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A Liga of Their Own
With Soccer for Latino Youth, Va. Officer Seeks Larger Goal

By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 22, 2009

These little moments of cop-kid bonding wouldn't be happening without soccer. Soccer is the bait. The switch is, well, we'll see.

Officer Al Cruz of the Fairfax County Police Department isn't cynical, but he is cunning, and he knows his community. He preaches crime prevention via soccer, and it has led to the creation of one of the unlikeliest, most passionately supported little athletic programs in a region already bursting with overlapping networks of super soccer-mom recreation leagues, where every kid gets a T-shirt and a trophy, along with Spanish-inflected amateur adult leagues, where a day laborer can strut like a king.

Most of Cruz's kids couldn't afford the $65 suburban rec-league fees. So he started a league for them.

"Instead of coaches, we have polices to be our coaches," says Oscar Alvarez, 14.

When the borrowed county bus is full, Cruz and a handful of fellow officers ferry the kids to practice in their squad cars.

"Don't eat my lunch!" Cruz growls as they pile into the cruiser where a takeout meal is stored for later in his shift.

"I never seen a police officer like him," says Nixon Rivera, 13. "He's nice. He cares about us."

Cruz, at 49, is the cinematic image of a beat cop: The face under his buzz cut looks like facets of granite mashed together. He's got the big chest of a guy who jumped out of airplanes with the Army Rangers for 20 years before he became a police officer in 2003. Lately he's gone a little soft in the middle because of too much golf, not enough crunches. His gravelly voice speaks English with a Bronx accent and Spanish with a Puerto Rican accent. In either language, when Cruz barks, people listen.

What doesn't fit the image is how Cruz has been spending Monday evenings lately. Here he is on duty in a crowded middle-school gym in Springfield -- wearing sweat pants and playing an intense game of indoor soccer with a bunch of teenagers. He can't quite keep up. Big drops of perspiration cling to his face. The kids are delighted.

"C'mon Cruz! Cruz!" they shout, mixing English with Spanish. "¡Pásala acá!" "Pass it over here!"

They jeer playfully when Cruz's hand accidentally touches the ball. "I was blind on that, I didn't see it," he protests, but the players rule the officer guilty of an infraction.

Cruz's mind is elsewhere on this particular cold evening, though he hides it from the kids. He's worried about the arrival of warmer weather. Cruz doesn't believe in sports seasons; he wants his kids kicking 52 weeks a year. Can he keep them engaged? Will they follow him out of the gym and onto the fields to play soccer all summer -- or will they drift into less positive pursuits?

After the match, he assembles the players on the bleachers. Each opportunity to connect may be his last.

"When I'm talking please listen," he begins, "I give you the same respect."

He starts talking about drugs and gangs. Most of these boys aren't into drugs and gangs, but a few are on the edge. One 15-year-old has a plastic bandage on the web between his left thumb and forefinger, concealing a tattoo of three dots that is a gang symbol. Cruz insists he keep it covered. The boy also has a gang tattoo on his back. Cruz is helping the boy qualify for a publicly funded tattoo-removal program.

"It doesn't make you a better man," Cruz says. "It doesn't make you a man, period." The kids look at him solemnly. No snickers, no eye-rolling. "If you don't realize it now, you're not going to realize it when you're 18, you're not going to realize it when you're 20, you're only going to realize it when you're 38 or 42 and you say, 'What happened to my life?' "

We're in Norman Rockwell territory here. The teens on the bleachers are like that runaway boy on the stool at the lunch counter next to the cop in the Rockwell painting. (Cruz and his wife have experience with kids -- a son in the Navy, a daughter taking college courses.)

As the winter days lengthen into spring, what Cruz can't know for sure is whether the soccer bait is strong enough to endure the transition to summer, when kids can roam their neighborhoods with unfocused energy. Would the still-fragile soccer scheme shrivel in the balmy twilights and make his job that much harder?

Cruz grew up in the projects in the South Bronx. His parents had come separately from Puerto Rico as teenagers. Cruz's neighborhood was prime recruiting ground for gangs such as the Savage Skulls and the Black Spades. Some of his friends joined. He credits the gruff discipline of his father, Victor, who worked in maintenance in the projects, for keeping his two brothers and him away from the gangs. Instead, Cruz remembers an idyllic sports-filled boyhood where a game of football, basketball, baseball, handball, paddleball or stickball could be found on every corner. They didn't play soccer.

The police officers of his boyhood were remote figures, and he came up with his current model of policing through improvisation. He works out of the Franconia station, patrolling the crowded garden apartments, the endless shopping plazas, the dimly lit clubs with waitresses in hot pants. It's a teeming territory jammed against the intersection of I-95 and the Beltway, where Spanish is the first language. He did not foresee coaching, carpooling, fundraising and proselytizing as part of the job description when he volunteered a couple of years ago to be a liaison officer to the Latino community. He still works cases, makes arrests, testifies in court, helps out homicide detectives. But now there's all this other stuff.

