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Sunday, April 06, 2008

ESPN The Magazine: Jack Sula (Boise State Recruit)

You've heard this story before: star RB chooses game over gang. But what happens when that kid was raised by a notorious banger? Jack Sula and his stepdad are learning.

by Chad Nielsen

The unlit scoreboard casts a shadow as Jack Sula hauls his workout bag across Carson High's patchy turf. In his final game here this past November—LA's city semifinal—the six-foot, 205-pound senior rumbled for 193 yards through several inches of mud. UCLA recruit Johnathan Franklin, of rival Dorsey High, struggled for all of his 39 yards. But Sula, with only a handful of mid-major offers, was hell-bent on proving he belonged in the Pac-10 too. He scored a first- quarter touchdown, and the home crowd shouted his name. His TD proved to be the game's only score when, as a linebacker, he ended a last-minute drive by nailing Franklin in the backfield on a goal-line stand. But as Sula works out alone today—Feb. 6, 2008, national signing day—his cell phone sits as silent as the empty bleachers.

Later in the afternoon, Jack's stepfather, Jerry Misaalefua, stands in line at a nearby post office, with padded envelopes wedged under his massive, heavily tattooed arms. As always, the 300-pound Samoan feels people staring at his jailhouse ink, which tells the story of his 29 years running a Bloods-affiliated gang called West Side Piru (Pimps in Red Uniforms) that he formed before reaching puberty. Jerry says WSP now has 300 local members, and "branches" from Seattle to Okinawa and Samoa. And nobody is more feared in Carson than this 40-year-old man they still call BadBoy, even though he has dropped his colors. But today, Jerry is just a father. While other men watch their sons fax signed letters of intent to USC and LSU and Michigan, Jerry mails out Jack's highlight videos, hoping to find his stepson a ride out of town.

WHEN JACK WAS 7, he watched his older cousin Chui play Pop Warner on the Carson High field. Jack's dark eyes lit up with every collision. "Daddy," the pudgy kid said while tugging Jerry's long red shirt, "I want to play football like that." Amused, Jerry crouched and, softening his gritty baritone, asked, "You want to play tackle?"

"Yeah."

"You're not gonna be scared?"

"Nah."

Fear inhabits this LA suburb every day. When Sula was born, his 16-year-old Samoan father, Jack, was in a gang and behind bars for dealing drugs. Sula's 15-year-old Hispanic mother, Jessica Arce, was fresh out of juvie. She was a second-generation banger with Rancho San Pedro, the gang that ran the San Pedro projects near LA harbor. Two years later, when BadBoy and Jessica met, BadBoy embraced her toddler as his own. Growing up, whether his family lived in a house or a shelter or a relative's garage, Sula knew to hit the floor when he heard gunshots. And he knew to cry out when his 6-year-old auntie was nearly kidnapped from the backyard.

But no matter what happened, Jack saw his stepfather as calm and in control. They bonded while watching football, rooting for the waves of cousins who played in Carson's black and powder blue, following USC on TV and scouring NFL rosters for Samoan names. Jerry even coached Jack's Pop Warner team, despite having no training beyond attending a free weekend clinic as a teenager. He knew his culture, though. Most of his players came from Carson's 3,000-strong Samoan community. In the islands, Fa'a Samoa—the Samoan way—requires a boy to prove himself with chores and feats of skill. As a teenage foot soldier, or aumaga, the boy guards the village during the hour of prayer and must be prepared to deliver beatdowns to unannounced intruders. Once he has gained the trust of his chief, or matai, he receives a tattoo across his lower body, administered with a hammer and shark's tooth, to signify his new warrior status.

Misaalefua coached his kids to play like warriors, treating each individual battle on the field as a matter of family honor. But in LA, football is only one alternative for Fa'a Samoa. The other is gangs. So when Jack began to dress in red from head to toe as a seventh-grader, Jessica begged BadBoy to talk to him. Misaalefua explained to his stepson that gang life offers money, respect and family—but you have to rep your set and be willing to lay down your life. And that doesn't leave time for school, much less football. Sula didn't hesitate. "I want to play football," he said. That night, the word hit the streets: BadBoy's kid is off-limits.

Meanwhile, cousin Chui quit varsity to bang for West Side Piru. A buddy of Sula's on the JV team dropped out to run with the Bloods. But Sula never wavered, excelling in the weight room (515-pound squat) and the classroom (3.4 GPA). Then, as a junior in 2006, he burst onto the recruiting radar by rushing for 1,840 yards and 20 touchdowns.

Three months after that season ended, Sula was walking home alone from school. As he passed the aging tract houses deep in Catskill Ese gang territory, he heard a throaty rumble from a beat-up Cadillac rolling alongside him. A flash of steel emerged from the passenger side window as a Hispanic man with a shaved head and flannel shirt pointed a square-nose Glock at Sula's chest. "You from Scott Park Piru?" the Ese asked. Sula's brown skin, wispy mustache, fleshy lips and thick, wavy hair made it hard to tell if he was Samoan or Hispanic. The interrogator couldn't know he was threatening BadBoy's son. "I don't bang," Sula said, calmly. The gun didn't move as the Ese responded, "Keep it that way."

That night, after Jerry learned of the encounter, he brooded on the threadbare blue couch in his town house in Scottsdale, Carson's privately owned projects. He'd tried to protect his kids—he wouldn't let Jack leave home without an escort except to go to school or practice—but BadBoy knew that, in a way, this close call was his doing.

WHEN MISAALEFUA WAS 10, he decked a school bully and found his path. "We call it good hand," he says, punching the air with a meaty right. Soon, he was challenging the toughest guys from the toughest gangs. "It was so easy. Everybody I touched, I put away." One day, he considered his formidable family and friends from 218th Street and thought: We could turn this into something. BadBoy and West Side Piru were born. Says Misaalefua: "I started to feel like I was Al Capone."

