HARD KNOCK DOESnot produce a lot of uplifting news. One of Oakland's toughest neighborhoods,the 30-block area of low-income housing, liquor stores and pawn shops has arising murder rate and double-digit unemployment. Even its sports prospectshave been dim. Castlemont High, the school that serves Hard Knock, has been theperennial doormat of the Oakland Athletic League. But this year the Knightshave given the neighborhood something to cheer about. Led by coach Amin Denny,who has installed a new offense and a winning attitude even as he battlescancer, Castlemont has put together an improbable run. The Knights, 3--8 lastyear, will take their 7--2 record into the regular-season finale thisSaturday--with a shot at their first league title since '68.
"We got thekids to buy into the program," says assistant coach Lloyd Johnson, whohelped implement the spread offense this season, a move that has seen theKnights average 26.3 points, a jump of 18 points over last season. "Thisteam is proof that even in Hard Knock, good things can happen to goodpeople."
Castlemont hassome big-time talent--senior linebacker Richard Lee, senior receiver-cornerbackBrandon Davis and junior cornerback--running back Dwight Armstrong are DivisionI prospects--but the Knights' revival owes much to fourth-year coach Denny, alinebacker on the '83 team that had Castlemont's last winning record. Denny,40, had already brought more intensity and innovation to the program when hewas diagnosed with colon cancer early this year. "After Coach told us aboutthe cancer," says Lee, who leads the team in tackles, "we said we weregoing to dedicate the season to Coach and give him a reason to keepfighting." Besides adding the spread offense, which allows them to takeadvantage of their exceptional speed at the skill positions, the team has beenmore disciplined, decreasing penalties by 50% from last year.
Denny, a fatherof four girls, has endured two surgeries and chemotherapy since February. Hehas lost 50 pounds and is often too weak to stand during games--but he cansurprise his players. With the Knights trailing Oakland Tech 13--12 in thethird quarter on Oct. 27, a Castlemont receiver drew a penalty for excessivecelebration. Denny leaped off the bench and chased the referee along thesideline. "Seeing Coach running around gets all of us hyped," saysDavis. After that play the Knights ran off 18 straight points to win 30--13 on673 yards of total offense. "These kids inspire me," says Denny."The pain goes away when I'm on the field."
Castlemont'simmediate challenge is to get by league leaders McClymonds and Skyline; withDenny's help they have an outside chance. "My family and doctors would likeme to give up coaching, but I can't," Denny says. "They're specialkids."