A Way Out

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It started with sports.

When I was around eight years old, mom signed me up for Pop Warner football at Long Beach Polytechnic High School. At first, it was a struggle. Because she was working, I had to take the city bus by myself to practice. But I didn’t want to ride the bus while my friends were all out playing, so instead I’d take my fare to the laundromat and play the Street Fighter video game they had there. Then, on the way home, I’d rub dirt all over my pads like I’d been to practice.

Pretty clever, right?

The scam lasted maybe three weeks before my mom found out, and man, to say I caught it for that would be an understatement. But she wouldn’t let me quit. I had made a commitment to play.

“If you don’t quit,” she said, “you’ll never know how to.”

Even at that age, her message resonated. I stayed with football, and after that first season, I was hooked. (It helped, too, that I got to start playing positions where I could touch the ball, instead of just the offensive line.)

It was my coach who ended my Street Fighter days. He came by the house to get my equipment because I hadn’t been at practice. That moment was the start of an important connection between my coaches and my household. Everything went hand in hand. If I got in trouble at home, my mom would let my coaches know, and then I’d be doing more running, push-ups, and sit-ups. If I wasn’t doing something on the field, the coaches let my mom know, and she would get on me at home.

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My dad was a gang member, in and out of jail. He led a terrible life and didn’t really want anything to do with me.

Still, my mom never bad-mouthed him. I got to keep a child’s faith that his dad would be around. When I’d ask questions, she would always offer to take me over to see him. I never did, though, until one day when I was around 12 years old, and my mom and I got into an argument.

“Man, I’m going to go live with my dad!” I yelled.

Mom packed a bag, gave me about $40, and drove me over there.

As soon as I walked in the door, I wanted to go right back home. This was the first time I ever met the guy, and he handed me a toothbrush and some Ajax and told me where to go clean. The whole apartment smelled like weed. His wife at the time was walking around in lingerie. This was nothing I was used to. Nothing I was expecting. Such a bad situation.

I called my mom after that first day and asked her to come get me.

“No,” she said. “You need to learn your lesson.”

I ended up staying maybe a week and a half before she called.

“Have you had enough?”

Oh yeah.

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That same year, getting ready to start eighth grade, I had this group of friends. We spent maybe six months stealing from the grocery store. Well, they had us on camera. So one day, we went in there, stole, and they caught us. The cops were there, waiting.

All three of my friends ran. I stayed.

Not because I froze up, though. There was no fear — no, “Oh my God, it’s the cops!” Something came over me. Even as one cop came over, handcuffed me and sat me down, I felt like the man upstairs wanted to teach me something.

Even as one cop came over, handcuffed me and sat me down, I felt like the man upstairs wanted to teach me something.

And if He didn’t, my mom definitely did.

I was taken down to the station. They fingerprinted me, took the mug shot, put me in the cell. After a while, they called my mom.

“Leave him in there,” she said.

Just like when I ran away to my father’s place, she wasn’t letting me off the hook easily. At the time, she was working one of the security jobs she juggled over the years — sometimes two or three at a time — to provide for the family. I’m pretty sure one of the cops knew her, and they made a deal to put some fear in me.

It worked. I took my punishment and never looked back. 

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That’s how my mom operated. If I made commitments, I kept them. Even if I committed to the wrong things, she was going to make me see them through until I understood the consequences.

I don’t want to make it sound like I was the worst kid in the world. I wasn’t, particularly as I got older. I made good grades (even if I talked a little too much in class sometimes). From a young age, I helped my mom take care of my little brother. I helped get dinner ready and made sure the house functioned while she was at work. I had a lot of responsibility, even as a little kid, and I took it seriously.

Fights, hearing gunshots all the time — that all became normal. That was the life I knew.

But I grew up on the east side of Long Beach, California on 11th St. and Freeman Ave. in a neighborhood that wasn’t anything to smile about. A lot of kids running around with no real purpose. Going to liquor stores with no money. Just to go, just to steal, looking up to the older gang-bangers. Fights, hearing gunshots all the time — that all became normal. That was the life I knew.

Even for a “good” kid, a lot can go wrong, and my mom understood there wasn’t much room for error.

My mom had me when she was 15 years old. I remember being four or five and watching her suffer through an abusive relationship, getting beaten up at the same time every night. Mom didn’t have a blueprint, and the obstacles in front of her were incredible. But somehow, in a neighborhood full of holes, mom understood the need to fill all of them, and managed to do it. Despite the odds, she found a way to build structure for me and a community around me. Growing up, I’m not sure there was an adult in the neighborhood who didn’t know where I was supposed to be and when.

