At that point in his 15 years of life, Cesar Munoz just didn’t care.
He sat in the principal’s office of Leadership Public School in Richmond, and even though he faced expulsion for what school administrators called “causing danger in the school,” he still just didn’t care. Munoz wanted to be anywhere but where he was—hanging out with his friends and partying—but instead, he awaited judgment.
Soon enough, it came.
The principal, sitting behind his desk, told Munoz he would be expelled from Leadership for trying to recruit members to his gang. Munoz had joined the gang, Richmond Squad, as a freshman, and now as a sophomore, the lifestyle consumed him. Recruitment was a facet of “putting in work” he had to do, and if it got him expelled, so be it. Munoz still just did not care.
Then, the principal said something Munoz will never forget.
“You’re a menace to society,” he said, looking Munoz square in the eye as he said it.
“Honestly, at that moment, I just wanted to walk out but I couldn’t,” Munoz said. “I just had to stay there until my dad came.”
Looking at him now, it’s hard to believe how far Munoz has come in just two years.
Munoz, now 17, is a lineman on the Richmond High football team, a team leader and a jovial presence. He smiles when he talks and seems to emit positive energy. He’s getting good grades in school and for once, has a plan for his future. All of this, he attributes to joining the football team.
“Basically football, it changed my life,” Munoz said. “It made me see things differently.”
Before, Munoz saw the world through the eyes of a gang member. At 14 years old, he joined Richmond Squad, or “R-S” as it is also known.
“My friends told me I should join, and I just felt like I might as well do it. I didn’t have anything else to do. That was a stupid decision, obviously,” Munoz said.
He joined Richmond Squad by getting jumped in at one of the bathrooms at his old school, Leadership. He said it lasted about 15 seconds, and after that, he was official. Now gang affiliated, he and his friends spent most of their time near Central and First Street, just partying and hanging out.
After a few months things got more serious. He and his crew started “beefing” with other local crews, frequently getting into fights. Sometimes it would be a friend and sometimes it would be Munoz starting it off. Either way, he and his gang would jump into the fray to help each other out.
A year later, when he was expelled from Leadership for recruiting, things got worse. Munoz left the principal’s office that day with his father, but decided that he did not want to go home. Instead, he ran away from his dad and hid in an alley.
He had 30 dollars, his phone and a bus pass on him.
Munoz then walked from Richmond to El Cerrito, where he stayed with one of his friends for a few days. His parents cancelled his cell phone, and he knew he would eventually have to go home to whatever fate awaited him.
“In the back of my mind it bothered me,” Munoz said, “But there was that other part saying, ‘Nah, it’s whatever. I’m gonna keep doing what I’m doing.”
After three days, Munoz went back home. He continued to put in his time with his gang, but was more discreet after that.
He transferred to Richmond High for the rest of his sophomore year, but that didn’t snap Munoz out of his rut.
“There was always problems. Always fights and stuff,” Munoz said. “I was still with it. I made a shirt [that] was black, long sleeves. I put the letters ‘R-S’ in old English on it. I would come to school in it on certain days to represent.”
Some of Munoz’s friends from the gang went to Richmond High too, but Munoz admits he was making these choices on his own.
“Either way, I was the one causing more problems because I was the one representing it,” Munoz said. “It got to the point where everybody knew me as someone who banged.”
Things began to change the summer following his sophomore year.
One of the veteran members of the gang, who had just gotten out of jail, told Munoz that he wasn’t putting in enough work. Munoz told another one of his “big homies” about the accusation, and they all agreed to meet about it.
Munoz did not know that he was walking into an ambush.
When he got there, the two older guys and a third member jumped him. “I assumed they’re just playing around, but then they started swinging,” Munoz said. “All I could do was try to get up, but I couldn’t. I just had to cover my face, they were trying to stomp on me,” he said.
After that incident, Munoz began to reconsider his alliance to Richmond Squad.
“I started thinking, ‘Do I need to be with them anyway?’ but I stayed with it,” Munoz said. “There was still a part of me holding me back.”
During summer school, he and his friends got into a fight near Richmond High, which resulted in someone pulling out a gun and aiming it in their direction. What could have been a fatal encounter turned out to be one of temporary grace: Munoz wasn’t in danger because the gunmen was actually a cousin of one of Munoz’s friends. Everyone scattered at the sight of the gun, allowing Munoz and his crew to get away.
“We were relieved,” said Munoz, with a deep exhale.
Again, Munoz began to seriously consider leaving that lifestyle behind. This time, he had some motivation.
“She didn’t like me because I was too much of a thug and she liked good boys. So I decided to change,” Munoz said.
To show her he could be a good guy, Munoz decided to go out for the football team in 2012. At first, he practiced with the JV squad, which he did not like.
“I was like, ‘Man, I don’t wanna be on JV’ so I decided I was only gonna go that day and not come back the next,” Munoz said.
But the next day, he went back.
The varsity coaches invited him to practice with them, and Munoz discovered a new passion.
“Joining football I just…I fell in love with it,” he said. “I sucked at first, but over time, I got better. I started being good. Started doing my work in school.”
Now Munoz stays on track. He is doing well in school and tries to reach out to other kids he sees making the same bad decisions that he used to make.
“I give them advice from my perspective. Trying to help them to avoid getting caught up,” Munoz.
Munoz says his entire life has changed now that he is no longer affiliated with a gang. But he does not regret the path he took.
“People ask me if I could do it over, would I change anything. And my honest response is, I wouldn’t,” he said. “All the things I did in my past made me who I am today. I learned from it, and I don’t regret it. But I am a better person now.”
Football has provided Munoz the kind of salvation he could not find elsewhere. The best part, he says, is that he knows he now makes his parents proud.
“My mom and dad are really proud. Especially my dad. He’s seen me go down a bad road, but now he comes to my games. He’s happy to see me doing good,” he said.
Before joining the team, Munoz did not think he was capable of much. But the coaches and Richmond High have given him abilities that he plans to carry with him throughout life.
“I’m a team leader. I can be a leader. Football isn’t just a sport; you can use it for all parts of life. It’s basically a brotherhood,” Munoz said.
After high school, Munoz wants to be a firefighter. He did not have any career goals when he was involved in the gang lifestyle; he did not think that far ahead back then. Thanks to football, he now has a plan.
But above all, football gives him the kind of family feeling he sought when he joined the gang, but one that actually has his back.
“When I walk down the street, I don’t have to look over my shoulder anymore.”