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September 21, 2014

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Football helps former gang member gain his focus

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Jackie Valley

Antonio Bellows, 18, sits outside the Shannon West Homeless Youth Center, where he is temporarily living, on Thursday, July 31, 2014.

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Antonio Bellows poses with a friend after Rancho High School's graduation ceremony.

Antonio Bellows is a man on a mission, ready to bid Las Vegas goodbye and start over in California.

The 18-year-old recent Rancho High School graduate has a spot waiting on Shasta College’s football team in Redding, Calif., and a planned course load in criminal justice.

There’s just one problem: Less than one year ago, Bellows was sitting in a Clark County Detention Center cell, serving time for a crime he committed at 16. A plea deal led to his release on probation.

Now, he must ask a judge for leniency. Have his actions over the past year earned him early release from probation and a chance to attend college out of state?

•••

On his first day in county jail, Bellows walked into the unit’s eating area to find only one seat remaining, at a table full of rival gang members. A teenager at another table shouted, “Who is your big homie?”

In jail, that’s code for: Who is your gang leader?

It was Bellows’ initiation into what would be his life for most of the following year, living among teens, like himself, who had committed serious criminal offenses.

Inmates spend the majority of their day inside individual cells, with a maximum of three books, no TV and limited ability to communicate, Bellows said.

“I was scared at first,” he admitted.

Bellows joined a gang in ninth grade. By 15, he had been arrested and carried a gun wherever he went.

On June 15, 2012, Bellows walked into a store and robbed someone at gunpoint. He was arrested the next month.

“I really lost my sense of reality,” he said. “I didn’t care about anything.”

Based on the seriousness of the crime, Bellows was treated like an adult and transferred to the Clark County Detention Center. A month later, he pleaded guilty to conspiracy robbery and was released on his own recognizance.

He landed back in jail almost immediately after an iPhone snatching.

Bellows thought for sure he was headed to prison. No more second or third chances.

Even Esther Rodriguez-Brown, who runs the Compassionate Healing intervention program for teens inside CCDC, wasn’t quite sure Bellows would break the cycle that landed him in jail. But she gave him her business card and told him to call if and when he was released.

She tries to instill in young offenders a sense of life purpose.

“You have to realize what you are put on this planet for,” Rodriguez-Brown said. “Normally, kids who have been in such a violent environment, they forget who they are. They get trapped in these labels — you are a robber, you are a murderer, you are a gang member.”

In January 2013, a Clark County District Court judge sentenced Bellows to six months in jail. A longer prison sentence was suspended if Bellows abided by the terms of five years on probation.

Halfway through his jail sentence, Bellows decided enough was enough. He didn’t want to wind up in prison. He didn’t want to be away from his family. And he didn’t want to spend his days in a cell or worrying about getting shot walking down the street.

With his release date approaching, he set two goals: “I’m gonna go to school, and I’m gonna play football. And I’m gonna go to school because I want to play football.”

•••

Bellows began playing football in sixth grade. He stopped midseason in ninth grade because he got kicked out of Canyon Springs High School.

Bellows’ probation officer informed him he’d be attending Rancho High School for his senior year because it was the school zoned for where he would be living upon his release — the Shannon West Homeless Youth Center.

Bellows was unimpressed. Rancho hadn’t won a football game since 2011.

“Just go make the best of it,” the probation officer told Bellows. “Make some lemonade. I gave you lemons.”

Rancho’s football coach, Tyrone Armstrong, welcomed Bellows and held him to the same expectations as the rest of the team: Come to practice. Get good grades. Never lie. Be a leader.

Bellows, a wide receiver, held up his end of the bargain and worked hard, Armstrong said. After he let Bellows play in the second game of the season, Bellows rarely left the field.

“He became part of the heart of the team,” Armstrong said. “He was one of our go-to guys. He needed us, and we needed him.”

He also excelled in the classroom, earning A’s and B’s. At the end of the school year, he received the principal’s award, given to someone who beat the odds.

But another hurdle looms: On Aug. 7, Bellows will appear before a Clark County judge to ask for an early discharge from probation, which would allow him to attend college in California. His goal is to play two years at the community college, then transfer to a university.

Sitting in Rodriguez-Brown’s office, Bellows shook his head thinking of all that has changed in a year. He works as a dishwasher at Hash House A Go Go and cautiously looks forward to attending college, pending the outcome of his hearing.

Regardless of what the judge decides, Bellows said he is confident about where his life is headed.

“Under any circumstances, or whatever the situation may be,” he said, “it’s never too late to try to fix something that’s broken.”

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