4th and Wrong

The kids in Denver’s Police Activities League learn all about playing to win.


On the second Saturday in October, in a small park in southwest Denver, two groups of children come together to play a game of football.

Each of the boys is hidden beneath his beefed-up shoulder pads and oversized helmet. At their age, most of the players are still a stringy arrangement of arms and legs. They look like lollipops in cleats.

Coach Carl Aragon passes along his knowledge of the game.
Coach Carl Aragon passes along his knowledge of the game.
Coach Carl Aragon passes along his knowledge of the game.
Brett Amole
Coach Carl Aragon passes along his knowledge of the game.

On one side of the ball are the Redskins, a well-disciplined team of eleven- and twelve-year-olds from Denver's west side. Their opponents are the Mustangs, kids from north Denver. Both teams own a 4-1 record, and both are fighting for the top seed in the playoffs. It's a big game.

Just before kickoff, as the coaches start jabbering and the parents start clapping, the encouraging voice of one Redskins mother cuts through the park. "C'mon, Redskins!" she screams. "Let's stick someone!"

Early in the game, the Redskins' offense scores repeatedly, with little challenge from the Mustangs. They take a surprising 28-0 lead. But after halftime, the Mustangs return spiked with confidence. They rally a comeback.

With all the quick touchdowns piling up and without the aide of a scoreboard, it's difficult to follow the mounting score. "What is it now?" asks one Redskins parent, allowing Mustangs parents seated nearby to answer with pride: "28-28."

"It's 35-28, us," insists a Redskins parent.

"It's 35-35," shouts a Mustangs parent.

Much debate follows.

Meanwhile, the Mustangs score another rushing touchdown after a tense three-play goal-line stance. While the players are still picking themselves up off the grass, a Redskins mom crosses over the sideline rope and runs into the end zone. She demands that the referee tell her the correct score of the game.

None of the parents on the sideline can hear what the woman is saying, though; she is at the far end of the eighty-yard field. One parent from the Mustangs, who has been pacing the sidelines in blue jeans and no shirt (it's 10:30 a.m.), shouts to the woman's husband, "Hey, man, why don't you get your wife off the field?"

The husband, who is as hefty as a Broncos offensive lineman himself, does not take kindly to the suggestion from the lean man with no shirt.

He walks up to the shirtless man and tells him, in so many words, to please mind his own fucking business.

"Let's go to the street," shouts the shirtless man.

"We don't got to go there," replies the husband. "Let's go right now."

"Let's do it."

The shirtless man raises his fists, but the large man holds his arms out wide as if, suddenly, he's too sophisticated to fistfight. Then a Mustangs parent who is working as a line judge throws down the orange first-down yard marker, jumps over the sideline rope and heads for the scrap. Now several men are restraining several other men. Wives are yelling at their husbands to calm down. They also yell at each other to shut the hell up, bitch.

Two referees on the field move toward the fracas, but they say nothing and do little to interfere. The players on the field begin inching toward the adults, their parents.

"We're here for the kids, bro, we're here for the kids, bro," shouts the large husband, repeating himself, though not resigning from his arms-wide, puffed-up stance.

"We're here for the kids, we're here for the kids," insists the shirtless man, also refusing to walk away.

Finally, the Redskins' head coach, Carl Aragon, trots from the far side of the field toward the melee. "Redskins," he shouts at the parents, "let's stay on our side." The Redskins parents listen to Coach Carl and retreat to their side, the far side of the fifty-yard line.

As he steps back over the rope and returns to the field, the Mustangs parent who threw down the yard marker says, "C'mon, Mustangs, let's show them we can take the high road on this one."

On the field, the game still needs resolution.

Coach Carl's Redskins are a good, strong team stocked with gamers. For the entire season, he has relied heavily on one standout player, a player named James.

James is taller, stronger and faster than most of the other kids. So when it comes time to win the game once and for all, it is no surprise that Coach Carl calls on James.

In one of the final plays of the game, the Redskins' quarterback pitches the football to James, who sweeps around the left corner and speeds down the sideline, throwing his diminutive defenders to the ground. In James's wake, scattered lollipops lay in the grass.

As James plods his body into the end zone for the touchdown, the Redskin parents jump and cheer and holler.

Among these players, James is unusually talented. But James has something else the other boys do not.

James has a mustache.


Since August, when practices began, the Redskins team has worked toward a simple goal: Win the PAL Super Bowl. Twenty teams in the league shared the same sense of purpose, which was settled last Sunday at All City Stadium. From the start, Coach Carl told his kids to practice hard, play tough and enjoy themselves. "I tell my boys, 'You're doing it for yourselves, not no one else.'"

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