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Former Chargers Player Leads City Heights Football Team To National Victory

Coach Stephen Cooper, a former San Diego Chargers player, leads the Balboa Ra...

Photo by Priya Sridhar

Above: Coach Stephen Cooper, a former San Diego Chargers player, leads the Balboa Raiders football players at a practice outside Monroe Clark Middle School in San Diego on May 28, 2019.

It's a Tuesday afternoon, and dozens of 10 and 11-year-olds are sprawled out on the football field behind Monroe Clark Middle School in City Heights.

These are the Balboa Raiders, defending national champions in the American Youth Football League. The team has been playing in City Heights for more than 50 years.

By Reporter Priya Sridhar

The Balboa Raiders have been playing football in City Heights for more than 50 years.

"The first year I played football, I played lineman and then when I came on this team they put me as running back," said 11-year-old Isaiah Grant, who has been on the team for six years. "I showed them how much talent I had and then I stayed as running back."

Many of the kids on the team have been playing together since they were 5 years old. They practice two to three times a week for eight months out of the year. It's a lot of work, but they say it's also taught them a lot.

Reported by Kris Arciaga

"It's just the teamwork, the ethic, the hard work, we put in the hard work the coaches put in us," Grant said.

Many of the athletes say the team is like family to them. At the head of the team is Coach Stephen Cooper. Cooper played in the NFL for eight years and spent his entire career with the San Diego Chargers. Cooper lives in Scripps Ranch, but he initially brought his son out to the Balboa Raiders to play on the team.

"The reason I wanted my son to play here is because I know it's a blue-collar mentality here. There are a lot of hard working class people here. There is a lot of grind and grit here that I wanted my son to be a part of and experience," Cooper said.

When the other parents of the players found out that Cooper had played in the NFL, they asked him if he was interested in coaching the team.

"This was the first thing I experienced after I was done playing and it was a blessing in disguise because I was in a bad mental place," Cooper said. "These kids showed me a lot about work ethic, attitude, perseverance and just staying on course because that's what they're trying to do and that's what we implement into them and so we have to lead by example."

The teammates say Cooper's dedication to them is clear.

"Coach Cooper, he's like a second dad to all of us," Grant said. "He puts in a lot of work for us, he does a lot for us."

Cooper also checks up on the team's report cards and even makes appearances at their schools if they don't stay on track.

"My coach, he tells us how to be respectful to adults and say 'thank you' and 'please' and have good manners and try hard to be the best you can and try to get your grades up and don't hang around the bad people," said 10-year-old Nathanael Carter.

Last season, after playing together for six years, the Raiders finished the regular season undefeated with 12 wins. They went on to win the regional championships in Arizona and then the national championships in Florida. Cooper said for many of the kids, last year was their first time on planes and first time out of California.

Grant said winning the title was unexpected.

"I was very surprised because like the first two games we only scored 6 points out of the first two, but then the last game, we had to come out hard and...we gave it all we got on the field," he said.

Some of the athletes said their competitors underestimated them.

"Well since most of us are from City Heights, a lot of the other teams don't think we're as good," said 11-year-old Rayshon Hardeman. "It taught me to prove them wrong and try super hard in the games."

But the players, their parents and the coaches say that with hard work and dedication, they believe the kids can achieve anything.

"I can tell you as a native San Diegan from City Heights...a lot of people count our community out, a lot of people count our children out, a lot of people count our parents out," said Kim Carter, mother of one of the players. "But you’re not going to find another dedicated group of people than this. Our parents support these kids 100 percent, we work within the community and outside of the community and inside the community to make sure the kids get every benefit that this team has to offer."

At the end of practice, the Raiders gear up for the start of their next season in August. Now, they have big expectations to meet.

Cooper geared up the players for what's to come in a pep talk at the end of practice.

"You guys set a platform for yourself and you have an X on your back now," he said. "You guys are the AYF national champions from last year and people want to knock you off. It comes to work ethic, just like everyday life whether it's waking up in the morning, making your bed, brushing your teeth, whatever it is. Do you guys understand?"

San Diego News Matters podcast branding

In today’s San Diego’s News Matters podcast: Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher is now freed from custody, but the case isn’t over just yet.

Plus, Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Alpine, continues to defend the San Diego-based Navy SEAL accused of war crimes by saying he also posed with dead bodies and probably killed “hundreds of civilians” while serving in Fallujah; San Diego could be facing a bad fire season; and a City Heights football team is getting national recognition after learning from the best.

Aired: May 31, 2019 | Transcript

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