4th and Wrong
I. HOW 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.
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.
Among these players, James is unusually talented. But James has something else the other boys do not.
James has a mustache.
II. HOW TO PLAY
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.'"
The Redskins team of 24 players practiced in leafy neighborhood parks at least three times a week. Each meeting began with a two-mile run in pads and helmet before forty minutes of calisthenics. The players lined up in boot-camp-type rows to do pushups and counted out in unison as Coach Carl strolled through their lines, arms crossed.
"Down," he'd snap.
"One," they'd call out before dropping their bodies to the turf.
They would jump up, clap in unison, pound their thigh pads and shout out rally cries in a deep, impressive growl.
"Who are we?"
"What are we gonna do?"
"ROCK THE HOUSE!"
In short, they learned how to play "Redskins football" in the Denver Police Activities League.
The Denver PAL began in 1969, when a small group of kindhearted Denver police officers sponsored local children to participate in a boxing tournament, the Denver Golden Gloves. Officers believed that athletics was "the most effective means of reducing juvenile crime and delinquency." The league still consists largely of kids who live in neighborhoods where "the streets" are something to fear; there's no team representing Cherry Hills Village here. The league motto is still "Filling playgrounds, not prisons."
Denver's PAL has grown tremendously since then, and each year, the league has taken in more children and branched out to include more sports. Now there are organized PAL teams in wrestling, track and field, baseball, basketball and football. In all, more than 7,000 children in metro Denver participate in PAL, making it the area's second largest youth organization to field competitive sports (the first is Denver Public Schools).
This year, to mark PAL's thirtieth anniversary, Mayor Wellington Webb and Governor Bill Owens both made glitzy presentations of signing proclamations recognizing PAL's dedication to, among other things, "guiding youth by providing positive role models." The essence of PAL, says its director, Sergeant Russell Parisi, can be found in the final paragraph of the foreword to the league rule book:
"Participation is the key," it reads. "Winning is an important goal in life and athletics, but at this level of development, helping each child progress towards their maximum potential is the primary goal. We encourage our players, parents, coaches, and spectators to enjoy the competition, but always keep in mind that each and every game is for the kids."
"The reason for PAL," adds Parisi, "is for the kids. Period."
Sitting in his office at PAL headquarters on Federal Boulevard near First Avenue, Parisi tells a story about one youth, who, with PAL intervention, was saved from making the wrong moves in the game of life. "One of our players lost a brother in an accident. It was an unfortunate situation, and the kid was getting into problems."
The boy, Parisi says, joined a football team at the encouragement of a PAL coach living in his neighborhood. Soon after putting on the pads, his attitude toward life improved and his dalliance with losers was snubbed. In one football game, Parisi says, the kid scored a touchdown. "That's our success story for the year," Parisi says. "I assure you there are many more."
One of them is coach Carl Aragon. He grew up in southwest Denver and played baseball as a Redskin under coach Larry Lopez. Lopez, more than twenty years later, still oversees the Redskins "franchise." Each one of the 7,000 children in PAL belongs to one of its thirteen franchises. Most of the franchises, such as the Redskins, also have a baseball team and a basketball team that keeps the sports flowing year-round. Head coaches such as Coach Carl can, and do, coach more than one sport. A child who is multi-athletic can grow up in a franchise over the years, relying on a familiar support system of adults for guidance. In fact, that's the idea.
"None of our coaches have been here less than five or six years," says Coach Carl. "We're really a tight organization. We like to bring people in as assistant coaches and work them along until they can become a head coach."
In football, each franchise fields at least one team for the four age groups: 7-8 (pee-wee), 9-10 (bantam), 11-12 (intermediate) and 13-14 (senior). Franchises with too many children have more than one team per division.
And each franchise varies in size, from 200 to 300 kids. The largest, most dominant organization in PAL this year is the Hawks, a monster-sized squad of kids from the Sloan Lake area. Being the largest franchise with the biggest talent pool allows the Hawks to claim championships as if they were the New York Yankees. Much like any professional sports franchise, coaches use a history of winning as an incentive when recruiting players from around the city. "They get the word out," Parisi says about Hawks recruiters.
But the Hawks, along with the other well-stocked franchises, also break the first unwritten rule of fairness.
With so many children to choose from, the large franchises "stack" teams with talent. The best players within the age group -- along with the best equipment -- are grouped together on one team, known as Hawks 1. Hawks 2 has the second-best players and admirable equipment. Hawks 3, however, is a team of children with questionable skills dressed in ragamuffin uniforms. This year the Hawks 1 intermediate group of eleven- and twelve-year-olds will play in the Super Bowl. Hawks 3, however, will not win one game. The unwritten rule that's broken, of course, is that the talent should be spread out evenly.
