On the east side of San Diego, away from the sandy beaches and cloud reaching skyscrapers, lies one of the most unique areas the the city has to offer.
City Heights is more than just another neighborhood. It is a section of town known for its incredible diversity, and the largely immigrant and refugee populated community is becoming a symbol of multicultural unity in the face of widespread hatred and American social unrest in 2017.
City Heights is nestled between two major highways and two bustling urban streets. To the west is Interstate 805. To the east is Euclid Avenue. State Route 94 borders to the south and the always active El Cajon Boulevard sits to the north. In the early 90’s, despite massive objections from residents, CalTrans bulldozed an eight-lane trench and ran a new section of Interstate 15 straight through the center of the neighborhood.
With a population of over 70,000 people in an area just over four square miles, City Heights has long been perceived as a highly congested shell. The neighborhood has often been pigeonholed as a bastion for violence and crime, and with stereotyping comes a propensity to only tell part of the story.
Over the last few weeks, I have been blessed to find myself immersed in a marvelous aspect of City Heights. On the surface, it’s an aspect of pure positivity. It has nothing to do with violence, drugs, and crime. But others may argue that is has everything to do with those subjects, in the way of a direct correlation to forever kicking those things out of the minds of neighborhood youth, their families, and the collective brain of the community.
The game of soccer is a magical thing, possessing spiritual qualities while maintaining itself as the ultimate raw and natural sporting construct. In City Heights, the game serves as the ultimate harmonizer.
In the final days of February and into the first week of March, both public high schools in City Heights had Boys Varsity Soccer teams making runs to the CIF Section Finals, the Hoover Cardinals in Division 3, and the Crawford Colts at the Division 4 level, Crawford winning their first league championship in ten years.
Though both schools suffered heartbreaking defeats in their section final matches, both by identical 2-1 scorelines (Crawford to Holtsville and Hoover to Del Norte) the narrative of what their seasons mean to a grander social purpose in San Diego and beyond is far from lost.
I became enamored with the Crawford story, as a result of multiple members of the school staff reaching out to SoccerNation. Little did I know, the Crawford story would become something much greater and open more doors into the incredible footballing culture that exists in City Heights.
I met with Crawford Head Coach Chassion Griggs in late February. We shared a fascinating chat on his soccer background, and why as “a white boy from Fresno” he feels so at home at Crawford, and finds such fulfillment in being a part of the City Heights soccer community.
“The best part about Crawford,” Griggs said, “is that it’s a microcosm of what this country has claimed to represent for so long. We are a country built by immigrants.”
“We’re living in a time of fear right now, a time when there’s a lot of unknowns for the people of City Heights, be it because of Trump’s Refugee Ban, new immigration laws, or so many other issues. But here at Crawford, there’s a certainty and a true sense of belonging that can’t be taken away.”
I then met the Crawford squad, including Aweyso Aweyso (originally from Kenya) and Tin Nguyen (hailing from Vietnam), both graduating seniors in 2017 and the first Crawford players to garner college soccer scholarships, Aweyso soon to be attending Cal State Dominguez Hills and Nguyen heading Cal State East Bay.
Among 21 players, plus Coach Griggs and his assistant Abullahi Osman (a 22 year-old former Colts player with the proud nickname of the Mayor of City Heights), there were 15 different nationalities in the 2016/17 Crawford squad, young men from Somalia, Mexico, Tanzania, Sudan, Bermuda, Haiti, Yemen, Guatemala, Burundi, Thailand, Karen, Congo, Kenya, Vietnam, and these United States. There were refugees, immigrants, Muslims, Christians, and Catholics. And while cultural pride was most definitely palpable from every individual, as soon as a practice or game began, there was suddenly only one identity for everyone in the group. That identity was Crawford, and Crawford in so many ways is City Heights to its truest core.
“There are so many different languages spoken at this school and in this neighborhood,” Griggs said. “We have so many kids who struggle to communicate with one another, let alone speak English. But billions of people around this world speak the language of soccer, and that’s what we speak here at Crawford.”
I was then introduced by Griggs to Osman, realizing that he is far more than just an assistant coach.
“I’m fluent in Spanish, Swahili, French, and of course English,” said Osman. “It’s amazing to be able to help kids on our team and all around my home neighborhood communicate with one another, and it’s great to be able to use soccer, the game I love, as a vehicle.”
“I don’t know what the heck I’d do without him,” Griggs said with a bright smile.
There’s also a new language at Crawford, utilizing key words as means of in-game communication for a team of players from a multitude of linguistic backgrounds.
