Alum Duane Diffie: Caring Enough to Connect
January 8, 2010
Editor’s Note: Oklahoma Baptist University alum Duane Diffie, a 1974 graduate, is a 2009 recipient of the OBU Alumni Association’s Profile In Excellence Award. The award is given to a former student who has “demonstrated recognizable accomplishment in his or her profession, business, avocation, or life service in such a way as to bring pride and honor to the University.” Each year, Profile In Excellence recipients are featured in OBU Magazine.
Duane Diffie can take on a challenge. The 1974 OBU graduate has always had a love for sports so he knows what it is like to meet opposition. However, an unexpected career opportunity presented Diffie with a challenge unlike anything he had faced before: serving as athletic director at a juvenile detention center.
Diffie met the challenge using his passion for sports and the lessons he learned at OBU to influence the lives of juvenile youth for nearly two decades.
"OBU taught me to have compassion," Diffie said. "Coming from southern California, I was a very active, busy guy. Athletics was always in the forefront of my life and I was missing a lot of what God was trying to give me. He wanted me to slow down and know that He is God."
During his sophomore year of college, Diffie took a trip to see his high school friend Keith Arledge at OBU. The trip ultimately led Diffie to enroll for classes on Bison Hill the next fall.
"I saw Keith and was introduced to Gene Wallace, who was the athletic director and head baseball and basketball coach at the time," Diffie said. "He had me try out and gave me a scholarship for baseball and basketball."
Diffie returned to California after obtaining a teaching degree. He completed postgraduate work in psychology and married Jill, his wife of 35 years. The couple built upon his passion for athletics and opened Sonrise Sports, a sporting goods business. After six years of running the business, Diffie moved on to work for a surfing company and began serving as a basketball coach at Los Alamitos High School, where he received a life changing offer from a colleague.
"I got an offer to start a program for the L.A. County probation department at a juvenile detention center in Malibu," he said.
Diffie accepted the opportunity to work at the center, named Camp Kilpatrick. He signed on to develop an athletic program and to serve as athletic director so the kids could compete against area high school teams. The kids, however, were coming from backgrounds that Diffie did not easily identify with: drug dealing, stealing, carjacking and gang activity.
"I knew nothing about gang lifestyle," Diffie said. "I was a white, 6'4", blonde-haired, blue-eyed guy from Orange County. What should I know about gangs other than they were away from me? I was led to one of the camps and introduced to the lifestyle these kids have, and God gave me a love for them."
Not having a background working with juvenile offenders, Diffie drew motivation from a more familiar field and used his love for athletics as a means to influence the Kilpatrick young men. He began learning more about gangs and the kids' experiences to better approach their situations, but also found the compassion that he learned at OBU essential in his position.
"There was no formal education that could prepare you for this," Diffie said. "I knew I could help and wanted to change lives. You have to be blessed with a heart for them and genuinely care. If you don't, your life will be miserable and they will destroy you if you give them a chance."
Diffie also reflected on lessons he learned from long-time OBU administrator John Parrish and Coach Wallace and "his intensity and attempt to produce perfection in his players." He wanted to help the Kilpatrick youth work to become men they were proud of in their own eyes and in the eyes of others.
"I wanted to make sure the schools we played and the community at large perceived us not as a camp but a school," Diffie said. "I wanted these young men to be viewed as any other students. We treated them that way and expected them to act that way. If you wanted to be a gang member, then you were removed from our ‘students.' We were going to succeed; you were not as a gang member."
During his time at Camp Kilpatrick Diffie developed programs for basketball, baseball, soccer, track and football. The football program, however, gained the most recognition when it was used as the inspiration for the 1993 television documentary, "Gridiron Gang." The story was recast in a major motion picture released in 2006. But the films do not serve as Diffie's success story. Instead his stories of success center around the Kilpatrick kids and the obstacles they overcame.
"A young man lost 87 pounds in camp because he wanted to play football and found himself to be of some worth," Diffie said. "He was proud of himself and he didn't have to follow anyone. He was a man, a successful man. There was also a doubting boy that was abandoned by his mother and left in the streets. He took his life from camp, continued his education and is now an administrator in the L.A. education system."
Diffie saw the lives of young men dramatically change. Though some of the youth are still serving time or ended up where they started, Diffie finds joy and pride when he runs into kids who are "not only surviving, but leading special lives in the community."
Now serving as athletic director at Calvary Chapel in Moreno Valley, Calif., Diffie finds that he still will be on the look-out in a crowd for potential problems - a habit he finds hard to break. But Diffie took away more than a watchful eye from Camp Kilpatrick; he took away a deeper passion for investing in the lives of youth.
"I love interacting with them, helping them, laughing with them, making jokes with them, and sometimes crying with them," Diffie said. "Jill and I have no children, so these are my kids on loan from their parents for the time I'm with them. Don't mess with my kids."
Diffie continues to use his love for athletics to influence the lives of youth in helping them develop their own success stories, though he said he now feels that he has taken on a more challenging audience since Camp Kilpatrick: junior high girls. Though his career path was unexpected, Diffie said he knows that the opportunities he received were intentional from God.
"His plans were deliberate, focused and trustworthy," Diffie said. "He does the driving and all you have to do is enjoy the scenery and give His love to all around you."
Click the following link to view a full list of previous Profile in Excellence recipients.