"No one is going to admit to it," admits Coach Carl, whose own franchise practices the same clustering of talent. "But it happens."
But stacking teams is a judgment call made by adults, one that is not a clear violation of the rule book. Other violations that can't be documented but are well-known find their genesis in simple politics -- from which kid plays to which one doesn't, to which coaches are stuck inside a franchise and kept from moving up, to which referees are relatives of which coaches.
One very clear violation of the rules is the altering of birth certificates to allow older players to "play down," or play in a division lower than their true age.
It's the type of problem every PAL coach and parent is aware of; nearly every franchise gets caught using at least one illegal player every year. "I don't want to point fingers, because it isn't just one franchise that's doing it. We're getting a bunch of teams that are trying to sneak a player on their teams," says Robert Salazar, manager of the Cardinals, whose team was eliminated early in the playoffs this year for using an ineligible player. "As manager," he says, "I try to make sure everyone is playing by the rules. But I oversee 250 kids. Ninety-nine percent of my kids are the right age. The one percent that gets by, it's my fault. If I find out a coach is involved in faking a birth certificate, then I'll get rid of him."
This year, of 2,052 football players, ten were officially "protested" over questions regarding their true age.
"Unfortunately," Parisi says, "each of those ten times we followed up on a protest, it turned out it was legitimate."
III. HOW TO THROW
As the Redskins marched toward Super Sunday, parents around the league wondered whether James, the boy on the Redskins with broad shoulders and beefy thighs, was legitimate.
"When a kid has a beard and mustache, it's hard not to tell," says Red Shield manager Theresa Parker, noting a rule of thumb for all players.
Parker says that in her six years of managing the Red Shield, not one of her players has been disqualified for playing down. She has little regard for coaches or parents who forge birth certificates. "They're teaching their kids that it's okay as long as they can get away with it. They're teaching their kids how to be unfair."
Parker says PAL officials like Director Parisi do a good job of following up on protests and taking action. But even if one player is disqualified from a franchise every year, that doesn't address the widespread suspicions about others who are never protested. "We tell our babies that they can be legit and still win. And that says more if you can win against these teams who are doing this and still be legit."
Coach Carl's Redskins and Salazar's Cardinals were regarded as the two toughest teams coming into this season. The teams are also engaged in a rivalry egged on by the parents, Coach Carl says. And after the Redskins beat the Mustangs, moving up to 5-1, they met the Cardinals, the league's only undefeated team. The Cardinals, it was said by fact and folklore, were unbeatable. "But they hadn't played anyone until they played us," Coach Carl brags.
All week in practice, Coach Carl revved up his players. When the next Saturday morning arrived, the Redskins, still loaded with the talent of wonderboy James, played their hearts out and impressed everyone by beating the Cardinals 28-0.
But after the game, Cardinals parents started wondering about James's true age. Redskins parents and Cardinals parents exchanged trash talk on the sidelines. The Cardinals filed an official protest, and Sergeant Parisi called James's middle school to verify his age. When Parisi learned James had turned thirteen three months ago, he disqualified him, and the Redskins were forced to forfeit the victory.
The findings weren't particularly shocking even to Redskins parents. Debbie Avila, whose son Max has been with the franchise for three years, says parents had been openly suspicious of James as early as the third game of the season. "But we weren't sure," Avila says. "We put the trust in Carl to know if he was older. We figured PAL had all of that figured out."
"It's not always what it looks like," Parisi says of parents' motivations for doctoring birth certificates. "There's a variety of reasons why this happens, not just one. Some parents may think their child is too small to play in a league, and they might want to hold him back." Other times, Parisi believes, the culprit is an honest mistake in the paperwork.
Children are required to provide a copy of their birth certificate when they register with the league each year, but with a smudge here and a dash there, nines turn into eights and ones become sevens. "Obviously," Parisi says, "we rely on the honesty of the parents."
When the news about James spread through the league, parents and coaches started to wonder if Coach Carl was legitimate. Other coaches in his own franchise questioned his integrity.
"I told you, dog, I told you," one young assistant coach from the senior division teased one of Coach Carl's assistants. "I told you that Carl was no good."
Coach Carl says when he learned James was thirteen, it "blew my mind."
