A shuffling of grass and the shouts of “Aquí!” or “Here! Here!” could be heard from the street near Leroy Nichols Elementary School. A swift kick sent a soccer ball careening through the air. The screech of a whistle blowing drowned out the passing cars.
In the strangely cool afternoon weather Monday, a dozen middle school-aged boys spent their time sprinting around the soccer field. On the Eastside, where most of them are from, other teens beat their summer doldrums with gang activities. Some did drugs, some vandalized and others committed more frightening crimes like burglary.
But not these boys, all members of the Lodi Earthquakes.
And that is thanks in large part to coach and Lodi resident Mark Whittock.
Whittock is on a mission to make sure his team stays out of gangs, and his beliefs have trickled down to the boys.
At an age when many teens are prone to fall into the gang lifestyle and be recruited as a Norteño or Sureño, none of the boys on the Earthquakes even consider that life an option.
‘It is a raw, natural environment’
Mark Whittock has done whatever he can to keep a majority of the same boys on his teams year after year.
Soccer is about far more than just kicking a ball around a field, attempting to score goals, he said.
Rather, soccer is a canvas for people to learn a myriad of life lessons.
In his 30-plus years in the San Joaquin Valley, Whittock has been privy to the effect the game has on others, both as he grew up and as he later became a coach.
Originally from the Bay Area, Whittock’s family moved to Stockton in 1971.
Prior to heading east, Whittock played vigorously in a Bay Area soccer league, earning an award as the youngest competing player when he was only 4 years old.
“I remember listening to the results on BBC radio,” he said of his early memories with soccer. “Saturday after Saturday I just followed (the reports). I just fell in love.”
When Whittock’s family moved to Stockton, anything related to soccer — playing it, watching it, listening to it — was virtually nonexistent, Whittock said.
So his father, also a soccer fanatic, created a league the Stockton Police Department sponsored, called the Pacific Athletic League.
But how could one man get others to like what they knew nothing about?
His father’s mission was a grassroots program, Whittock said, something where players of all ages could learn a little bit of everything about the game.
While the awareness of the sport has exploded since he began playing in and around Stockton as a boy, Whittock said it is clear his passion for the sport has never wavered.
“You are out there doing your own thing,” he said. “It is really a pleasure to go out there and just create. (The game) is all impromptu. It is a raw, natural environment.”
‘Gangs ruin your life’
Luis, 13, rode his bike to practice Monday from his home on East Elm Street.
It is a roughly two-mile bike ride. It takes about 20 minutes.
Luis’s entire family works in the fields and often cannot drive him to or from practice. They are gone from dawn to sunset.
But Luis does not mind the ride.
Though he has only played soccer for three years, Luis clearly loves the game. He is dedicated to the team, leaving everything he has on the field.
He cracks a smile when a goal is made or if a player magically wrangles the ball from his quick feet. But a majority of the time, his face is stone, his dark brown eyes focused.
Luis is a sharp soccer player, but it is not something he wants to do for the rest of his life.
He wants to be an architect. What he wants to build he is not sure, but he knows he wants to one day go off to college, to become successful.
At an age where quite a few of his peers have been courted to join a gang, Luis said he has no time for that.
“Gangs ruin your life,” he said matter-of-factly. “They aren’t worth it.”
But how does Luis plan to stay out of gangs?
He has never been asked or courted to be in a gang, but he knows the possibility is still there.
Luis is simply not afraid of gangs.
“I’d just say, ‘No,’” he said. “No.”
‘A facilitator to help them on their way’
Whittock began coaching 16 years ago, and he admits that he did not know he would enjoy it.
He loved playing so much, but he quickly realized that those he coached did not just need someone telling them where to kick the ball.
The boys needed a leader.
“I am just a stop for these boys. I did not bring them the game,” he said. “I am a facilitator to help them on their way, be it in the game of soccer or in life.”
It is his ability to help his players, however, that has shaped how he deals with boys who face difficult circumstances and for those who are particularly susceptible to gangs.
“There is not a lot of diversity on my team,” he said. “We are a very low-income team.”
