The company you keep: A danger for athletes young and old alike

The bullets weren’t for him.

Johan Kenner, a football player at Landry-Walker High School, was just another teenager shooting a basketball earlier this month at St. Roch Playground. Although Kenner’s surgically repaired knee did not allow him to play, he was content with watching others while he horsed around, gingerly, as the game moved to the other side of the court.

Then a gunman opened fire. Family members believe the gunman was targeting one of Kenner’s friends. They arrived at the park together, along with Kenner’s older brother.

Kenner’s brother and friend retreated, unharmed. Johan, who was looking forward to his senior season, suffered multiple gunshot wounds.

Perhaps no one can fully quantify the impact Kenner’s choice of company had on his slaying, a senseless death that shocked the Algiers-based high school and the area’s sports community. But this much is clear: His murder was the latest example of the social choices athletes on all levels are forced to make away from the safe haven of their playing fields.

The decisions range from ending or altering lifelong friendships with people who, at best, have good intentions but exhibit questionable morals, to staying connected to those whose lifestyles no longer mimic their progress.

That’s why coaches and players agree that doing the right things in life — excelling in school, working hard at a career, being an admirable person — isn’t always enough.

Fair or unfair, the company athletes keep often not only defines them, but when handled incorrectly, places them in unfavorable — and sometimes deadly — situations.

“If somebody is seeing that from afar, if they don’t know you, their perception of you is going to be based on what they see around you,” Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. “I try to be very aware of that, and we tell the young guys that a lot. Because, in many cases, you could be doing everything right, but you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong people and you get caught in the crossfire.”

Kenner, 17, is the latest among several South Louisiana athletes lost to violence.

In 2013, former Salmen High football player Errol “Ro” Scott, 22, and ex-Slidell High letterman Mark Womack, 23, were shot outside a Slidell sports bar on Christmas night.

In 2006, former Glen Oaks star Ryan Francis, who had recently completed an impressive freshman season as a point guard at USC, was shot and killed while riding in a the back seat of a friend’s car in Baton Rouge.

“A lot of it is so unpredictable, and they never think it’s going to happen to them,” said Jerry Leonard, football coach at Salmen High.

Not that this is exclusively a high school issue. Grown men make many of the same social blunders, unable to shake peer pressure or unwilling to take the final steps toward maturity. Sometimes, cohorts influence them to act out crimes. Other times, they become the victims.

In 2006, Maurice Clarett, the talented yet troubled former Ohio State running back, was convicted of an armed robbery that included two acquaintances.

One year later, a confrontation at a Denver nightclub culminated later in the night, leaving Denver Broncos cornerback Darrent Williams dead as the victim of a drive-by shooting.

In March, Philadelphia Eagles receiver DeSean Jackson was waived after a career season, his purported association with known gang members believed to be a factor.

Some figure it out in time to relaunch their careers, like Adam “Pacman” Jones, Michael Vick and future Hall of Famer Ray Lewis, all of whom have faced felony charges, even convictions. Jackson has since signed with the Washington Redskins.

Other athletes, like Kenner, never get a second chance.

“People are thinking that these kids are just replaceable,” said Matt Forté, a star running back for the Chicago Bears who went to Slidell High and played for Tulane. “They’re not reusable forks, paper plates that you can just throw away. These are kills here. There are souls.”

‘A way out’

“You come up with them n----- huh. You stuck with dem n----- huh.”

— Juvenile

Sports or not, rotten-apple associations are a common storyline in poverty-stricken neighborhoods like the one in which Kenner lived, just minutes from downtown. The caveat, though, is that athletic ability is often treated with greater glorification than academic prowess.

The ability to run fast, jump high and fight off double-teams is celebrated, desired more than earning a spot on the honor roll. Compare attendance at football stadiums on Friday nights to open house activities in the same urban school district.

The promised riches of professional sports are often viewed as the best path to a different life, Southern football coach Dawson Odums said. At the least, sports offers a refuge from daily struggles.

“We know in the African-American community, being an athlete is a way out of our situation,” Odums said.

Sports accolades can draw interest from colleges, even pro scouts. It also attracts the wrong attention.

