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.
Sean Porter: Roger, you’re 17-years-old. Where are you gonna be in 4 years, huh?
Roger Weathers: I don’t know.
Sean Porter: Answer me. Where are you gonna be when you’re 21?
Roger Weathers: Probably in jail.
Sean Porter: What? Look at me! What did you say?
Roger Weathers: In jail.
Sean Porter: No. You’re not gonna be in jail; you’re gonna be dead. You’re a good kid, Roger. But, you’re gonna be back out on the streets tomorrow. Back in your hood with your homeys. You wanna stay alive, you gotta make a life for yourself outside of your set. If you don’t do that, if you don’t find an alternative, you’re gonna die.
The next day, Roger is released from the juvenile center and is immediately killed in a drive-by shooting. His friend and cousin, Willie Weathers, witnesses this and takes a gun with the plan to kill a fellow gang member as an act of revenge, but he doesn’t have the courage.
Willie runs home and finds that his mother’s boyfriend has been beating her. He tells the man to leave, but the boyfriend becomes violent and refuses. Willie pulls his gun, but the man doesn’t believe he will shoot. When he advances in a threatening way, Willie pulls the trigger and the boyfriend falls dead immediately. Willie is sent to the same juvenile prison where his cousin Roger had been — the facility run by Sean Porter. There, Willie gets into a verbal confrontation with a prisoner named Kelvin Owens, who is from a rival gang.
When Porter hears about Roger’s death, he becomes frustrated with the ineffectiveness of their program. While driving home one evening, Porter passes a high school football game and he gets an idea. The next day, he talks to his bosses about creating a football program for the juvenile prisoners. “Let’s try the impossible because the possible just ain’t working,” says Porter. His bosses reluctantly agree. After the meeting, Porter goes to visit his sick mom, who encourages him to go ahead with the football idea and give it his best effort.
Porter starts to recruit players for the football team and tries to schedule games against other high schools, but they all say no because they are afraid to let their students play against violent criminals. Finally, a Christian team gives them a chance after Malcolm Moore, Porter’s assistant coach, quotes from the Gospel of Luke to show mercy and love to others, even prisoners and those who are deemed “enemies.”
At the next practice, Porter gives a pep talk to his players:
“On this field, we do it my way, not your way. Your way got you here. If you accept this challenge, when it’s all over you’ll be winners.”
The talk motivates the players and even a younger prisoner named Bug Wendal, who is too small to play, volunteers to be the water boy. His sense of humor provides comic relief for both the coaches and the players. Everyone seems committed, works hard, and follows the coach’s program until an overweight player, Jamal Evans, quits because it’s too tiring. Porter yells at him as Evans walks off the field.
After the team completes a night study session of plays on the chalkboard, Porter sees another juvenile, Junior Palaita, alone out in the field doing hitting drills with the pads. Junior wasn’t allowed on the team because of recent violent outbursts. Porter goes to speak with him, and Junior says that he just got a call that his child turned two years old. He is grieving because he missed his son’s birthday. He wants to play football and says to Porter, “I’m tired of bein’ a loser man. Makin’ a mess of everything.” Porter agrees to let Junior play.
At the next practice, Junior runs over players and shows a tremendous amount of football skills. At the same time, two players from rival gangs, Willie Weathers and Kelvin Owens, get into a fight and Porter proposes a gang truce; the two players reluctantly agree.
When Porter finds out that the prison has delayed getting the necessary funds to purchase equipment, he gets angry and takes it out on the kids – pushing them too hard and not giving them a water break. The players protest and refuse to run or play until Porter relents. After practice, Porter talks to his mother about the problems he’s having with the kids, and she gives him advice to think about things from their perspective.
Over the next series of practices, Coach Porter tries to understand the problems that his players have. His quarterback, Leon Hayes, has trouble learning, so the coach pairs him with a teammate to help him learn the playbook. Willie Weather’s girlfriend Danyelle visits, and she storms out after she witnesses Willie acting like his old self and threatening violence against another inmate. Later, Willie writes an apology letter to Danyelle and explains that his mom has moved to Oakland to get his little brother away from him. Porter sees the letter and feels bad for Willie. At the same time, Kenny Bates’s mother visits but then storms out when the two get into an argument. Porter sits down with Bates and through tears Bates says, “I just want my mom to love me.”
While all this is happening, Porter’s boss finds out that Porter authorized $10,000 worth of equipment purchase without permission. He threatens to fire Porter if the football program fails.
At practice, Junior gets hurt and has to go to the hospital; he returns the next day, and although Junior is not medically cleared to play, the team surrounds him to welcome him back. Porter is happy to see that the players have finally bonded and being part of a team – The Mustangs – has become more important than being in a gang. Jamal Evans, the overweight player who quit, happily rejoins the team as the equipment manager. The Mustangs first game is against a team that is arrogant and treat the Mustangs as juvenile inmates, not a football team. The Mustangs lose the game and are emotionally crushed – some players even break down and cry.