Whittock grew up getting to know all sorts of people from various backgrounds.
As the game of soccer became more expensive, he said, those who could afford to play stuck around. Those who could not disappeared.
Every year, Whittock struggles to keep his kids playing, whether or not they can afford to go to tournaments.
The team will find a way to get his players to come along, Whittock said.
For example, every Thursday, five boys from the team head out to the Downtown Lodi Farmers Market to sell water bottles.
They cost only one dollar, Whittock said, but interacting with the community and learning things like always saying “please” and “thank you” makes the experience far more rewarding than earning funds for the team.
If he can keep the boys playing, it gives him the opportunity to teach them about things like morality, the golden rule and other key life lessons they may not get at home.
Whittock does not want to overstep his bounds, however. He does not want to be their father.
He does want to be a good listener.
The boys need to be heard, he said. He knows he cannot provide everything for them. Maybe a few pairs of old cleats here or there or maybe a ride home after practice.
But he hopes that he can always lend an ear, and he tries to show that to his players.
“I am not a back patter, and I am not a compliment-oriented guy,” he said. “But during water breaks or after practice, with the informal chats we have, that is how I get a glance at what exactly these kids go through.”
‘... They say they will kill you’
It was 2 a.m. and Juan, 12, was sitting in his family’s living room at his home on East Pine Street watching “SpongeBob Squarepants.”
He could not sleep. Cartoons seemed to help.
It was still outside.
Then, a loud boom rang out, quickly followed by two more.
Juan knew that sound.
Looking up, Juan saw a man, hooded by a black sweatshirt, run by the window with a gun.
“Gunshots don’t scare me,” Juan said. “I just don’t like them.”
Juan goes to Millswood Middle School with many of his teammates, including Luis.
Like Luis, Juan said he has not been asked to join a gang, and that he has no plans to.
He wants to be a soccer star, playing with the likes of future Beckhams, Ronaldos or Peles.
By being out on the field and not on the streets or running around alleys on the Eastside, the game keeps Juan away from gang members who could possibly target him.
“Gangs are the worst thing you can do,” he said. “Did you know if you try to leave, they say they will kill you?”
Juan does not seem frightened by this.
‘They are the rule’
What exactly is the solution to ending gang violence and even gangs in general here in Lodi?
Whittock would tell you he has an idea of how to stop it, but that he has yet to see any sort of definitive solution presented by anyone in the city, from council members to schools.
He knows there has been talk of solutions, but no one has actually taken action.
“People aren’t necessarily looking for a solution,” he said. “It is like, if you don’t look at it, then it isn’t there.”
Whittock knows more than most how tough a life a majority of his players live.
When three players could not afford to buy cleats for the team’s first practice, Whittock brought in cleats he had been saving from his son’s years playing the game.
Whittock has learned from watching his players grow up in front of him just how much people can take for granted, he said.
Take birthdays, for example.
Whittock asked one player on a drive home from a tournament last weekend what he did for his last birthday, which is coming up again in September.
The boy said he did not do anything last year. He did not receive any gifts. He did not get a cake.
That was the way life was for his family, who does not have extra money for celebrations.
“It was hard to hear that that was how life was like for those kids,” he said. “They are confronted by it all, and you have to realize that their lives are not the exception, they are the rule. But I don’t know how to fix it.”
Whittock’s “solution” for now is to keep the kids entertained, to grab their attention three hours during the week for practice and for a few hours every weekend during games.
He has seen boys fall away into a life of crime, and he has seen boys exceed expectations and go on to do things like finish high school and go to college.
Whittock wants every one of his players to succeed, to beat the draw of the gang.
He calls gangs a “detention,” a way of keeping kids from moving on. He said once he sees a boy join a gang, their lives virtually end at that point.
While he loses a few, Whittock said he will never back down from trying.
“If you believe they are not going (to succeed), then what are you doing to try and fix the problem?” he said. “You put in a huge effort, and hope you are wrong. Give them a reason to open up.”
Contact reporter Katie Nelson at firstname.lastname@example.org.