“There’s an elementary school nearby called Ibarra,” Griggs said. “It’s where all the boys have been playing small pick up games for years. It can get a little individualistic out there, boys wanting to go all street soccer. We preach a team first mentality here, but there’s times when a player is in a 1 v. 1 situation with an opponent, and I want him to take that defender on. So in those situations, we yell ‘IBARRA! IBARRA!’, meaning ‘go at him’.”
“We had a team this season complain to the refs that it was unfair for our team to basically have our own code talk. I wanted to say, ‘unfair!? Try coaching or playing on a team where there’s ten different languages in play!”
Griggs shared hours worth of City Heights and Crawford related stories with me that ranged from heartfelt to hilarious. He spoke of playing in a Ramadan indoor soccer tournament put on last summer, when each team was “allowed one non-Muslim player”.
“I played with the Kenyan team,” he said. “It was an incredible experience, because the games couldn’t take place until almost midnight, with everyone fasting throughout the day. My team was smart. They used their one Christian spot to get a goalkeeper. I made sure I was on my game between the pipes. We won the whole thing!”
“I’m pretty proud of that tournament win. It was a really special experience, and I particularly enjoy sharing it with anybody that’s closed-minded. A white Christian man playing goalie for a team of black Muslims. It’s pretty cool, and it should open some eyes in terms of where our priorities lie.”
One of the most unforgettable experiences within this Crawford tale was being able to attend their Division 4 section semifinal, a 3-0 win against the San Diego Jewish Academy at the neutral site of Lincoln High School.
The mere fact that on the field that day were young men of just about every possible skin tone and a handful of major world religions was a fascinating concept in and of itself. One fan remarked, “this would be a war in some places, but here it’s just a really good soccer game.”
That day I met multiple individuals who would quickly become integral parts of this story. One of those people was Crawford Cheer Coach and Spirit Coordinator Adrienne Randle.
I was blown away at the level of student support for the Colts’ Soccer team, around a hundred Crawford students, including a half dozen cheerleaders, making the short trip to Lincoln for the semifinal affair.
“We’re all about supporting our boys,” Randle said with an uncanny enthusiasm. “I call them my babies. We’d be here for them rain or shine.”
I discussed the diversity of Crawford and City Heights with Randle, who echoed many of the same sentiments that were shared by Griggs and Osman in the days prior.
“We are proud of our diversity. At Crawford, we don’t care what color you are. We’re all the same. We’re all Colts.”
Randle then referenced a group of girls that were sitting alongside the cheer team. They were all wearing hijabs, the traditional veil worn by Muslim women, their attire in stark contrast to the bright blue and red cheerleader uniforms of the girls sitting beside them.
“Where some of those girls come from, being a cheerleader really ain’t a thing,” Randle said. “They told me recently that they were interested in being a part of our cheer team, but that they were a little nervous about it. So I said ‘hey, you girls need to just come on out and hang with us.’ If after a while they feel comfortable enough to join the team, then they’re on the team. If they’re still a little nervous, that’s fine. They can just keep on hanging out with us as long as they want. They’re a part of our family now.”
I soon realized that the mindset put forth by Randle, Griggs, Osman, Athletic Director Kelcie Butcher and so many more in regards to Crawford was a mindset that is so firmly rooted in City Heights.
Up in the stands that day at Lincoln was Jose De Los Santos, the Varsity Boys Soccer Coach at Hoover. There is a fantastic rivalry between Hoover and Crawford, a memorable and quite heated 2-2 draw the most recent result between the two teams, a match that saw Crawford clinch the league title.
But for section playoffs, Hoover and Crawford are in separate divisions, meaning any kind of rivalry driven animosity goes out the window. Each team is flying the flag of City Heights.
“They had a bunch of players up in the stands at our last game,” De Los Santos said of the Crawford squad. “They were cheering us on. It’s only right that me and a few of our boys come out to support them.”
“Most of these boys grew up playing together, and when Hoover and Crawford go toe-to-toe, it’s a chance to play against childhood friends and have bragging rights that will last a lifetime. For us, those games are as big as Real Madrid vs. Barcelona, Chivas vs. America, Boca vs. River… We leave it all out on the field. Nobody ever wants to lose and it can get quite emotional. But once those games end for us, we all have each other’s backs. We all know what it’s like to be up against all the odds. We drive and encourage each other to be better. I don’t think there could be a Crawford without Hoover and there can’t be a Hoover without Crawford.”
De Los Santos is another man who sees City Heights’ soccer culture as an opportunity to shine a positive light on the neighborhood and defeat the stereotypes that plague the broader perception.