"I couldn't believe it," he says. But Coach Carl had known James for the past three years. He'd watched James play as a Hawk, then recruited him and coached him on the Redskins last year. He blames himself for letting the forged birth certificate get past him, but he blames James's legal guardian for committing the original sin. Coach Carl estimates that 80 percent of his players come from single-parent homes where, in some cases, parental guidance is dubious and the values foundation is shaky. These players, he says, have parents who don't suffer a conscience when it comes to fabricating the truth. In James's case, he was being raised by his 35-year-old brother.
Still, Coach Carl offers some form of regret. "Basically, it's my fault. As a coach, I should have looked at [the validity of birth certificates]. But when you're trying to deal with parents, finding practice fields and all the other things..."
But the forfeit was only a small setback for the Redskins. With a bye week before they entered the first round of the playoffs, the Redskins practiced hard for their next contest. But it wasn't easy. The Wednesday after the team learned James wasn't going with them into the playoffs, the kids lumbered around the field, depressed. "It's all that was on their minds," says one relative. "It was the worst practice of the season. They couldn't stop thinking about the fact that they lost their best player."
But when game day came on October 30, it was James who gave the players a boost. Coincidentally, the Redskins had been matched against their rivals the Cardinals in the first round. James arrived at the playoff game dressed in blue jeans and his Redskins jersey, as if he were a professional athlete sitting out with an injury. Just the sight of him rallied the team.
Despite the players' new inspiration, they still had to listen to the Cardinals parents, who enjoyed loudly reminding the Redskins parents that the team had played dirty. Some Cardinals parents booed and jeered the Redskins coaches. Twice during the football game, sets of parents nearly went to fisticuffs. This time the referees intervened. They told the parents that if there was one more disruption, they would clear the sidelines for the remainder of the game. It wasn't quite halftime yet, still before 10 a.m.
But even without James, the Redskins pulled together and beat the Cardinals, 28-0.
"It's because you cheat!" screamed a Cardinals parent at the end of the game. The teenage sibling of a Redskins player replied with a taunt: "Look at the scoreboard" -- even though there was no scoreboard.
After the victory, Coach Carl gathered his dirty, sweaty team near a tree at the edge of the park. The players were pumped, recalling individual plays where they laid a heavy block or made a circus catch. They were now only one win away from going to the Super Bowl.
"I told you guys!" said an excited Coach Carl, with James standing ten feet away on the outskirts of the semi-circle that included all the Redskins parents. "One player doesn't make the team!" After they celebrated and settled down, Coach Carl led the team in prayer, saying the Our Father first and thanking God for the good health of his players.
IV. HOW TO KICK
The high times wouldn't last long. After he left the prayer circle, Coach Carl learned that the Cardinals would protest the validity of yet another one of his players. This time it was a small boy named Aaron. Aaron was a cornerback, a back-up player. He was good, but not an impact player like James. For the Cardinals to guess that a benchwarmer like Aaron was thirteen, a schoolyard enemy on the Cardinals must have ratted him out.
After the disqualification of James, Coach Carl's assistants had pleaded with him to check the ages of all his players. One assistant had begged him, "Sit your players down and ask them, face-to-face, how old they are." But Coach Carl had declined the advice and assured all those who asked -- assistant coaches and a few concerned parents -- that the rest of his players were the correct age. He knew his players, he had told them.
And in response to the Cardinals' protest, Coach Carl filed a protest against a Cardinals player. Aaron, upon learning of his protest, had informed Coach Carl about a Cardinals player who was illegal.
Sergeant Parisi received both protests by mid-afternoon on Saturday. Usually, complaints come in on Monday afternoon.
Parisi investigated both boys, calling their schools. He realized by late Monday, November 1, that he had two more illegal players and would have to eliminate both teams from the playoffs. "We know it's not a perfect world and people are going to, for whatever their personal reasons, attempt to deceive and create unfair results," Parisi says.
The player that the Redskins protested had been in Salazar's franchise for the past five years. Salazar says, in a surprised voice that seems to reveal a belief in magic, "The kid played for us since he was eight years old. Suddenly he's thirteen. Come to find out his birthday was September 3, and it was changed to August 3."
Coach Carl thought the protest against Aaron had been personal, a payback in the longstanding rivalry between the Cardinals and the Redskins. He called the Cardinals' protest of Aaron "petty" and suggested that the teams replay the game without the illegal players. He offered to pay for the cost of the referees and a playing field. "I don't want the actions of two players to affect forty," he says.