Misaalefua was arrested so often, mostly for assault with his fists, that he can't recall the number of times he's been locked up. In prison, he soldiered for the Bloods, managed a truce with the Samoan Crips and studied biographies of old-time gangsters. He finished his last stint when he was 25 and, inspired by Capone, stepped back from the streets, handing orders to his foot soldiers instead of getting his own hands dirty. "He was still the guy calling the shots, telling the kids, 'You can't let these people roll through our neighborhood,'" says LA homicide detective Randy Seymour, who investigated more than 100 gang killings in 10 years at the Carson substation. "Then something would happen." Something like a shooting.

Jack doesn't remember the days when Jerry chilled with the Boo-Yaa T.R.I.B.E., drove nice cars and draped himself in gold. "We had means and ways of getting money," says Misaalefua. "But I'm not going to talk about what my boys do." Misaalefua claims each WSP member worked on his own and contends there was no organized structure that rewarded those in charge. He also says his big-money ways ended when he met Jessica, who didn't want her son around that kind of party scene. It was difficult to give up, but in the Samoan community money matters less than family, loyalty and the prestige that comes from being the boss.

Like a matai, Jerry had his tribal council of 15 OGs and an army of young homies to do his bidding. But that didn't mean he stayed entirely out of the fray. Once, as Jack played in his front yard, one of the younger gang members threatened an elder. Jerry sliced in like a defensive tackle to slam the guy against a tree. As his left hand gripped the kid's throat, his right balled into a fist. Everyone went quiet. With the message received, BadBoy released his grip. Jack's eyes still jump as he remembers every detail. "I never saw anybody look so afraid."

As his and Jessica's family grew, by one son and four daughters, Jerry attended countless funerals—even helping to pay when cousins in rival gangs were killed by WSP members. "Now it dawns on me," he says. "Kids lose their lives over a color we ain't even made up, a street we don't own. Every day, it eats me."

In 2006, with his stepson seemingly on track for a scholarship, Jerry retired from the gang to focus on his 9-to-5 as a truck driver. "I'd rather be broke and happy with my family," he says, "than rich and worried about the police and all that." Still, he can't really escape his past, not when it's inked all over his body. There's no mistaking where he has been and how he rolled. Rival upstarts can read it. College football recruiters can too. So, when Jack needed him most, BadBoy stepped aside.

ON A CRISP April morning in 2007, Sula stretched his thighs against the aluminum bleachers of the Long Beach City College football stadium. On the field, more than 200 high school athletes ran three-cone drills, short shuttles and 40s. This combine for Polynesian players, headed by former University of Arizona QB George Malauulu, presdient of AIGA Foundation, offered exposure and credible testing to kids trying to earn college scholarships. Sula flashed game speed and soft hands at the workout, but he fretted about his half-a-step-too-slow speed. He reasoned that his best work was on film—it was good enough to get him an invite to visit USC as a junior—so he didn't bench or run the 40. "There's a magnifying glass on the speed issue," says Malauulu. "If you don't run, you better bench the house and squat the gym. You better show something else."

But growing up in Carson taught Sula to play it safe. "My dad told me, 'Think before any act,'" he says. "'Blink of an eye, a cop stops you, checks you out, you got a record. Football's done.'"This past fall, Sula ran with abandon, gaining 1,895 yards and making 108 tackles despite a broken finger, a hyperextended knee and a mild concussion. As Carson won 10 straight, outscoring its opponents 291-117, Fresno State, Nevada, Louisiana Tech, San Diego State, Utah, Utah State and Weber State made verbal offers. Among Pac-10 schools, USC backed off, but Washington, Oregon, Cal, Arizona and Stanford were showing interest. "Jack is a helluva player," says one Pac-10 coach. "He has great instincts. I don't care what his numbers are. What you see on tape tells all tales."

Jack, calculating that the best way to impress was on the field, put off his suitors to focus on the games. He was doing this on his own, with Jerry staying out of the frame and away from recruiters. But as Carson barreled toward the playoffs, the calls to Jack slowed to a trickle. One interested Pac-10 coach took a new job; another who liked him at linebacker sensed that Jack was reluctant to play the position. Others ultimately decided he was too small for linebacker or too slow for tailback. This January, as Jack tried to plan campus visits, the ones he expected never materialized. By chasing the big schools, he had ignored teams that had been courting him. Now it was too late. "I would have been thrilled if he fell to us," says one mid-major coach. "I backed off because I knew we couldn't get him."

As signing day neared, Jack bristled whenever his parents asked about recruiting, so Jerry retreated further. "I tried to let him make his own decision," Jerry says. "It was part of him growing into a man. But nothing was going down for him." Jessica couldn't bear to watch. "You worked too hard for this not to turn into something," she told Sula. Then she told her husband: "Jerry, call somebody."

BadBoy took a chance that recruiters would see past his prison tattoos. He set aside his own warrior pride and called Malauulu for help. Malauulu posted Jack's profile on his recruiting website (AIGA Foundation), and built him a new highlight reel. Jerry persuaded him to let go of his tailback dreams.

Signing day passed without a ripple, but Jack had hope. A few scholarships across the country would come open as committed players failed to qualify. So he kept running gassers at Carson High, his phone perched on the gym bag. Then, in late February, a coach from Boise State called Malauulu, looking for a linebacker. "I've got just the kid," Malauulu said.

Jack's highlight tape earned him a campus visit on March 14. Less than two days later, early on a Sunday morning, Jerry's phone flashed Jack's name. The kid had accepted the Broncos' scholarship offer. Jerry sighed with relief. "We're at ease now," the stepfather says. "I'd rather have him away, where nobody knows him.

"There, he'll just be some football player."

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