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LA football program works to make a difference with teens in underserved communities

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Football season is here, and one group of young players is winning off the field.

The Watts Rams is a youth football team in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, started by the city's police department to interact with the community, and it has gotten a boost from the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams.

Officer Zarren Thompson, who has been policing in Watts for over 25 years, serves as the team’s head coach and said it’s important to be there for youngsters.

“You want a change? Start with the youth, educate the youth,” he told TODAY.

Watts has the highest concentration of gangs in Los Angeles, making it a harsh environment for children. Thompson said playing on his team enables kids to better themselves through discipline.

“This program is about discipline. Period,” he told his team.

The team kicked off about a decade ago with 30 players, but has ballooned to more than 100 kids ages 8 to 14 suiting up. One 13-year-old boy named Evan plays with his brother, Noah, 11, and said Thompson and the coaches have had a profound influence on him.

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“I look at them like family. Like, it’s a father figure, like a male role model to me,” he said. “And then my teammates, man, that’s brothers and sisters.”

Evan’s grades have dramatically improved since he joined the team, going from D’s and F’s to straight A’s. He has appeared in an NFL kickoff commercial with the Rams’ defensive standout Aaron Donald and earned a scholarship to The Future Elite Academy in Westlake Village, California.

“I’ve gotten so many opportunities, from going to a school that cost $38,000 a year to attend to being in an NFL kickoff commercial with Aaron Donald,” he said. “I mean, it’s been amazing.”

The Los Angeles Rams caught wind of the team and have provided uniforms as well as a new field. The kids also get the chance to meet and learn from the players. The team was impressed with the impact the police want to have.

“So, they invited me down to Watts to do a ride-along, some of the officers, back in 2017 and just fell in love with their vision and what they’re trying to do,” Los Angeles Rams vice president of community affairs Molly Higgins said.

Thompson is moved by the Rams’ gesture.

“Something that I prayed for, man,” he said.

“Just somebody believing in these babies, you know? Just helping out. It was great,” he added.

The off-the-field growth has been great, but the kids will also get to experience some on-field fun as well: The NFL has invited the team to see their NFL counterparts in action when the Rams host the Tennessee Titans on Nov. 7. Many kids will also get the chance to go to the 2022 Super Bowl at the Rams' home stadium, based on their academics, leadership and volunteer work.

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