Gridiron Gang – 1990 Kilpatrick Mustangs
Gridiron Gang is the true story of coaches in a Los Angeles juvenile correction facility who, in the 1990’s, changed the lives of its young prisoners by starting a football team to teach the prisoners how to play the sport and how to work as a team.
In the opening scene, a sobering fact appears on-screen: 120,000 juveniles are incarcerated in juvenile detention centers. After they are released, 75 percent of these juveniles will either return to prison or die on the street. This film tells the true story of Sean Porter, the man who built a football program for these juveniles at Camp Kilpatrick in Southern California in the early ’90s.
One night in the juvenile center, a kid named Roger Weathers attacks another inmate and is sent to an isolation room called “the box”. Sean Porter, the head of the facility, comes in and starts hitting Roger with a rolled up newspaper — not hard enough to hurt him, just hard enough to get his attention.
Contributing author: Kevin Ott
Gridiron Gang – Real Life, Reel Differences
- The original Gridiron Gang was a Emmy Award winning documentary with the same name produced in 1993 by Neal H. Moritz and Lee Stanley and released as a TV movie. This article explains how the documentary was turned into a Hollywood feature film 16 years later. It is very difficult to find a copy of the original documentary.
- Sean Porter, along with Probation Officers Mo Freeman and Howard Gold, started the Kilpatrick football team in 1988 with a 8-man football team. The Mustangs moved up to an 11-man team in 1990. A basketball team was the first sports program introduced at Kilpatrick, in 1986.
- Sean Porter initially did not want the movie to be made, out of concern for the kids depicted in the movies – here’s a quote from The Rock, who portrayed Porter in the movie: “Junior Palaita (a character in the film) has killed people with a baseball bat, and he went on to be a productive member of society. He’s a good man, he’s a good dad. What happens when his employer sees this movie, and he doesn’t know about Junior’s past, how’s that going to affect him?”
- Coach Sean Porter and assistant Coach Malcolm Moore did have trouble finding schools willing to play the Kilpatrick Mustangs, as depicted in the movie. “We always had a difficulty scheduling people, getting real people out there to play us,” says Sean. “We were lucky we had some good schools that would play us and believed in what we did.” The team did not have any home games and had to travel as long as four hours just to get to games.
Where Are They Now?
Coach Sean Porter started the Camp Kilpatrick program in 1988, when the camp added an eight-man football team. In 1990, Sean Porter expanded it into a full 11-man team and organized enough games with high schools to create their first season. Later, Porter said this about his expectations: ”I expected to lose all the games. These kids never, ever played. Eventually I knew that I was going to have to explain to them that it’s not about winning and losing, it’s about accepting this challenge.” In real-life, the 1990 year was their “Cinderella Season” because they shocked everyone and made it all the way to the championship game, as depicted in the film.
In 1991, Sean Porter resigned from his coaching position at Camp Kilpatrick, citing personal reasons. An LA Times article said this about some of the challenges that Porter faced in 1991:
“The Freedom League, a football-only league that was formed last year, disbanded after the 1991 season because only two of six members planned to return to the league. Twin Pines folded its program, Masada will drop to the eight-man level next fall, and Hamilton and Linfield have moved to the Arrowhead League, leaving only Camp Kilpatrick and St. John’s.”
After resigning from his job at Camp Kilpatrick, Porter became a manager for five similar camps for troubled youths in the Western region of the United States. Porter is married, and his wife said, during her red carpet interview, that “she was proud of her husband even before the movie came out, which is why she married him.”
When the film about the camp was made in the early 2000s, Sean Porter was not closely involved in the production, as this article noted. Dwayne Johnson was not able to consult closely with Porter about the role, though Porter did offer some helpful insight and he was very impressed by Johnson’s performance.
“He [Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson] is a master of his craft now,” says the real life Sean Porter. “He’s an actor. I don’t know that people really appreciate the actor that he is, but if you see the movie, and then get an opportunity to see the documentary, you’ll really appreciate what he did.”
Here is a clip from Porter’s red carpet interview when he attended the film’s premiere with his wife:
Coach Malcolm Moore attended San Fernando High School and the University of Southern California. He was selected by the Los Angeles Express of the United States Football League in 1984, catching passes from Steve Young.
