A program to keep teens out of trouble
By R.E. Graswich
There was nothing lovely about the old brick building at 3520 Fifth Ave. The roof leaked. The second-floor gym reeked of sweat and leather. But for years, the place was a magic castle.
Young people climbed the stairs and left the streets behind. They pounded the heavy bag, skipped rope, shadow boxed and learned to properly throw and take punches.
The Oak Park building was home to the Police Athletic League boxing program, the city’s premier recreational safe ground for underserved young people, ages 7 to 17. As Mayor Darrell Steinberg and the City Council ponder why today’s teens become tomorrow’s gangsters, the answer is found among the ghosts of 3520 Fifth Ave.
Throughout the 1980s, the PAL boxing program, alongside PAL soccer, softball and basketball leagues, served 2,000 kids annually.
PAL programs were inexpensive, inclusive and organized. They proved youth sports led by volunteer cops can inspire kids and teach confidence and maturity.
This is how it happened.
In 1974, a Sacramento police officer named Otis Grimble started a youth boxing team. Grimble had nine pupils, but lacked a ring and equipment. He knew about police athletic leagues in other cities, knew they worked, knew Sacramento had nothing similar.
Joined by fellow cops, Grimble founded Sacramento PAL. They rented a loft above an auto shop at 14th and R streets with help from the Police Officers Association. Money came from a popular new charity, a football game between cops and deputies, the Pig Bowl.
PAL needed a gym, and Grimble was lucky. Earthquake-safety regulations forced several old school sites to close. One was Lincoln School at Third and P streets. Lincoln was perfect. Grimble built a ring in the gym and acquired equipment. PAL boxing was in business.
People who encountered Otis Grimble weren’t likely to forget him. Intense and boiling with energy, he moved like a welterweight. His tight, short-sleeved dark blue police uniform called attention to his muscular arms, worthy of a blacksmith.
He loved amateur boxing and promoted the sport relentlessly, believing its power and authority could reform the most troubled teenager.
“I can’t estimate the number of youngsters we’ve kept off the streets, who have been steered in the right direction through the PAL’s basketball and boxing programs,” he said in 1981.
PAL thrived under Grimble’s leadership and marketing skills. But by 1983, Lincoln School was set for demolition. The program needed a new home. After flirting with a costly rehab at Donner School on Eighth Avenue, PAL settled on 3520 Fifth Ave., former home of the city recreation department.
The old brick building soon became a boxing landmark. When former heavyweight champ George Foreman trained for a comeback in 1987, he went to Fifth Avenue.
Then something terrible happened. On Feb. 14, 1988, Otis Grimble killed himself. His reasons were never made public. He was 50, a cop for 23 years, married with three kids.
After Grimble’s death, PAL began a slow decline. Kids stopped showing up. Drug dealers commandeered Fifth Avenue.
The boxing ring was dismantled, the training equipment sold in 2001. Today the building is gone, replaced by a church.
The story doesn’t end here. PAL recovered and found relevance in rugby. Dozens of kids signed up. The name was changed from Police Athletic League to Police Activities League, reflecting a broader mission.
The pandemic delivered new setbacks. Rugby uniforms sat in boxes when the 2020 season was canceled. Other programs—fishing in local ponds, skiing and snowboarding at Donner Ski Ranch, even a nascent boxing team—were suspended.
“We were going pretty good, especially with rugby, but COVID-19 pretty much wiped us out,” says police Sgt. Ryan Enkoji, who oversees PAL. “We’re in the process of reorganizing, but it’s slow, what with retirements and officers not having a lot of time to volunteer.”
The City Council spends millions on youth programs and is eager to spend more. How about a few bucks for PAL?
As youth programs go, none threw a better punch.
R.E. Graswich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.