The man who discovered the most enthralling player in college football is just another suburban dad tutoring 8-year-olds in the art of the toss sweep. They gathered around him on a recent weeknight at Holmes Memorial Stadium in Diamond Bar, Calif. The little Diamond Valley Steelers were decked out in their black-and-gold uniforms. He showed them how to pitch the ball, how to catch it with two hands and how to cradle it like a favorite stuffed animal. He called plays in the huddle—"28 toss right"—and when one of his tailbacks fumbled, he barked, "We're better than that!" He sounded like your typical Pop Warner coach until practice was over and he summoned the boys to take a knee on the shiny artificial turf. You knew his pep talk might break from the norm when he started dancing near the 50-yard line. "Repeat after me," he instructed, eyes sparkling behind his green-rimmed sunglasses. "I want you spooned and groomed, dipped and whipped, suited and booted, gooted and looted."
The Steelers appeared confused and delighted at the same time. "Coach Snoop," one of them blurted later, "what does that mean?"
Seven years ago Snoop Dogg established a youth football league in Los Angeles that was predictably unorthodox. Fathers with criminal records were allowed to coach. Touchdown celebrations were permitted and occasionally encouraged. Snoop's team, the SYFL Rowland Raiders, cruised to road games in a tour bus with 27 TV screens and 70 speakers. More than 1,000 underprivileged kids from South L.A. signed up, and not because of the pimped ride: Entrance fees were only $100, with 50% off for siblings, and most of the chapters were in inner-city neighborhoods near their homes. Among the first generation of players was a 12-year-old running back named De'Anthony Thomas, who joined the Crenshaw Bears.
On a Saturday afternoon in the fall of 2005, the Bears played the Raiders at Holmes Memorial, back when the field was grass and dirt. Snoop sat in the bleachers with his buddies Big D and Mike Smoov, and Big D said the Bears were going to win. Snoop bet him $200 they wouldn't. "The Bears got a guy who will score every time he touches the ball," Big D claimed.
Snoop chuckled. "Yeah, right," he said.
On the opening kickoff, De'Anthony fielded the ball six yards deep in the end zone and brought it out. "You couldn't even really see him," says Smoov. "He was a cloud of dust."
Snoop felt $200 leaving his pocket. "I think it took him seven seconds to get to the end zone," Snoop says. "He was like a snake in the grass." Snoop grabbed his phone and called a friend from Crenshaw known as Coach K Mac. "I just saw somebody," Snoop said, "and I've got to know his name."
K Mac didn't need a description. "Oh," he replied. "That must be the Black Mamba."
Snoop rushed up to the press box, grabbed the microphone reserved for the public address announcer and hollered over and over again, "The Black Mamba!" Down on the field, De'Anthony didn't know what the term meant or why one of the world's most famous rappers seemed to be speaking in tongues, but his childhood would never be the same.
Thomas sits on a couch in the lobby of the Casanova Center, home of the Oregon athletic department, as a construction crew hammers away at yet another addition. A lineman from the 1970s named Mike Williams spots Thomas and approaches. Williams explains that he lives in Los Angeles and has been following the Mamba for years. "It's still kind of weird to me," Thomas says. "I was just playing the game I love, and I ended up in the spotlight."