Gang violence flared in 2007, and the police realized they had insufficient resources in the Latino community. The community seemed afraid to work with the police. Emblematic was a brutal stabbing in a shopping plaza not far from a garden-apartment complex. Nobody saw it. Nobody? Come on.

What to do? Cruz huddled with Elmer Arias, a respected figure in the Latino community who founded the Central American Soccer League for adults in Northern Virginia and counts as a friend the new president of El Salvador. Cruz and Arias hypothesized that soccer might occupy the kids from the neighborhood and also demonstrate to their parents the goodwill of the police department. Couldn't hurt to try.

They got it going last summer. More than 100 kids played, ages about 7 to 17.

There was another stabbing in the same shopping plaza. Somebody saw it. "Three or four people called in with tag numbers, and we made arrests," says Lt. Daniel Janickey, Cruz's boss. "Overall, our relationship with the community is improving. They are reporting crimes that they would not have previously."

Meanwhile, the soccer games became the focal point for a bazaar of county health, education, social and recreation services, whose bilingual representatives turn out on the sidelines to enroll the parents in aid programs. Businesses recruited by Arias got in on the act, donating food and money for uniforms. The players proudly sport the name of a local pawnshop and the colors of the most idolized Latin American and European teams.

* * *

"Let's go! Clear out!" Cruz shouts through the window of his cruiser, and a crowd of Latino men hanging outside a restaurant shuffles away. He's on patrol on a Sunday afternoon a couple of weeks before the move back outside for soccer.

Inside the restaurant, where Spanish-speaking staff serves Central American cooking to Spanish-speaking patrons, Cruz tells the owner that he's heard people are illegally selling lottery tickets from El Salvador in the plaza, and the owner promises to watch out. Then Cruz starts handing out fliers for a community meeting tied to the soccer program moving outdoors.

"I want to get my little brothers involved because the streets are no good," a young woman tells him.

All afternoon, beat-cop work intertwines with soccer recruitment, which are really the same thing.

In the parking lot of an apartment complex, the boy who has the gang tattoos runs up to say hello. In the same complex, Cruz helps security guards eject a man who already had been evicted for allegedly hosting gambling in his apartment. Gambling, public drinking and prostitution are the vices around here. And the gangs beckon. But today it's peaceful.

In a courtyard, a clutch of Cruz's soccer players is throwing a football. Can they come to the community meeting with their parents?

"My mom works day and night," one boy says.

"What about your dad?"

"I don't live with him. If my mom can't come, I'll bring my uncle."

If Cruz encounters his soccer kids during a night shift, sometimes he'll buy them movie tickets to get them off the streets.

When they misbehave, he's tough. Swearing gets you sidelined. Roughhousing requires a public apology to the rest of the players. He banished a boy for several weeks for uttering a nasty sexual term to one of the few female players.

He stops by one of the clubs that has tinted paper covering the windows, and drinks being served by the hot-pants waitresses. There's the father of one of his players, drinking beer while his young son is being minded by an adult family friend back in the garden apartments' courtyard. Cruz nods but doesn't approach the man; he doesn't want other patrons in the bar to think the man is telling him a neighborhood secret.

"I've arrested some of the parents, a few, nothing more serious than drinking in public," Cruz says. "Some hang out in places that cause trouble here."

Cruz knows other parents as hard workers who faithfully attend games and community meetings.

"The program is good so the children don't get mixed up in gangs or bad things," says José Calix, a plumber whose sons, 7 and 8, play soccer with Cruz.

* * *

The big day arrives at last, the opening of the outdoor season, a Saturday -- and it dawns gray, cold and wet.

"Please slow down, that's all I ask," Cruz mutters at the sky. The rain doesn't slow down. It's 50 degrees and windy.

All around Springfield, parents are having the same conversation: Surely Cruz is going to cancel soccer, right?

Cruz is afraid of letting the kids down, in case they're crazy enough to come. He's wearing a police-issue windbreaker; rivulets of rain are streaming down the planes of his face. The artificial turf field squishes like a sponge under his black beat-cop shoes.

And guess what, here they come, early, no less: slogging in ragged columns out of the garden-apartment neighborhoods. Splashing in puddles. Riding on wet bikes. Piled into relatives' cars. Cruz's kids.

He can hardly believe it -- even though he secretly counted on it. "They came out! They came out!" he says to no one in particular. He gathers them around.

"You guys are the cream of the crop," Cruz tells them. "Without you, I wouldn't be here. You guys motivate me. I love being out here with you guys. We all make mistakes. Some of you guys were kicked off, and you came back. . . . You just got to believe."

Cruz counts more than 40 players. Forty in the pouring rain means 200 in the summer sun, he calculates.

The players scrimmage while the parents, social workers and fundraisers shiver under portable tents.

Cruz patrols the sideline. "There you go, good passing, good passing," he shouts to his kids. They have found another kind of gang to be part of. "You're playing as a team!"

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