BY LYNNETTE CURTIS
LAS VEGAS REVIEW-JOURNAL
LAS VEGAS REVIEW-JOURNAL
Two Las Vegas natives sat side by side on stage, each an example of life lived in the extreme.
Here was Vernon Fox, a retired safety who played eight seasons in the National Football League.
There was James Allen, a former gang member who spent 28 years behind bars for killing a man during a 1980 home break-in.
The two men, part of a Friday panel discussion at West Las Vegas Library called "You can get with this, or you can get with that," were meant to illustrate how personal choices -- good and bad -- can have lifelong consequences.
"I took a person's life," said Allen, 52. "It's by the grace of God I'm here today because my life was over."
The audience, about two hundred students representing nine local high schools, was riveted. The panel discussion -- which also included Assemblywoman Dina Neal, D-North Las Vegas; ex-con Eric Jackson; Shannon Rabb, a former prostitute and drug addict; and Craig Knight, general manager of KCEP-radio, 88.1 FM -- was the most intense part of the 10th annual African-American Leadership Conference, hosted by Clark County Commissioner Lawrence Weekly as part of African-American History Month.
Fox told the students it would have been easy to give up his dreams of becoming a professional football player when he didn't get drafted after college. Instead, he accepted "a handshake and an opportunity" to play as a free agent for the San Diego Chargers in 2002. He ended his career with the Denver Broncos in 2009.
"It took a lot of commitment, sacrifice and dedication," he said. "The biggest part was perseverance."
After hearing the panelists speak, Cheyenne High School junior Ken Lewis was struck by the contrasts.
"It gives you a perspective of how different people's lives are," Lewis, 17, said.
He and other students also attended workshops about financial management, nutrition and prominent African-Americans including pastor T.D. Jakes and late track star Wilma Rudolph. They also enjoyed performances by a local rap artist and poet.
"I was actually thinking of not going" to the conference, Lewis said. "I'm glad I came. I'm getting to see a lot about how my culture has expanded since the slavery days, how to grow and learn and connect with the community."
Julius Finches, 17, said he was planning to follow some of the advice from the workshop on finances and carefully track his spending in a diary.
"It's teaching skills we need for adulthood," the Cheyenne High School senior said. "The best time to start is when you're young."
It's good for the students to "see people that look like them in positions we can't imagine -- doctors, lawyers, motivational speakers, people that are moving and shaking," said Darron R. McCoy, student success/community director at West Prep. Each year, McCoy selects a couple dozen West Prep students to attend the conference.
"They come back inspired, looking forward to doing something different," he said.
Back at the panel discussion, the students were wondering what it's like in prison. Those who have been there had a simple answer: You don't want to know.
"I've been to prison four times," said Rabb, who said she spent more than two decades addicted to crack. "I woke up and I was 42 years old and life had passed me by. It's a waste."
Allen said he spent "a dismal 28 years" in prison. "I wish that on nobody."
But the three panelists who spent time behind bars also showed how lives can be transformed.
Rabb, now 45, has been sober three years. Allen now works as a mentor coordinator for the Las Vegas Urban League. And Jackson, 50, is a gang specialist for Clark County.
Knight, who is the nephew of legendary soul singer Gladys Knight, talked about how many of his friends "are either dead or in prison."
Only "a few made it through," he said. "A wise person learns from the others' mistakes. There's always a wise choice."
Contact reporter Lynnette Curtis at lcurtis@review journal.com.