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She helped cultivate my community of friends, too, volunteering to be the team mom for Pop Warner. We didn’t have a lot of money, but every week, she’d go get bread, lunch meat, cheese and chips and we’d stay up packing lunches for all the kids. We’d have sleepovers. She always told me that relationships are the most important thing you can have in this world, and she made a point of helping me create safe, healthy ones.

When I was little, my mom and I celebrated Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. She earned it. But when I was nine, she married my stepdad, Mike. Not many Caucasian men — and he was the first I had real contact with — could step into a black household with two young boys and a strong black woman, you know? I had been the man of the house to that point, helping my mom and taking care of my little brother. Mike respected all of that. It showed his character. He taught me life lessons, that a man is measured by his values and not his title.

I had a strong family and positive outlets. I had people outside my house looking out for me and things to aspire to. Playing Long Beach Poly Pop Warner gave me the opportunity to be the waterboy for the high school games. Keep in mind, I’m talking about one of the country’s best football programs. Over 60 Poly players have made it to the NFL. (In 2007, my second year in the NFL, there were six Jackrabbits on opening weekend rosters.) I got to see that tradition, and it was something I wanted to be part of. When I had the chance to play there, I seized the moment.

But at times, I felt like a minority of one. In my four years of high school, there were so many talented guys that messed up, affected by the obstacles that come with the neighborhood and going to Poly.

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Let me explain: Poly was a machine. Every kid in the city of Long Beach wanted to go there. But you learned real quick that it’s not all fun and games. Our coaches expected a lot out of us. They gave us the tools to thrive in that environment, but there was still pressure. For kids growing up without any structure or stability, it’s harder to learn to fight through things. You may not know how to punch adversity in the mouth. The kids I saw wither away were the ones who couldn’t handle the accountability. Maybe they’d transfer and you’d never hear about them again. Or they started smoking, got into gangs, were in and out of jail. I had friends that were shot, some who were killed.

As a kid, I always asked my mom why my friends got to do what they did. They were able to stay out after the street lights came on, and I was already in the house. They didn’t get put on punishment. It was only when I got older that I could understand. She understood my being blessed with size and speed wasn’t enough. Anybody can be ready to play. I had to be prepared, too.

Sports were a way out for me. They can be a way out for a lot of kids, if they have the tools. In whatever way I can, that’s what I’ve tried to provide.

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In 2008, we started a football camp at Long Beach Poly with about 200 kids. Kids from ages 7-17 are out there grinding, playing, having fun — for free. From the beginning, we didn’t want to charge families to come out to learn what it is to have great sportsmanship and get great instruction from my college and pro teammates, along with top high school coaches. Every example kids have of adults caring about them and their neighborhood gives them hope. They see us out there, fully engaged.

The camp has grown, first in numbers (we were up to 535 last summer), but more importantly, in how we bring in the larger community. The police and fire departments are there. ROTC is there. We have a psychologist available for the parents to speak to so they can learn the skills needed to handle the obstacles of raising a kid in the inner city, how to adapt, how to be ready. My mom didn’t have the luxury of a professional guiding her. She managed to learn on the fly, on her own. Not everyone can, though. Why not make that service available to the parents who want it?

Sports were a way out for me. They can be a way out for a lot of kids, if they have the tools.

It’s about football, sure, but it’s really a human relations camp.

I’ve learned that even the process of putting it together has value. Around the neighborhood, people want to volunteer. We’ll hold a dinner at my mom’s house to go over the details, and this year, over 200 people showed up. That’s big-time to me. They’re not only engaging with my camp, but with each other, too. It’s one more place for the community to connect and grow.

We need that, because the neighborhood is a complicated place. Good people fall into cracks, and someone isn’t always there to help. Not everything is cut and dried.

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That story I told you about shoplifting from the grocery store? We were shoplifting groceries. Bread. Lunch meat. Cheese. Real stuff. That doesn’t make it right, but it’s hard to understand unless you’re in it. Not every kid in Long Beach has a mom like mine — one with a growth mindset who refused to let long odds and huge obstacles defeat her. Not every kid had a strong male role model like my step-dad, or brothers and sisters who share unconditional love.

Not everyone has the chance I have to pay back a community that helped raise and protect him. That’s what I’d like to do, for the rest of my life.

If we don’t give our kids a reason to quit, they’ll never learn how.

Marcedes Lewis was awarded an honorary brick last week by the Rose Bowl Legacy Foundation for his work in the Los Angeles community. To learn more about the Mercedes Lewis Foundation, visit www.marcedeslewisfoundation.org.

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