warriorz are expected to field the youngest team in the league. And despite the imposing size of some of the Tongan players, they will also have one of the smallest teams in the league.

Where the Warriorz hope to have an advantage is their young legs and their quickness. Recently, the team got some offensive firepower when former BYU and Arizona Cardinals tight end Tevita Ofahengaue heard about the Warriorz, what they hoped to accomplish and joined them as a player.

With the odds seemingly stacked against the team before the season even starts, Kinikini said the team will have already won if players see the bigger picture and set goals for the future.

Maka helps put together profiles on players, including their education transcripts, and sends them off to colleges, hoping some will give the players a chance to continue their education and possibly even their football careers. Maka also helps the players apply for financial assistance.

"We have to get these kids out there and seen because they can't do it by themselves. I like watching these boys succeed," she said. "These boys shouldn't stop their dreams because they don't have money. We're not a program to baby-sit. We give them a program to motivate.

"Football is a good way for this community to come together, because that's what they've grown up with. It's a football team, but then they're so much more than just a football team."

E-mail: preavy@desnews.com