“This is such a diverse community that we call our home. City Heights brings people together from all over the world. When you input soccer into the whole equation, you are capable of bringing the beauty of all these cultures together.”
“When you’re from the inner city, it can feel like everyone is looking down on you. But soccer gives these boys opportunity. It gives them the opportunity to show what they can do. It gives them the opportunity to show that they can offer just as much as anyone else, regardless of where they’re from. That gives them an extra boost of motivation. Soccer can be the difference maker in their lives.”
Duach Jock, a professional player currently with the So Cal Surf, is a man immensely proud of his City Heights upbringing. Jock’s life and soccer career have come full circle in recent years as a result of being called into the South Sudan National Team, Jock becoming a staple in the squad that formed soon after South Sudan gained its independence in 2011. Since then, he has suited up in African Cup of Nations qualifiers against some of the biggest names in African soccer, and South Sudan already has its collective eyes focused on qualification for the AFCON of 2019. Seated next to me that afternoon, Jock shared a similar outlook on City Heights to that of De Los Santos.
“Soccer has always been a way for me to connect with people,” Jock said. “A way to make friends out of complete strangers. It was also a way to stay out of trouble, growing up in a neighborhood that was sadly plagued by gangs and violence throughout the 90’s and early 2000’s.”
“Crawford and Hoover are just over a mile apart! All the kids know each other. Some of them might even live in the same apartment complex. They grow up playing together in neighborhood parks and community outreach centers. And then there’s that rivalry.”
“It’s so important to point out that at the foundation of the rivalry between Crawford and Hoover is the desire to represent the neighborhood, to represent City Heights. Seeing both schools flying the flag of late is incredible to see. I want that to be something that inspires kids from all around City Heights, kids from different cultures who speak different languages, but come together with the same love of the game of soccer and a love for the neighborhood that they all call home.”
“In competition, we can all come together and make each other better, both as soccer players and as people.”
During my conversations with Chassion Griggs, the Crawford coach brought up his recent efforts to help revive the old “African Sunday League” in City Heights. He mentioned Duach Jock’s name as someone who could be a true ambassador in the process. I asked Duach about the league, and what it all meant.
“Man, growing up in City Heights, we ALL looked forward to Sundays. Whether we were playing in the games or just watching, those African League games were always the place to be.”
“I started playing in the games when I was 13,” Jock said. “I was playing against grown men. It helped shape me and make me into the player and the person I am today.”
“There was a Sudanese team, a South Sudanese team, a Somalian team, an Ethiopian team, a Kenyan team, and many more. People took pride in those teams, and always wanted to win. There was some amazing soccer played in those games, soccer that was at times as good as some of the teams I’ve played for in my career. But most of all, it was an experience for the people of City Heights. Kids got to hang out at the field all day. People, young and old, got to share great conversations and get to know each other better. When Chassion and I talk about reviving the old African League, this is why. I want kids in the neighborhood now to have those same experiences.”
Alongside us at the Crawford semifinal match was Chudier Pelpel, a woman who moved with her South Sudanese family from an Ethiopian Refugee Camp to City Heights in 1998. She has recently launched a clothing line called Third World.
“I call the brand Third World for a reason,” Pelpel said. “I want to spotlight all the beautiful and powerful things that come out of these “third world” countries, whether in Africa or anywhere in the world.”
“So often when people do stories on refugees, or even athletes or creative stars in America with rough backgrounds, I feel like the stories focus on nothing more than the background. I’m always like, wait a second, how about the rest of the story!? How about spotlighting all the wonderful things this person has done and accomplished.”
“The part about them being a refugee, an immigrant, or growing up in a tough neighborhood in America, that’s just a small part of a much bigger story.”
Both Pelpel and Jock have found an elegantly simple way to sum up their mindsets, which are attached to one specific word.
“With the lives we’ve been able to lead,” Jock said. “We’ve been given the opportunity to give opportunity.”
“What’s truly important,” Pelpel added, “is what we do with these opportunities. We have a chance to give back.”
Thanks to the phenomenal efforts of the players at Crawford and Hoover, and the dedicated outreach and assistance of so many in the City Heights community, yours truly has been given an opportunity to shine a light on the beautiful footballing culture of San Diego’s most diverse neighborhood.
Regardless of the season, that light will not be turning off anytime soon.
Soccer in City Heights is alive and well, at Hoover, at Crawford, and in the community as a whole. But those who care deeply are by no means content.
There is work to do, and rest assured, it will be done. For the good of the game. For the good of the neighborhood. For the good of City Heights.