“As a young man, you already know who’s not good news,” said Saints cornerback Champ Bailey, a 16-year NFL veteran and future Pro Football Hall of Famer. “It’s just, are you willing to except it and make a change when you hang around this person? You have to make that decision. Nobody is going to make it for you.”

Not every person with a seedy background or lifestyle means harm, and some even try to help.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Crips, a street gang known for violence and drug sales in their own neighborhoods, often looked out for young Venus and Serena Williams at the tennis court in Compton, California. Years later, Serena was criticized when she celebrated her win against Maria Sharapova in the 2012 Olympic singles with the Crip Walk, a dance step originated by the street gang in the 1970s.

Who you are

“You’ve changed.”

Consider it the ultimate insult to teenagers or young adults from their peers.

Even when they’ve changed for the better. Even when they realize changing may save their life.

Tulane psychology professor Michael Cunningham compares such taunts to a false racial stereotype: Good grades mean you’re “acting white.”

“Research shows that students who have a strong racial identity actually have high grades and higher self-esteem than students who don’t,” Cunningham said. “So ‘acting black’ is actually associated with academic success. Now you take that same social phenomenon and put that with these athletes; somebody is saying they’re changing, and they become vulnerable to those words. It’s because they don’t have a strong sense of who they are as an individual.”

Change, even for the better, can be daunting, an empty road with perhaps no friends. In some cases, not even family.

Growing up in South Florida, former Nicholls State receiver Antonio Robinson, now playing for the Arena Football League’s New Orleans VooDoo, was poised to become the latest member of his family to fall prey to drugs.

His mom was an addict and served prison time. His older brother did time for selling drugs. Robinson was an unwanted kid who bounced from home to home, even spending nearly two months homeless before heading to his first college home.

“Sometimes I got involved (in crime) because it was the environment, and you adapt to that,” he said. “I got involved a couple of times. After that, I said, ‘This ain’t right.’ I felt nasty inside. I lost a lot of friends by choosing to follow Christ. A lot of my friends didn’t want to hang around me no more — ‘Ah, man, all you wanna do is preach.’ ”

Years later, when “Preacherman” earned a Super Bowl XLV ring as a member of the Green Bay Packers practice squad, some of his same critics applauded his efforts.

Odums not only shares his message of being mindful of the company his players keep when away from the program, he understands it first-hand. Odums said he receives the same heckles from his peers when he returns to his hometown of Shelby, North Carolina.

“People say, ‘You’re not the same person you used to be,’ ” he said. “I say, ‘That’s not the problem. The problem is, you are still the same person. You haven’t changed.’ ”

He wants to see change in his players. Every time Odums sends his players home, he hopes their family notices a positive lifestyle shift.

“They should see them trying to be better people,” he said.

Leonard believes in a consistent message. He wants — he hopes — that before his student-athletes involve themselves in questionable behavior, influenced by others, they will hear his voice.

“Sometimes you just have to keep pounding that message home, even though you think sometimes it’s falling on deaf ears,” he said. “We talk to them daily. If it’s not me, it’s one of my assistant coaches.”

The right moves

Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis, a New Orleans native, attended O. Perry Walker High, which merged with Landry High before last school year to form Kenner’s school.

Lewis said one of the reasons he left the Pittsburgh Steelers after four seasons to sign with the Saints was that he wanted his journey to offer hope to local youth. To show them it’s possible to be a product of the community’s troubled neighborhoods and still reach athletic and academic goals.

“I feel as though everybody should have a dream,” he said.

During the offseason, Lewis works out and frolics at local parks. They’re his comfort zone, he said. His stomping grounds, dating to his prep football days. He’s even spent time at St. Roch, where Kenner was gunned down.

No wonder it’s hard for Lewis to adjust his social circles. Many of these people — sporting rap sheets or stock portfolios — have been around him since he was a kid.

“These people are all I know,” said Lewis, who’s entering his sixth pro season. “I don’t go to situations I know could be harmful for myself or my family or my career.

“But I can’t stop living, knowing these things are taking place. You just have to make the right adjustments, keep faith in the Lord.”