Westmont Magazine A Movie Memorial
Paul Higa never got to watch the film based on his life’s work; he died in April, months before it premiered in September. His widow, Jane Hideko Higa ’73, vice president for student life at Westmont, walked down the red carpet at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre without him.
“Gridiron Gang” tells the story of two juvenile detention camp probation officers who turned a group of hardcore teenage felons into a high school football team. The officers worked for Paul, the chief probation officer for Los Angles County who supported their activities. The movie stars Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and veteran actor Leon Rippy plays Paul.
Filmmaker Lee Stanley had long been involved with violent juvenile offenders when he approached Paul about making the television documentary “Gridiron Gang.” It won an Emmy Award in 1993. “Paul and I respected each other from the get-go,” Stanley says. “I had success on five or six other shows inside juvenile facilities, and probation had been using my projects to help promote their causes. I told him what I wanted to do. I told him I’d honor him and what he does. And he said ‘Great, let’s go make a movie.’”
Producer Neal H. Moritz saw the documentary and says he was so moved that he knew he had to make it into a feature film. He enlisted screenwriter Jeff McGuire; the documentary had inspired him to volunteer at a prison camp. Stanley wanted to film the movie at the camp, which required taking over the facility for six weeks.
“(Paul’s) only concern was about the kids and how they would benefit,” Stanley says. The film crew decided to conduct a film production class on the camp grounds for the wards.
“We made our movie and, sadly, Paul never saw it,” Stanley says. On April 8, Paul died a week after suffering a massive stroke. He was 53.
Maggie Brandow, head of a mental health advocacy group, said in Paul’s obituary that he gave his life for the youth in the Los Angeles juvenile justice system. “Rarely have I known someone who worked so tirelessly, passionately and consumedly for a cause in which he sincerely believed,” Brandow says. “Paul believed in kids who have gone astray, kids who come from poverty, inadequate parenting, domestic violence, child abuse, drug addiction, mental illness, or gang life. He believed that we have a responsibility to care for them, guide them, protect them, and ensure their growth.”
Stanley says he hopes audiences will be moved to invest time in these young people.“These kids don’t care what you think unless they think you care,” he says. “That’s really the message that comes through loud and clear in this. We can never give up hope. Everyone deserves a second chance, and, as we say, some of these kids never had a first chance.”