He was also selected by the Dallas Cowboys in the second round (54th overall) of the 1984 NFL Supplemental Draft of USFL and CFL Players but was released before the start of the 1985 season. In 1986, he signed with the San Diego Chargers but was placed on IR and waived in 1987.
When the NFL players went on strike after the third week of the 1987 season, Moore was signed as a replacement player on the Los Angeles Rams and played in 3 games; after the strike ended, he was released, re-signed, but later cut.
After the NFL, he became a probation officer and eventually joined Porter at Camp Kilpatrick. Later, Moore would say that the Camp Kilpatrick job was the best job he had ever had. He said this about the job: “I could save somebody else’s life. I was thrilled as hell when I made my first professional football team. I played with Steve Young, Ronnie Lott and Marcus Allen, but there’s nothing like making a difference in a kid’s life.”
After working at Camp Kilpatrick, Malcolm Moore went on to work as a deputy probation officer in Antelope Valley, California.
Michael Black, is the real-life Willie Weathers from the movie. That season in Kilpatrick, Black rushed for 2,400 yards, with 1,100 of them coming in the final regular-season game and three playoff games. He was suppose to enroll and play football at Dorsey High but on the night of June 6, 1991, he was caught with guns and stolen credit cards after a robbery. Black was sentenced to three years in jail and spent 20 months in the California Youth Authority facility at Norwalk as a two-time loser.
After being released from Norwalk, Black enrolled at West Los Angeles College and played football for two years. As recruiters from USC and Arizona looked into his background, however, they backed off. He was finally offered an opportunity at Washington State, where he enrolled in January 1996 and was a two-year starter for the Cougars.
He was signed by the Seattle Seahawks as an undrafted rookie free agent in 1998 and spent the next 2 seasons on the practice roster before signing as a fee agent with the Dallas Cowboys in 2000. The only professional football that Black played was with the Orlando Rage of the XFL, where he was the 180th pick overall in the XFL 2000 draft.
Kelvin Owens, recovered from his bullet wound and played for Washington High School. Miguel Perez and Donald Madlock went back to their old gang life and ended up in another California Youth Authority prison. Kenny Bates, who’s real name is Jason Lamb, went to school in Redondo Beach, reconciled with his mom, and lived with her as he pursued his education. He then went on to work as a salesman and, as noted by LA Daily News, would often go watch the team play. Bug Wendal, the water boy, was killed in a drive-by shooting in Compton. After his release, Junior Palaita, the player who missed his son’s second birthday, got a job working in a furniture family and reunited with his family.
Camp Kilpatrick had existed in relative anonymity prior to the making of Gridiron Gang; after the film’s release, multiple articles were written to educate the public on the camp’s values, its history, and its future.
Camp Kilpatrick actually started a sports program back in 1986 with a 12-man basketball team because it required little equipment and few participants. Camp Director Chuck Turner worked with the California Interscholastic Federation to insure that Kilpatrick had, and met, the same grade and rule requirements for state high school sports programs. The football team was formed in 1988 and played in an 8-player league. It was coached by Probation Officers Mo Freeman and Howard Gold, in addition to Sean Porter. In 1990, the program changed to an 11-man team in order to increase the program’s exposure and the number of teams it could compete against. Gridiron Gang is based on this incredible 1990 season, which concluded with a loss in the Divison X Championship Game.
As recently as 2008, Kilpatrick competed in the Gold Coast Athletic Conference in basketball, baseball, football, soccer and track. However, in 2012, Camp Kilpatrick closed when the corrections program launched a three-year construction project that would make it unusable for football. Initially, the program planned to resume the football element of the camp in the future but in 2014, the Los Angeles Times reported that the football camp would close permanently: “…Camp Kilpatrick is being torn down next month and will be rebuilt on a new model — one that stresses education, counseling and vocational training over competitive sports.” Another article notes that the boys’ camp at Kilpatrick is set to re-open in 2017, though it is not clear if it will include any sports programs.
Here is an audio clip with the real-life people at Camp Kilpatrick talking about their experiences. Parts of the audio are hard to hear, but it’s still interesting to listen to the stories.