OAKLAND MAGAZINE – July/August 2007
TODD WALKER IS AN URBAN COACH WHO TAKES HIS ROLE AS A MENTOR SERIOUSLY. Dead seriously. With his young charges caught up in a culture of street violence, he’s seen too many funerals. That’s why he takes his Berkeley Cougars—youth-league football players, ages 6–14—on a preseason tour they’ll never forget: to East Oakland’s Whitted-Williams Funeral Home.
It reminds me of the movie Scared Straight! Is that the goal—to scare them?
It really is to make them think. I was losing a lot of kids to street violence and one day a parent called and wanted me to talk to her son. I said, “I’ll take him to the mortuary and set him down with the funeral director.” Then other parents started calling.
But guns and violence are such a big part of pop culture today. How do you make your message stand out?
I tell them straight up: If you die this way, you die dumb. It ain’t cool. Everyone is walking around the funeral home with your picture on their T-shirts—but you’re dead.
And you back up your talk with some powerful visuals.
I tell them they have to touch inside the casket. That right there is so powerful—because when they go to a funeral there are two or three hundred people there. Here, there ain’t no showing off. It gets to them. It makes them think. When they leave, I make them go home and hug whoever their guardian is—the parent of the house.
And you can reach even the toughest, street-hardened kids?
I had one boy who was trying to be Mr. Hardcore. He said he could kill somebody. But when he went into the casket room he had a whole different attitude. He called me a week later and said he wanted to join the Job Corps. He was scared.
What do you tell your players about staying alive on the streets?
A lot of it is judging situations. If you see somebody arguing, you don’t get involved; you get away from it. A lot of the kids have real bad tempers. That’s really what the mortuary is for. I tell them, if a body is in here, they didn’t listen to somebody or they were at the wrong place at the wrong time.
The gym or the sports field used to be kind of a safe haven for troubled kids. Is that still true?
It’s different than 10 years ago. Then it was an outlet. Now, they don’t go to school; they don’t go to class, so they can’t play sports. A lot of them end up in jail. Now the kids can’t even go to the gyms ’cause there are people out there trying to kill them.