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Out of the Woods: After growing up in East Oakland, Kevin Parker uses his experiences to mentor Cal athletes

Bang

A boy on the streets knows he has to keep moving. He’s got to keep his head down as he makes his way along the concrete streets and past the dark buildings as he walks to school. The sound is nothing new. Only 12 years old, and he’s become numb.

Bang.

Just an elementary-school kid in jeans a size too big and his favorite ratted sweatshirt, he already knows what it’s like to experience loss. He knows what it’s like to have to go to funerals — he’s already had to say goodbye to one of his teammates on the basketball team. The shots mean yet another time he has to see a mother’s body shake with sobs.

Bang.

He closes his eyes and takes one long, deep breath. He can’t stop to think about the fact that he probably knows the person who was on the wrong side of the gun’s barrel. He’s got to get to the field for practice. That’s what’s going to get him out of here. That’s what’s going to save his life.

The “20s” — the 20 block of East Oakland — is a roughly eight-block stretch where something always feels like it’s lurking just below the surface. Called the “Rolling 20s” or “Murder Dub,” it’s where Cal football’s director of player development Kevin Parker — known to almost everyone as K.P. — spent almost the entire early part of his life.

He lived in a four-apartment complex on Garden Street, an area full of concrete, never any grass or flowers. The colorless street just another reminder that pretty things didn’t really happen there. Stray cats and dogs ran free everywhere, their meows and barks mixed with the frequent gunfire that provided the bleak soundtrack of the neighborhood.

“When I walked out of my house, it was a drug neighborhood, and I’d have to say ‘excuse me’ and slide by,” K.P. says.

His mom, Denise Ayers, raised her two boys by herself for most their lives: K.P.’s dad was in the Marine Corps for 30 years, stationed at Treasure Island before he left when the boys were young.

Ayers worked at least three jobs to provide for her kids, working at an airport and a See’s Candies — K.P. says the turtles she used to bring home were his favorite —  and as a project manager at a boys and girls’ home in San Francisco. When she originally moved into the neighborhood with her twin boys, it was one of the nicest in the area. But things quickly changed.

“I knew kids where the streets took their lives,” Ayers says.

K.P. tried selling drugs once, and even that was too much. He had a bag of marijuana in his pocket when a police car rolled up near him, so K.P. shoved the drugs in his bag of Doritos and dropped it on the ground. He tried to maintain his calm exterior and convince the officers everything was OK, even as his friend ran off at the sight of the cops. K.P. thought about his mom; he thought about his dreams of playing professional sports. The cops kept questioning him, but he told them, “Nah, I ain’t got nothin’. I’m just eating my bag of chips.”

Luckily, the cops didn’t press too much harder, and K.P. never picked up the bag.

“If it’s still there, there’s some bad stuff in that Doritos bag,” K.P. says with a laugh. “But that was my one episode —  scared me straight-laced. I was square after that point. I always thank my mom. I never wanted to let her down. That would have crushed her.”

Ayers laughs and says her son was sneaky as a kid.

“I hear some stories now, and I’m like, ‘What?’ ” Ayers says.

K.P. stayed busy and out of trouble, shuffling from one sport to another — football to basketball, baseball to track — and in high school stood out as a running back. Because he was an athlete and his mother always wanted something better for him and his twin brother, Keith, he was able to stay out of the “life,” out of the system and out of the jails.

“Guys kept me out of that because they seen my path, they’d seen my talent,” K.P. says. “And what they would do is, when someone would sell drugs, they’d let me hang out ’til it got to a time when they thought it was maybe a little too dangerous or police was around. You know, tell me, ‘You gotta get outta here. Go home. We’ll be at your game, and if you score a touchdown, we’ll get you money. You don’t have to be out here doing bad things to try and earn money.’ ”

The struggle for K.P. came on the academic side. He suffers from dyslexia, so his mom got him a tutor over the summers when he was 16 and 17 years old. Every day, while other kids were outside working on their tans, K.P. was working on his math skills. While other kids were diving into their swimming pools, he was diving into his reading assignments. A competitor, he never liked to be behind.

“All you want for people who have that problem is for people not to look down upon you,” K.P. says. “And that’s society, you know. I got in a lot of fights — beat a lot of people up because they would laugh at me.”

He eventually got his grades up enough to accept an offer to attend Oregon, but it was a culture shock because of how different it is from the East Bay — all that rain. School was tough, too, especially with his disability. He stepped into a bad place in which he felt down, which led to suicidal thoughts and eventually an attempt.

“Now, when I go out to the community, I tell my story to the kids,” K.P. says. “You know, I tell them to not ever run from anything, ask for help. It’s hard as a man to have that issue — reading and writing problems — and need to ask people for help. It’s tough — but, you know, it’s not worth it that you try to take your life over it.”

He kept playing on the team, and, most importantly to him, he graduated — the first in his family to do so. His mom has his diploma framed in her house.

After tearing a ligament in his ankle his senior year, he didn’t want to give up on his dream of playing professional football, so he tried playing in a couple of smaller leagues in Calgary and in an arena league in Detroit for a year. But it wasn’t working out for him. He happened to see that Jeff Tedford, his former offensive coordinator at Oregon, had just accepted a head coaching job at Cal. K.P. called Tedford up and asked if he had any jobs available. He did.