At the end of the Monday-night practice, Coach Carl called the team around him. At this moment, Coach Carl knew that Aaron was illegal, and he knew, most likely, that his request to replay the game would be denied. He also knew the kids were riding high on the belief that after one more victory, they were going to the Super Bowl. But he had to explain to them there was a chance they could be disqualified. He had them take a knee, and to their surprise, he said, "Guys, we've got ourselves another dilemma."
He used the pronoun "we" because, like any sports-minded person will tell you, there's no "I" in team.
Parisi won't reveal what actions the league takes to discipline coaches or franchises. Coach Carl, however, says he's been put on probation and suspended for one game next year. He says he'll fight the suspension, though. "In Aaron's case," he argues, "I don't even consider it cheating. I can respect what his father did. You don't want to throw your kid to the wolves because he's five-foot-nothing and weighs 100 pounds."
With two illegal players finding a home on his team this year, Coach Carl at least acknowledges that his reputation around the league is soiled.
"I don't care," he says. "I don't do it for my reputation. I do it for the kids. I'd like it if they thought I was a good coach, and it means a lot to me to be known that I'm a good coach. And right now, that ain't being known."
And right now, the absence of the Redskins and the Cardinals from the playoffs allows the Hawks to stroll into the Super Bowl as the American Conference champs. On the other side, the Pirates, a franchise from the Park Hill area, represent the National Conference. The Hawks win the Super Bowl by a score of 22-6 and become champions of their league. Each Hawks player is presented with an individual trophy. The Redskins players, however, don't fare so well.
Debbie Avila says her son Max has been branded by his association with the franchise -- and not the way PAL likes to leave its imprint on youngsters.
"It's a disgrace to the Redskins," she says. "It's a disgrace to the kids. Because now, when the other kids see them at school, they call them cheaters. And the kids weren't the ones who were cheating. But the kids have to pay for it. The kids are being judged for cheating, not how they played the game."
She says she'll pull Max from PAL and put him in his middle-school football league. She says PAL was "chaotic" and "unorganized," haplessly unaware of the league's true goings-on. Still, she's unsure what to make of Coach Carl and stops short of believing that he knew all along the true ages of James and Aaron.
"I don't know. I really don't know. I can't say yes, and I can't say no. Before all of this, Carl has always been a good coach to the kids and has always been there for them. I don't know if this changes what I think about him. I just don't know what to think."
V. HOW TO LOSE
On November 3, the parents of three Redskins players drop off their kids at Rude Park a little before the 5:30 p.m. practice.
The players still don't know that earlier in the day, Sergeant Parisi killed the idea for the rematch and was busy writing form letters to all of their parents informing them of the double forfeit. (Parisi's letter to Avila addressed her son as "Mac" and butchered the spelling of his last name. "He didn't even know who my kid was," she snips.) "Hopefully," Parisi says, "parents on both teams will take this opportunity to explain what the consequences of cheating will cause."
(Those consequences aren't as painful as they could be. Though bogus birth slips ended their PAL season, the Redskins will still be eligible to compete in the Bronco Bowl, a non-PAL-sponsored statewide tournament that begins this weekend.)
The three Redskins players stand at the top of a grassy hill that slopes down into a baseball diamond that has been restriped for their football field. Still waiting for Coach Carl and the rest of their teammates, the three begin to wrestle each other, playing King of the Hill. Then, bored with that game, they lie down horizontally and roll down the slope. When they get to the bottom, they stand up quickly to enjoy the effects of being dizzy and wobbly.
Then they play a new game: They roll down the hill again, but this time, it's a three-man race to the bottom. After the interest in that game wears off, they simply have foot races from the top of the slope to the bottom, then back up to the top.
As more players arrive, they, too, toss their shoulder pads and helmets near a tree and join in the games created by a hill.
"Save it for practice," suggests one Redskins mother who keeps an eye on her son while she gabs in a circle of mothers.
"I'm already too tired," he says, pretending to faint. Once his body slowly eases to the grass, he speedily takes off spinning downhill.
Finally, with no sight of Coach Carl, an assistant coach leads the team to the practice field and begins the warm-up drills, starting with a few laps around the park. (A couple of boys sneak in one more roll down the hill before grabbing their helmets and racing out to the field.)
While they do their exercises, Coach Carl arrives, twenty minutes late. He gathers the team. Coach Carl apologizes, tells them it was his fault. He tells them they've been eliminated from the Super Bowl chase and their season is over because of a double forfeit.
They ask him what a "double forfeit" is.
When he explains, they start crying.
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