Verbum Dei’s Oscar Rosa, Soccer Coach

by journojames on March 23, 2012

Originally published Nov. 20, 2011

Helping kids through sports.

Such a simple and noble thing has been sadly twisted and perverted in the last couple of weeks with all the recent revelations of alleged child abuse at schools, such as Penn State and Syracuse.

Coach Oscar Rosa, Photo by JournoJames

Kids and sports should always go together; it’s something that should be celebrated, never mourned nor questioned. There’s too much darkness right now. A moral compass that points to some light is desperately needed.

A little bit of that light was found this week.

On a late Thursday afternoon in Watts, under a crisp, darkening November sky, a rookie assistant coach keenly watched his young soccer team perform passing drills.

He hollered out instructions, fighting a loud helicopter that thundered above while his baby-faced players ran and kicked balls around a rough and torn up grass field.

The new coach then scrambled to get a short scrimmage in for his team before 5 PM. The field didn’t have lights and it would soon be too dark to practice.

These aren’t ideal conditions, but for Verbum Dei’s high school soccer team, there was no time to dwell on such things. There was plenty of work to do before Tuesday, their season opener against Monrovia.

“We have to work as a team when we play Tuesday,” Oscar Rosa said during the scrimmage.

Coach Rosa wants his players to work hard but have fun, Photo by JournoJames

Verbum Dei’s 29-year old soccer assistant may be new to coaching but his coach-speak was already in veteran, mid-season form.

“It’s all about team work.”

Rosa said that soccer head coach and Verbum Dei’s athletic director Eric Wood was still figuring out his official coaching responsibilities.

Wood said he would most likely work with the freshman and junior varsity squads. Rosa said he plans to take whatever they would offer. It was soccer. His passion. And for him, just being around it was all that mattered.

“I really want to teach these kids about how important it is to communicate,” Rosa said. “About committing to a team, and about having fun and enjoying the sport without being overly competitive.”

“He’s (Rosa) got really good leadership skills,” A.D. Wood said after Thursday’s practice. “Looking at the interactions he has with the kids and helping them to bond as a team is definitely something he’s got going on. He’s already made a difference.”

Verbum Dei, an all-boys Jesuit Catholic high school in Watts, once had a proud athletic program. Its alums include Pro Bowl linebacker Hardy Nickerson and NBA player Andre Miller. But it also owned an unflattering reputation of being a tough inner-city school that struggled with crime, a high dropout rate and administrative instability.

The school suffered such decline in both enrollment and academic performance throughout the 1980s and 1990s that it was almost permanently shut down. But then, in 2000, then-Cardinal Roger Mahony asked the Jesuits for their help, and they soon began to turn the school around.

The team practices at Verbum Dei's field, Photo by JournoJames

It now has an enrollment of 280 students and the school offers a unique program that includes academic courses and internships in corporate work environments, like Bank of America and the Walt Disney Company.

Rosa, who was first hired as the school’s information technology coordinator in July before adding the responsibilities of assistant soccer coach, remembered playing against Verbum Dei as a student when he attended Saint Monica high school in Santa Monica.

“This school has changed. It’s no longer the athletic powerhouse it used to be,” Rosa said. “We’re trying to build an athletic program, but the Jesuits don’t really care about sports.”

Still, Rosa said he thinks he can make a difference by connecting with the students through soccer. He said he saw a lot of himself in Verbum Dei’s students.

Rosa was born in El Salvador. His mother soon left for America to work while he stayed behind with extended family. It wasn’t until he was 8 years old that he joined his mother in Los Angeles.

He grew up never knowing his father and that void had a profound effect on him.

“I just wanted someone to talk to, about anything.”

Luckily, Rosa’s mother was able to find him a male mentor, a psychiatrist, who he was able to connect with and build a friendship. Rosa said his mother had little money to offer the psychiatrist but he saw him anyway.

Rosa said that he thinks of that psychiatrist often and wants to offer the same kind of guidance and friendship that was given to him.

“I feel like I can relate to these Hispanic kids at Verbum Dei. The student body is 52 percent Hispanic. Some of the kids have language barriers. Some of them come from single parent homes. I know what that’s like. I always think about plugging these kids into the system, like I was.”

Coach Rosa runs drills, Photo by JournoJames

Rosa took on the coaching gig, not just to help the kids, but also to help himself.

He always loved the sport and played midfielder well enough to be on the varsity soccer team throughout high school.

He had big dreams of playing soccer for Santa Clara University, but that all changed during the first match in his senior year at Saint Monica.

A routine play turned into a nightmare when Rosa was violently kicked in the knee. His ACL and meniscus were torn. His senior season filled with so much hope was over just like that.

He was so devastated he spent the next year in a complete depressed daze. He rehabilitated his knee but he never played for the Santa Clara soccer team. He never tried out.

“It was always a big regret,” Rosa said. “I should’ve been more into it. I should’ve been pounding on the coaches’ doors. But I didn’t. That’s why now I’m trying to get my kids to really pursue this if it’s their passion. I want to give these kids my experience so they can learn from it and pursue something that I didn’t.”

Coach Rosa ends practice, Photo by JournoJames

It was 5 PM and the sky was dark as another helicopter rumbled by overhead. Practice was over. The kids walked off the field and headed home. Rosa collected the soccer balls and took them to the equipment shed.

“I’m expecting a pretty open game against Monrovia,” he said. “Whoever’s better conditioned should have the edge. I’m excited. It’s soccer.”

It’s actually more than that. It’s a much needed light.

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