'Football mansion' causes neighborhood rift in Ukiah

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About Mendocino College

PROFILE: A two-year, tax-supported community college.

FOUNDED: The college was formed in 1972 as the Mendocino-Lake Community College District by a vote of Anderson Valley, Laytonville, Potter Valley, Round Valley, Ukiah and Willits school districts. First classes were offered in July 1973.

CAMPUSES: Main campus is about 3 miles north of downtown Ukiah, with branch facilities in Willits and Lakeport.

ENROLLMENT: Approximately 5,000.

ATHLETICS: The college fields intercollegiate teams in football, men’s and women’s basketball, men’s soccer, volleyball and women’s golf.

MASCOT: Eagles.

— Press Democrat news services

Editor's note: First of two parts. Coming next: Broke before school starts.

UKIAH — The people who just vacated it called it “the mansion.” It had been a retirement home called Silver Birches, and then sort of a halfway house for young people who had aged out of the foster-care system. It’s a rambling, 15-room home on Hortense Street here, on a tidy block just a few streets removed from the main drag, with a Colonial revival vibe and a plum tree in the front yard.

It’s just a house, but it recently became the heart of a neighborhood dispute, and then a flashpoint in the relationship between Ukiah and its community college, and possibly the symbol of a national athletic system that has lost its balance.

Each year, young men barely out of high school pack bags and fly all over the country to pursue their football dreams. Many of these young men gravitate to California. Some wind up at relatively remote campuses like Mendocino College, which is nestled against the grassy hills outside of Ukiah.

In May, as many as 30 hopeful student-athletes packed into the house on Hortense Street, a lodging designed for, at most, 20 people. They were young, generally of modest means and African-American, in a neighborhood that skewed older, white and financially comfortable.

From the start, it was an uneasy arrangement.

“The first days those guys moved into the house, I got an email,” Mendocino College football coach Frank Espy said. “Not saying, like, welcome. It was more like, ‘We see you moving in.’ ”

Relations got worse through the summer. Neighbors complained of trash piling up, and of commotion. They wrote a letter to Espy and asked for additional police patrols on Hortense Street. Someone created a log of “Events-Issues-Problems” at the house, the earliest dated June 30, the latest Aug. 14. Most of the complaints had to do with late-night noise. Some seemed nitpicky, such as this entry from July 14: “Suspicious vehicle parked on Hortense. … Police called and made contact.”

The subjects of those police calls, some as young as 18, acknowledge they could be loud in a typical college-student way, but insist the accusations are out of proportion.

“These guys don’t party,” Espy concurred. “I expected one big party. Never got it. Never got that one big party, the kind you may see in a movie. It never transpired.”

The college kids tried to smooth things over. A few went door to door and introduced themselves. They had a big barbecue at the mansion and invited neighbors. One woman brought potato salad. A few hours later, as the gathering lingered, she called the police.

The conflict came to a head on Aug. 20, when surrounding residents led by former mayor Fred Schneiter submitted a petition to the Ukiah City Council calling the house a “student dormitory” and arguing that the rental violated the city’s zoning code. At least 25 people signed on.

Barry Vogel, who lives in the neighborhood, found out about the petition when someone knocked on his door and asked for his signature. Vogel not only refused to sign, he took up the students’ cause.

“I cannot sit quietly and know that this is going on in my neighborhood,” said Vogel, a lawyer whose office is six blocks from the mansion. “I think that the concept of acquiescence is wrong here, in this issue.”

About Mendocino College

PROFILE: A two-year, tax-supported community college.

FOUNDED: The college was formed in 1972 as the Mendocino-Lake Community College District by a vote of Anderson Valley, Laytonville, Potter Valley, Round Valley, Ukiah and Willits school districts. First classes were offered in July 1973.

CAMPUSES: Main campus is about 3 miles north of downtown Ukiah, with branch facilities in Willits and Lakeport.

ENROLLMENT: Approximately 5,000.

ATHLETICS: The college fields intercollegiate teams in football, men’s and women’s basketball, men’s soccer, volleyball and women’s golf.

MASCOT: Eagles.

— Press Democrat news services

Vogel found allies in current Ukiah Mayor Steve Scalmanini, Ukiah United Methodist Church pastor Judy Shook and her husband, community activist Peter Barrett. Their visits to the house on Hortense Street disturbed them.

They found young men sleeping on air mattresses and reclining chairs, often three to a room. The house had no heat, no hot water, paltry eating utensils and no supervision except for the older players who lived there. The carpet was dirty, and there were a few holes in the plaster walls.

Valery Lawton, whose son Alexander O’Neal recently left the team, recalled a recent trip to Ukiah to check on her son.

“I’m thinking, OK, when I get there I’m gonna make them a big meal. I’ll make a big pot of chili or something. My kid’s been living on the McDonald’s dollar menu,” said Lawton, a self-described “football mom” who works as a Realtor and program manager for the Florida Department of Health and lives in the Panhandle town of Chipley. “He didn’t even want me to come inside the house.”

