The story of a championship team's fall and rise

Melinda Page Hamilton and Zeb Newman in "Candida," previewing Thursday and Friday, and opening Saturday, Aug. 13, at Malibu Stage Co. Photo by Natascha Unkart

Fifteen years later, the story of the Malibu Camp Vernon Kilpatrick football team's march to a division title is given the Hollywood treatment.

By Stephen Dorman / Special To The Malibu Times

The story was so good that Hollywood eventually came calling.

In 1990, the juvenile probation Camp Vernon Kilpatrick football team made an improbable run to the California Interscholastic Federation Division X championship game. The squad, comprised of junior and senior high school boys, all of whom were sent to the youth detention camp located deep in the Santa Monica Mountains after repeated run-ins with the law, did something only a handful of the camp's coaches at the time thought they could: Kilpatrick players became a cohesive unit that put aside personal vendettas for the greater good of the team. And, in the end, they found the type of success that had eluded many of the troubled teens for their entire lives.

Three years after the title game, a television documentary about the 1990 team, directed by Lee and Linda Stanley, won an Emmy Award. More than a decade after that documentary aired, the story was picked up by Columbia Pictures, which, under the direction of Phil Joanou, recently filmed the big-screen adaptation titled, "The Gridiron Gang." The film is set for release in 2006.

Chuck Turner, Camp Kilpatrick's director during those years, developed the first football team in 1988. For two seasons, the Kilpatrick Mustangs competed in eight-man football, but in 1990 the decision was made to move to 11-man play in order to elevate the program's status and increase the amount of available competition. To this day, Kilpatrick doesn't have home games and often must travel long distances to play other schools.

"We went all the way over to Riverside County to play games," Athletic Director Duane Diffie said. "We were on the road sometimes three to four hours just to get to games. But the kids could care less because they were focused on football, they were focused on school, they were out of this environment.

"We didn't treat them like they were locked up," Diffie continued. "There were no bars on the transportation vehicles. We didn't chain them up. We didn't even carry any handcuffs with them … We just wanted to treat these kids like normal high school kids even though we were always [playing away games] and didn't have cheerleaders."

The average length of stay for each student at the camp is seven months, Diffie said, meaning there is little time for the teens to grow up in the football program and learn the intricacies of the system. So, when the 1990 season kicked off, Mustang head coach Sean Porter (played by Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson in the film) and his assistants Malcolm Moore (Xzibit), Glen Bell, Jack Sims and Elex Williams were basically starting with a blank canvas.

"These kids had never played together before, much less played football," Diffie said. "Just to see them try to put on a helmet and not know how, or to put on shoulder pads- they don't know where the pads go-they didn't know anything about the game. Not only did [the coaches] have to teach them the game at a high school level of competition, but we've got to break down the gang environment and teach them how to put on their pants."

The Mustangs started off slow that year, amassing a 1-3-1 record at the midway point of the season. Five starters had been declared ineligible prior to the first game and the team had yet to gel together. That's when tragedy struck and the season took a drastic turn.

Coach Porter's mother had been diagnosed with cancer and was fighting for her life. Porter said the day before his mother died, the players got together and signed a card and were able to secure a bouquet of flowers to have the coach present to her. Porter visited his mother prior to the team's next game and gave her the gifts. It was the last time the coach saw his mother alive.

"The impact of [her death] on them was it took these kids who so often are so caught up into 'me, me, me' … only thinking of themselves, and then they started thinking of other people," Porter said. "It took them out of the 'me syndrome' and allowed them to focus on other people and realize other people have problems too."

Following the death of Porter's mother, the team took off. They won eight straight games, including three playoff contests, and advanced to the Division X championship game against a powerhouse Montclair Prep program that would eventually send eight of its 11 defensive starters to Division I college football.

In a defensive slugfest, the Mustangs held Montclair Prep close. But is was a goal-line stand by Montclair in the fourth quarter that would derail the Cougars' title dreams. Fitzpatrick lost the game by a touchdown, but the team's legend was just starting to grow.

The documentary was made, and then the big picture.

Much of "The Gridiron Gang" was shot at the football field and in the living quarters at Camp Kilpatrick during May and June of this year.

Elmo Cormier, the current director of Camp Kilpatrick, believes the movie will be a source of pride for the majority of the camp's current and former students.

"Our hope is that the film gives the audience nationwide a good view of what the probation department is doing and striving for and trying to accomplish with troubled youth," Cormier said. "Also, I'm certain that the consideration was given for the particular minors in which this movie is actually depicting to give them some notoriety for the story itself. In essence, I think it's sort of a payback to that particular team … and also a bragging right for those minors who were at the camp during the time the movie was being made."

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