It was the annual event everyone in the South Los Angeles community knew about. Dorsey vs. Crenshaw. A rivalry of family — a “turkey bowl,” as Stafon Johnson put it.
The memories from Johnson’s playing career when he was a standout running back at Dorsey, are still fresh. He can still see blocked-off Crenshaw Boulevard, the police escorts. He can still feel the calm of his sophomore year, the first time playing under lights at Crenshaw. Johnson played in national championships and Rose Bowls while at USC, yet no game could ever truly compare.
The last two years, those memories are flickering like a flame in the wind, trying to avoid the gusts that just keep coming strong. The community has changed. COVID-19 decimated the programs. Every day brings a new challenge.
Yet here they are today, sitting with undefeated records at the top of the Coliseum League, ready for a head-to-head championship showdown Friday that some feel could reinvigorate one of the city’s most famous rivalries.
“It’ll never die,” said Johnson, now the coach of Dorsey. “We didn’t play in 2020, so this is kind of like the start of this decade. And I think that each decade tells a different story of the Dorsey-Crenshaw extravaganza.”
Dorsey owned the 1980s and '90s — winning four City Section titles across that span — in the days of Keyshawn Johnson and Na’il Diggs. Crenshaw staked its claim toward the end of the 2000s, claiming back-to-back championships in 2009 and 2010 with the fleet legs of De’Anthony Thomas as well as another in 2013.
Robert Garrett, Crenshaw’s coach since 1988, just doesn’t feel the rivalry is the same anymore.
“The crowd, the participation, have dwindled,” Garrett said. “The hype has dwindled.”
It’s a sign of the times, he feels. A sign like decades-old Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza being sold a few months ago to a developer with plans to build a more modern complex. Like the Kaiser Permanente Baldwin Hills center built on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in 2017. Like the construction underway on the Crenshaw/LAX Line.
The gentrification has correspondingly effected a change in the community. Over time, it’s depleted the area of the families that were once a part of the great Dorsey-Crenshaw battles, Johnson said. The intensity is there, he feels — but not the history.
“That’s what we’re here for as a coaching staff,” said Johnson, who was hired in 2019. “Me, I played in the game and I understood what it meant — not just what it meant to our program but to the community in general — and [we hope to] bring it to the kids and make it their own.”
Dorsey’s quarterback Josh Coleman grew up hanging around Dorsey’s football field at Rancho Cienega Sports Complex and hearing the stories of the rivalry — the "Friday Night Lights" prestige of players like Thomas.
“It’s definitely something I’ve been looking forward to since I first came here,” said Coleman, who transferred to Dorsey in February 2020. “You grow up with a lot of those kids. And on a Friday night, one goes to the other school and you go to the other school and that could end up being your neighbor down the street.”
Coleman has been looking forward to it for over a year and a half since COVID-19 wiped out Dorsey’s 2020 season and limited Crenshaw to two games. Even he feels the rivalry “died down a bit.”
It’s hard to maintain that heated sense of competition when the programs, at times, have struggled to stay alive the last couple of years. Garrett had to cancel Crenshaw’s first game of the season, originally carrying just 16 players on the roster. Johnson had to cancel Dorsey’s opening game because there weren’t enough nurses available in the district to clear his team.
Dorsey has had to find its own transportation to take kids to and from COVID-19 testing sites to keep players eligible. The season has been marred by cancellations. Crenshaw’s field still carries a gooey substance discovered in the summer, which Garrett said has caused a couple of his players leg injuries after their cleats got caught in the turf.
“It’s no good, OK? Oh boy. It’s no good … but it’s the hand we’re dealt, man,” Garrett said. “You’ve got to move on because you’ve got nobody to tell. And if you tell anybody, you’re just complaining.”
Night games for the rest of the season are in now in jeopardy because of a shortage of Los Angeles Unified School District bus drivers, which would move the Crenshaw-Dorsey contest to 4 p.m. It’s no way to play a rivalry game, Coleman said. Johnson is fed up.
“Do you see this happening to any of the CIF [Southern Section] schools?” Johnson said. “That sounds like a disadvantage, absolutely. We don’t even have funds to get another alternative route. C’mon, man.”
Dorsey defensive coordinator Dan Robinson is confident that the program will be able to figure out a solution, which would involve a private bus or coaches and parents pitching in to shuttle kids to the game.
“The community can’t get off [work] at four o’clock to see the game,” Robinson said. “I don’t know how we’re going to get to that point, but we’re going to get to that point.”
Through it all, the programs are still kicking — now thriving, in fact. Johnson said community members have stepped up, donating money, food and water for refreshment during and after games to make sure kids don’t go hungry while providing transportation to keep them off the streets at night.
Crenshaw is 4-2 this season. Dorsey is 6-2. It’s the first time since 2017 that both programs have a winning record.
“Here we are, prevailing against all odds,” Johnson said. “I think it just shows the resiliency of both schools and how much we really care about what we’re playing for and what we do.”
Everybody in the Dorsey community is getting into “Crenshaw mode” now, Coleman says. The hallways are abuzz. Teachers are talking about setting their weekend schedules to make the game. The quarterback himself is excited to finally be a part of the “aggression” within the rivalry.
Johnson and Garrett are tired of fighting the tough fight. Nothing surprises them anymore. Johnson said coaches make less than $10 an hour.
Yet to them, keeping their programs alive to pass the torch is worth it.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.