November 16, 2006
Car thieves, thugs, drug dealers.
Those are labels passed down on youthful offenders with whom Duane Diffie worked. Labels passed down by the court system and easily adopted by most of the world to excuse itself from caring.
But Diffie has another name for them – “kids.”
Diffie, who played basketball and baseball at Oklahoma Baptist University in Shawnee, was one of the driving forces behind the athletic program at Camp Kilpatrick in Malibu, Calif. The camp for juvenile offenders is the basis for the new movie “Gridiron Gang.”
You won’t find Diffie portrayed in the movie and that’s OK with the camp’s former athletic director. It is enough to know he made a difference in reality.
“These kids are just so needy,” Diffie said. “They are hungry for any positive male role model.”
After two years at Orange Coast Junior College, Diffie and high school friend Keith Arledge made their way to OBU, where Diffie played baseball and was a member of OBU’s 1973 NAIA quarterfinalist basketball team.
“I didn’t care much for the Oklahoma weather, but the people were phenomenal,” said the Southern Californian. “It was great fun. I remember hanging out at the Town Talk Café and Bea Britton’s. That was pretty upscale Shawnee.”
When Diffie graduated from OBU, he returned to California. He married Jill Lindsey 32 years ago in October.
In California, Diffie and Steve Canin were coaching basketball together part-time at Los Alamitos High School. Diffie was selling sporting goods and Canin was the special assistant to Chief Probation Officer Barry Nidorf. Canin introduced Diffie the idea of working at Camp Kilpatrick with him.
Camp Kilpatrick is located in the Malibu area. Fans of the television show M*A*S*H would recognize its hillside setting from the show’s opening credits.
But where characters on the television show treated physical wounds, Diffie and others worked to repair wounds in the souls and psyches of young men.
At first oblivious to the problems of gangs, Diffie was unaware of how God would move him from running operations for Billabong surf company. But when he opened up to it, Diffie was instantly hooked.
“I was intrigued by the opportunity and when I was introduced to the kids, they just stole my heart. I knew the Lord wanted me there and I was there from 1988 to this past September.”
Diffie said at first he thought he would have to be a young man’s Buford Pusser.
“I thought I would need to look like ‘Walking Tall’ with the reflective sun glasses, but if you put up that front, the kids will reflect that right back,” Diffie said. “But if you are vulnerable with them, they will open up. The kids were so needy. They will latch onto you if they know you are concerned and they will glean everything you have to offer.”
The athletic program began with basketball and eight-man football. When the football program evolved into 11-man in 1990, it attracted the attention of producer Lee Stanley, who produced the 1993 documentary ‘Gridiron Gang.’
With Canin and Nidorf behind the athletic program, the only resistance was going to come from the outside. Getting schools to lower their guard and allow Camp Kilpatrick to play them in football.
Some schools were resistant to put their student athletes in direct contact with kids with criminal records. But some programs saw opportunities instead of negatives.
“We were not coming in with busses with bars on the windows or uniformed guards,” Diffie said. “We were trying to treat the kids as normal as possible. And there were a few schools that took us under their wing.”
Santa Fe Christian, coached by former Cleveland Browns quarterback Brian Sipe, provided barbecue for the team after their games. Village Christian and Bishop Diego were also helpful, as was Valley Christian, Diffie said.
“Mike Wunderley at Valley Christian (then football coach and now principal) is one person who really supported our kids,” Diffie said. “He believed in the concept and that the Lord could work not only through us at Camp Kilpatrick, but through them as well.”
But football wasn’t the goal for the kids. Rather, it was a means to an educational end.
“The whole point was not sports,” Diffie said. “That was just the carrot to get them as high up academically as we could. If we didn’t want these kids back on street corners education was the key.”
Through the sports program, Diffie was able to get the kids additional academic instruction through Pepperdine University, UCLA and Cal State-Northridge.
For many, the program paid large dividends. Alumni include ministers, baseball players and law enforcement personnel.
Many students came to the camp with a number of life strikes against them. In addition to a criminal past, many had abusive or absentee parents and almost 20 percent were parents themselves.
They received parenting classes, among other opportunities to improve their lives.
“Kids want to change,” Diffie said. “You can look into some kids eyes and there’s no spark. It’s just vacant. Some kids are just hungry for any positive relationship with a male figure. You put your arm around them or rough up their hair and they just melt.”
Diffie’s Camp Kilpatrick experience was more ministry than job.
“I wouldn’t have been there if it weren’t for the Lord,” Diffie said. “He gave me the strength and compassion for the kids.”
Now, as athletic director at Calvary Chapel in Moreno Valley, Diffie uses his past experience to groom new leaders. While they may come from different life experiences than those at Camp Kilpatrick, the mission is much the same.
And there’s still a spot in his heart for those kids whose lives he helped transform.
“I miss the kids,” Diffie said. “I don’t miss some of the things that go on with the department. But God moved me here and Pastor John Milhouse wanted me here. I loved just seeing kids turn things around. Sometimes they will call me and tell me they are doing well and taking care of their families or going to school.”
While some of the events in the recent movie release are the inventions of Hollywood, some things are genuine.
Much like the behind the scenes love of the long-time athletic director for the young-men-in-training on the field.