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'Not your ordinary person'

4-30-03, 3:35 p.m.


Now, maybe, the people of Duarte, Calif., and everywhere else realize it. The best and brightest come from everywhere and anywhere. And they are getting hurt, too.

Ken Bell, a board member of the Duarte Unified School District, had been there when they retired Dennis Weathersby's blue-and-white No. 12 football jersey. And then, about a month later on the same streets, Weathersby's number nearly came up in another spasm of hate that goes by the code name of drive-by-shooting.

The bullet went in his back and out his chest, but it missed a dream. Weathersby lost so much blood that he passed out, and yet the bullet not only missed a vital organ, but the scouting report. The Bengals took the Oregon State cornerback with the first pick in the fourth round of last Sunday's NFL Draft, exactly a week after the shooting.

"When this happens to a person like Dennis who is not only a good kid, bit someone we honor," Bell says, "I think everyone has to step back and take another look."

The jersey ceremony came during an academic awards rally, and that was important to people like Ken Bell, and Michelle Trail, his high school guidance counselor, and James Harden, his football coach at Duarte.

It's the first number the school has retired, and yet, the school has sent players to the NFL, most recently Daimon Shelton and Nate Jacquet. Weathersby's teammate, Charles Pauley, may get a chance somewhere after being one of the top punt returners in the nation this past season for San Jose State.

But no one like Weathersby ever did it with a 3.8 grade point average.

"During the season, it was 4.0," says Dennis Mency, his high school offensive coordinator. "He would seem to do a little better while he was playing football."

If anyone can tell you how rare that is, it's Trail. She graduated from Duarte in 1979 and brought back a degree

in social work to the base of the San Gabriel Mountains where freeways 210 and 605 meet, about 20 miles north east of Los Angeles. She became a career guidance counselor at the high school for a city of 21,486 that has been recently plagued by gang activity in an atmosphere marked by tension between Blacks and Latinos. But there are also people like Trail, who cultivate and nourish what they can while also keeping stats for the football and basketball teams.

"He's a good kid. It's just so unfair," says Trail, fighting through the emotion in her office at school. "It's just not fair to hear them say he's in a gang and that he's bad. It's just not true Not him."

For people like Bell and Trail, the cruel irony of the media reports raising the specter of gang activity is that Weathersby is the example they point to about what can come off the mean streets.

"We had about 15 guys on our team who were looking to go that way," Harden says. "But never Dennis, and with a lot of the guys, football was the only thing keeping them out of the gangs. It was amazing because he grew up right around it, and he never went that way."

Trail, who has known him half his life, has stayed close to Weathersby and his family, driving to many of his games this past season with his mother and sister. She helped him put together his resume after his freshman year at Oregon State, and it's a model for her kids now.

Rotary Youth Leadership Award. Boy's State Representative. Caltech YESS Program Representative. Montview League Outstanding Senior Academic Achievement. National Student Athlete Day Award. JV Basketball Most Valuable Player. Social Science Certificate. Academic Achievement. Varsity Track Athlete of the Year. English 10 Certificate. Algebra II Plaque. Duarte High School Senior Scholar Athlete Award. National Football Foundation and Hall of Fame Scholarship Award. United States Army Medal for Scholar Athlete.

"He could have gone to any college of his choice with that transcript," Trail says. "He has just wonderful discipline. He knows what he wants to accomplish and he works at it."

Bell saw him occasionally around town or around school and always came away impressed.

"Whenever I saw him at school, he was always in the library," Bell says. "And whenever he came back to visit from Oregon, on a school break, he'd be in church. How about that? A lot of kids would come back and be out partying."

Harden left Duarte to go coach at San Bernardino Valley College and later at San Bernardino High School. He would come back and visit Weathersby, but then the calls stopped.

"This is the kind of kid he is," Harden says. "It's a long drive, about 50 miles from Duarte, and I think he found out how far I lived away and I don't think he wanted it to be that inconvenient."

The questions about his character have mystified those closest to him. Yes, he grew up in a bad place. Yes, he has been around drugs and violence because that's the environment they handed him at birth.

But what about the resume? What about the No. 12 jersey hanging in the lobby of the Duarte schools administration building?

"He's shy, he's reserved, he doesn't trust many people," Trail says. "He's not your ordinary person."

While Weathersby recovers from his gunshot wound, and the press and the cops and the politicians yammer about what to do next, he is thinking about what he can do to prevent it from happening to someone else.

He believes he was shot simply because he is an African-American, and simply because the shooters were Latino. He wants to be become a probation officer , or become involved with kids in multicultural programs.

It's kind of what Trail ended up doing. Out of all his accomplishments and all of his stats that she has recorded, there is one moment she remembers. Weathersby was a high school sophomore and Trail was down and discouraged about her progress with another student when Dennis hopped into her car.

"He said, 'My turn,' and that's all he had to say," Trail says. "He was basically telling me that I could mentor him now and how I had been successful with him. He was keeping my spirits up and he's been keeping my spirits up for 11 years."

Just before he was shot, Dennis and Trail met for lunch and she was talking shop. Dennis shook his head, "Michelle," he said, "you can't save the world."

But down deep, he knows that he, along with some people who cared, helped save a little chunk of it.

"I think he'd make a very good counselor, no question about that," says Trail, the emotion now replaced by thanks and hope.

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