After the game, Coach Porter visits his dying mom in the hospital. She gives him advice about how to keep the program going and helps him realize that he’s been treating his team the way his overly-harsh father had treated him as a child. When he returns, Porter learns that the prison is pulling the plug on the team because of how hard the players took the loss, and the prison did not want to further crush the confidence of the young men and possibly drive them back into gang life mentality as a result. The players, however, refuse to stop playing and voluntarily practice on their own. This convinces the prison to put the program back on. In their next game, the Mustangs play better but still lose.
At the next practice, Coach Porter, who used to play football, suits up and challenges Willie to knock him down during a drill. He wants to push Willie to get past the inner demons holding him back. “Believe in yourself and knock me on my ass!”, says Coach Porter. After being taunted by Coach for several failed attempts, Willie finally gets angry enough that he knocks the coach over, and everyone cheers.
The next day, the team surprises Coach Porter with flowers for his dying mom. The coach is touched by this gesture from his players and wipes tears from his eyes as he walks out to visit his mom in the hospital for one last time.
Off the field, the players each begin writing letters to their families to try to heal broken relationships. On the field, the team goes on to win seven games in a row.
While Willie and Kelvin have started to disassociate themselves from their respective gangs, the former affiliation still causes problems. At the next game, members from Willie’s old gang show up. They spot Kelvin and because he used to be connected a rival gang, they shoot but do not kill him. As the gangster is about to shoot at Kelvin again, Willie knocks the gang member over and saves Kelvin’s life. The police shoot and kill the gang member, but because of what happened, the Mustangs are forced to forfeit the rest of their season.
Later, Willie finds out that Kelvin survived and is okay, but he is still angry and scared. He gets in trouble with Coach Porter and tells Coach through tears, “My father said I was a waste of his time and his money”, to which the coach replies: “You get to the point where you expect to screw up, you expect to fail. Forgive them and move on.” This helps Willie find peace.
After stating his case, Coach Porter is able to convince the league to let the Mustangs continue their season. Furthermore, the community begins to rally behind the prison football program. They prepare for the playoffs, which is a rematch against the arrogant team from their first game. A security force of policemen volunteers their time to help ensure that everything and everyone will be safe. More importantly, the families of the players are also there to show their support. Prior to the game, the Mustangs raise their helmets in honor of Kelvin, and the entire team comes out for the coin toss as a show of unity.
Throughout the game, the Mustangs execute a variety of thrilling and creative clutch plays to stay competitive. As the game winds down, Junior convinces Coach Porter to let him on the field for one play so that he can show his son that dad can do something right and be someone good in life. Even though he is not medically cleared. Coach agrees to let Junior play. The team is immediately inspired by Junior’s presence on the field and on the last play, Willie follows Junior’s block all the way in for the winning touchdown run. The team and the crowd celebrate the amazing victory.
As the film ends, a closing voiceover monologue states that the victory propels the Mustangs into the Championship game. Although they lost 17-14, the team played a great game and no one viewed those kids as losers anymore. As Coach had promised, they were all winners.
Twenty-four of the inmates went on to complete their education after they were released, and a few of them found good paying, full-time jobs. Only five members of that Mustangs team went back to jail, which was a far better ratio than the previous 75% rate before the football program was introduced. Coach Porter and Coach Moore succeed in making the juvenile corrections program more effective, but more importantly, they gave the players confidence to succeed in life.
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.
- The football scenes at Camp Kilpatrick in the movie was filmed at the real Camp Kilpatrick football field and facilities. The cast and crew were surrounded by high fences and tightly secured with guards at each exit, while more than 100 real inmates went about their day with a movie shooting around them. Every so often a real fight would break out, or a real ward would be marched into the box in the solitary confinement building.
- A lot of the motivational speeches in the movie were based on real speeches that Porter gave. Actual clips of Porter’s speeches are shown at the end of the movie as the credits are rolling.
- The Mustangs did not have female cheerleaders from a separate girls correctional facility, as depicted in the movie.
- In the film, the Mustang players cried after losing their first game, which happened in real life. This scene was important because it showed how much football meant to the young boys, who were gang members with violent pasts. “They didn’t know how to handle that type of loss,” Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson said in an interview. After viewing the film, test audiences found this part of the movie hard to believe, that gang members would cry like that. This prompted the filmmakers to include during the credits the same real life scene from the documentary.(Hollywood.com)
- The scene in which the team presents Coach Porter with flowers for his dying mother did happen in real life, and represented a significant turning point in the boys lives:
“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.”, as they stopped thinking about “me, me, me”.
- The death of Coach Porter’s mother also represented a turning point in the Mustang’s season. They had started out 1-3-1 but after that, the team went on a 8-game win streak that included 3 playoff games and advanced to the Division X championship game against the powerhouse, Montclair Prep. The Mustangs played Montclair tough and lost on a goal-line stand by Montclair in the fourth quarter. The final score of the real game was 13-7, Montclair over Kilpatrick.
- Many of the juveniles who went through the Mustang’s program credit Kilpatrick with turning their lives around. Jason Lamb (Kenny Bates in the movie), was a car thief and habitual offender, but never got arrested again after his experience with the Mustangs. “I mean I worked the hardest I’ve ever worked — during that summer there, and not once did I think about running away. …The program gave me that opportunity to earn my way back in, and you know kind of get a new start, get a second chance.” -Jason Lamb
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.