Lawton described O’Neal as a nearly OCD neatnik who rewashes dishes when he’s at home. Put off by the less-than-sanitary conditions on Hortense Street, O’Neal chose to sleep in his car for a week in August. Lawton said she was losing her mind with worry.

“You can’t focus on school when your immediate needs aren’t met,” she said. “How are you gonna study in your car?”

Opinion varied on the level of disarray, though. Will Rutledge, who calls himself the resident assistant of the mansion, said: “It was never bad. We moved into a perfect house. There was nothing wrong.”

Yes, the house was without hot water, Rutledge said — for about two weeks. It was restored, then went out again as the old water heater balked.

Even more elemental than their living arrangement, though, many of the players were struggling to buy food, even as they worked through the rigors of practice and games in the 100-degree heat of a Ukiah summer.

Players concentrated on football when they were on the field. “But as soon as it goes fourth quarter, 0:00 (on the clock), you start to think about food,” said Brandon Mills, a 20-year-old defensive back from Seattle.

Shook and the other benefactors organized a response. It included deliveries through Plowshares, a Ukiah nonprofit that provides free hot meals to those in need.

All in all, the out-of-state players have seen the best and worst of Ukiah. Some neighbors brought food and prayed with them. Others were blatantly hostile in a town where big, young black guys are easily identified as college athletes.

Carlos James, a baby-faced defensive tackle from Seattle, said he and a teammate were walking along the road one day when a car full of white people drove by; the driver intentionally swerved toward them, close enough to make them jump out of the way. Two players recalled a little girl at the Dollar Tree store downtown using the N-word when she saw a couple players. To their dismay, none of the adults in earshot said a thing about it.

Quickly, the residence on Hortense became a battleground. How, Vogel and his fellow advocates wondered, could a college and its football program allow student-athletes to live in such squalor?

The organizers aired their grievances at a Sept. 26 meeting at the college, a conference attended by Espy, athletic director Matt Gordon, Mendocino College president Arturo Reyes and several football players.

School officials felt blindsided by the presence of a reporter from the Ukiah Daily Journal. They expressed sympathy for their players, but argued that the rules and regulations of the California Community College Athletic Association, which governs junior-college sports in this state, prohibits any hands-on assistance.

“We’re not giving money for housing for our non-athlete students who are in need of housing,” Gordon told The Press Democrat. “And therefore, we can’t do it for athletes.”

Those on the other side of the issue were not swayed.

“If the college says it can’t help them with housing because of restrictions, then the college has a moral conundrum,” Vogel stated. “If they say, ‘We’re going to bring them into our school and let them go hungry, let them go homeless,’ they have to say that, and say, ‘This is the choice we’re making.’ And I’m ashamed a college in Mendocino County is doing that.”

Vogel said that Reyes acknowledged to him that the housing of student-athletes has been a problem.

“The fact that the college president knew about it for 3½ years, and it’s been going on 30 years, and he does nothing, that should be publicized,” Vogel said.

Meanwhile, the owner of the house on Hortense, Dr. Robert Gitlin, told the residents they had to vacate by Oct. 7. Some had fallen behind on rent, and Gitlin was feeling the heat from angry neighbors.

Friday, the remaining occupants were packing up belongings and pondering their next moves.

Gitlin had conveniently offered some of them another of his properties, a big lodge north of Willits. No one interviewed at the mansion was planning to bite on that offer. The lodge is 23 miles from campus, up a curving road with few lights and little shoulder.

“These guys come home from an away game, it’s maybe 1 or 2 in the morning, how are they gonna get up that hill?” Lawton asked. “They say there’s a bus, but I understand the bus runs three times a day, and they have to walk 2 miles down to get it.”

Most of the evicted Mendocino players had no idea where they would live next. One, Djmitri Pierre-Lewis, said he and a friend planned to buy a tent at Wal-Mart and live in it. Rutledge said Pierre-Lewis was kidding. He may have been kidding.

“I’m staying to finish out the semester,” one player announced. But Mills said: “Going home is about 90-10 right now.”

On the field, the Eagles are 3-2 (they had a bye this weekend), and players and coaches alike are convinced the team might be undefeated if it weren’t for recent disruptions, which have included several transfers and dropouts. Up for debate is the root cause. Some players said the constant stress of coming up with money for rent and food had worn them down. Espy and Rutledge felt the media scrutiny was just as harmful.

“I hope this’ll be the last reporter we talk to,” said Rutledge, a 24-year-old running back from Atlanta. “Because having me talk to the press, talking to different people, it ain’t helping. Only thing it’s doing is making me more madder.”

Friday, as many as 10-12 players gathered in a bedroom at the mansion to describe their experience. They struck a serious tone at times, but also goofed and laughed. It made sense to ask: After all that has transpired, do you have qualms about coming to Ukiah in the first place?

Several immediately replied “yeah” in a chorus. One kid added a “hell, yeah.”

“If we go in the streets and throw a football, someone’s gonna call the police on us,” a young man said.

James, the big D-tackle, was more succinct. “We had no business being here,” he said.

You can reach staff writer Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com.

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