K.P., a director of player development, is now in his 14th year with the Bears. He says his job is “basically taking care of those 115 guys on the team,” seeing after their every need, whether a football issue, a family issue, a class issue or even a girlfriend issue. He just wants to be there to lend an ear to someone.

“I just talk to them, get them through the rough times,” K.P. says. “I’m like a big brother or somebody that has been through what they’ve been through and just for them to not make any bad choices.”

K.P. was around when Marshawn Lynch was the Bears’ starting running back, and the two grew extremely close. In fact, K.P. seems to always be wearing some combination of Cal gear and “Beast Mode” gear, such as his “Beast Mode” T-shirt or “Beast Mode” shoes.

“The relationship I have with Marshawn is unbreakable,” K.P. says. “That boy is like my son.”

K.P., who always dreamed of going to the Super Bowl, got to go last year with Lynch, who won as a part of the Seattle Seahawks, and was making “snow” angels in the confetti alongside Lynch. He jokes about how he now has a Super Bowl ring.

“I can go get it whenever,” K.P. says. “I got the key to his place in my pocket.”

Just as he did with Lynch, K.P. stresses on today’s players how important it is to be involved in community outreach programs. He’s constantly looking at how he can help other people, setting up ways to do things such as handing out coats to people or giving food to the homeless. He also organizes more serious trips to juvenile hall and San Quentin State Prison to help his players see what bad decisions can mean for their future.

When he went and saw the prison for the first time, it took his breath away.

“I was like, man, I have to do this, and I have to bring our guys over here to see this,” K.P. says.

He knows a lot of guys who are locked up in the same prison he now takes his players to visit. He’ll walk in the yard and hear people yelling, “Twin! Twin!” — his nickname growing up — “I see you. Good job. Good job getting out.”

“A lot of people are like, ‘Hey, K.P., you know these people?’ And I’m like, ‘Same neighborhood, man, same neighborhood,’ ” K.P. says. “Those guys really didn’t have no food at home, and some of my friend’s parents was like, ‘You gotta bring money in here. Forget going to school — you gotta hustle, do something,’ and that’s what they chose to do.”

Cal players Antoine Davis, a defensive end, and Austin Clark, a defensive tackle, are K.P.’s “go-to” guys whenever he’s going to do something out in the community. Davis says he enjoys spending time at juvenile hall trying to make a difference, because the kids are so young and still have so much of their lives ahead of them.

“At some point, they’re going to be readmitted into society,”  Davis says. “So it’s just about encouraging people to make good decisions. I like giving them that hope that they can turn their lives around.”

Both Davis and Clark have had intense experiences at San Quentin — K.P. takes a trip out there at least once a semester — where they realized that everyone is just one stupid mistake away from possibly being there. They’ve both been able to meet some of the inmates, forming bonds with a lot of people who were their age when they were incarcerated. In fact, a couple of former inmates who have been released have come out to practice.

K.P.’s bond with these guys extends past the hours spent volunteering and past the hours spent trying to make a difference in someone’s life. A little while back, when he heard some Cal football players didn’t have anywhere to go for Christmas, he invited them back to his house.

“K.P. can legitimately talk to anyone,” Clark says. “He’s not judgmental. He’ll talk to you for you, and he’s the only guy in the whole program that has some sort of relationship with everyone — the one guy anyone on this program, coaches included, would call in a heartbeat. Everybody walking down the street will be like, ‘Yo, K.P.’s my cousin,’ so when I first got here, I was like, ‘This guy’s got a thousand cousins.’

“This guy doesn’t have friends, he has family.”

Now, K.P. takes his sons — he has four of them — back to his old neighborhood for short periods to show them what his life used to be like. He drives his boys everywhere and spends every moment he can with them, because he remembers what it was like to grow up without a father. He has two kids from his first marriage, which lasted seven years. The older one, Kevin, 16, is into football and dreams of going to Cal. His younger son from that marriage, Kevion, 14, loves to horseback ride and do rodeo-like activities on Katrina, the horse his dad bought him.

A little more than nine years ago, he got married again and gained a stepson, Larry, 15, who is into film. His youngest son with his wife Melissa, Jayden, 8, also dreams of playing football.

“What I seen everyday, I knew I needed to try to make better for myself and my family,” K.P. says. “If I see somebody homeless, they’ll ask, ‘Dad, why you giving them money all the time?’ ‘Because, son, I’m just lucky the Lord didn’t send me down this way.’ ”

Occasionally, when he goes back to his old neighborhood, he tries to see if he can pull someone else out. When he sees a kid playing in the same streets he did growing up or playing on the same fields he spent so many hours on, he just pulls up and tells them to make sure they go to school.

He uses his lessons from the streets to try to teach others.

“I thought it was OK to hit women back in the day,” K.P. says, “and seeing my mom come home abused over a relationship, I knew that, no, you definitely don’t. I mean, I’m looking for the person that did my mom wrong. You don’t never treat women like that. … I don’t care what the situation is — you don’t do that.”

K.P. says he never forgets where he came from. A big part of him still remembers being that 12-year-old boy who learned never to flinch at the sound of a gun.

***

Story originally appeared in The Daily Californian.

***

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