Safer Schooling Through Handball at Costa Mesa High School

Helping Hands
A Costa Mesa High School security guard offers a lesson in safer schooling through handball

David Rodriguez isn’t used to losing. One of the best young handball players in Orange County, he’s an expert at manipulating that impossibly small, impossibly fast ball. But on Nov. 14, he’s up against Charlie Vasquez of Richland High, one of the other top players in OC, for the first-place trophy in the highest division of an inter-district handball tournament.

Rodriguez, a Costa Mesa High School senior, taps the ball a couple of times on the side wall before his serve. He smacks the ball to hit the front wall low, then quickly positions himself for the rebound. Vasquez runs to the other side of the court and stretches his body to smash his return. The tall, thin, high school student is dressed in a T-shirt and plaid, baggy, cotton shorts—he has taken his narrow, dark sunglasses off for the game.

Richard Gomez and the kids at the most recent handball tournament
John Gilhooley
Richard Gomez and the kids at the most recent handball tournament

The sun hides mercifully behind the clouds on this Saturday afternoon, but the young men are still sweating through their clothes as they compete. There are no parents watching, no spectators other than the other competitors waiting their turn on the court. About 60 mostly Latino young men from cities around OC and LA have gathered in the small fenced-in area connected to the courts, surrounded by construction from the new pool being built at the school, to compete on a cracked cement surface covered with old gum—the best place around for them to play.

Quietly running things in the background is Richard Gomez. The 49-year-old Santa Ana resident with neatly trimmed salt-and-pepper hair barely gets a moment’s breath as he stands behind a folding table and updates the brackets, receives the scores from completed games and responds to a constant barrage of “Richard, Richard” from teenagers.

The table overflows with papers, trophies and balls. One boy picks up a Quaker Oats bar and asks, “What’s this?” Gomez grabs it and rips it open.

“Oh, thanks,” he says, smiling. “That’s my lunch.” (Fifteen minutes later, the scene repeats, word-for-word, smile-for-smile.)

The teenagers showed up at 8:30 a.m. to sign in. Most wear plain white T-shirts, but today, the boys from Canoga Park sport matching black T-shirts provided by the Boys and Girls Clubs. The Santa Ana contingent wears new, long-sleeved white shirts that read “Dynasty Suarez” on the back and “Morales Custom Painting” on the front.

As the games began, there was a hush to hear who would be playing whom, quickly followed by sounds of the ball thwocking into one of the three walls, worn-out Vans skidding as a player reached too far and often the sound of bodies hitting the unforgiving ground. All this is intertwined with the consistent shout of “bala, bala!” as the players call for a replacement after hitting a ball over a fence or out of the court.

The tournament isn’t part of the extra-curricular program at the school, and it isn’t funded by the district or the city. It’s Gomez’s baby—but he’s not a coach, teacher or an administrator. He’s a security guard at Costa Mesa High, one who decided he wasn’t going to wait for city politics or funding to help students now.

Unlike other sports programs around the country designed to give low-income youths something to do after school (Midnight Basketball, for example), the tournaments organized nearly every month at Costa Mesa High School (funded out of Gomez’s pocket, with a few donations) are part of a larger program implemented by Gomez and others to positively affect the entire campus.

It might seem like an odd choice of sport. Handball has recently built a reputation for attracting young men heading into the gang life—and some courts have become places where kids gather and leave their trash and graffiti behind.

School-board president Dana Black says the handball courts were torn down at other schools such as Estancia High School because it would have cost $20,000 to retrofit them.

Costa Mesa High School resource officer John Gates sees another possible motivation. “Everyone else tears down the handball courts because they’re concerned about those who want to use them,” he says—a move he considers shortsighted.

Gomez figured offering tournaments would give the kids something to focus on and would encourage them to keep the courts clean and problem-free. It gives kids not only a workout, but also an incentive to not cause problems and to focus on grades. Gomez requires good attendance from participants, and if you get three Fs, you can’t play.

On Saturday, grades and graffiti seem far from these teenagers’ minds. Jeffrey Reyes—who is 17, but whose muscles and mustache make him seem older than the other boys—is busy trying to beat Jose Melendez from Canoga Park. As the game rages on, neither’s face offers many hints about which young man is winning.

Only when asked does Reyes reveal, “He won,” pointing casually over his shoulder at Melendez. None of the young men at the tournament today shows any anger at losing or any arrogance at winning—often, they leave the court smiling.

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