Youth Movement

FAYETTEVILLE -- HBO recently aired a follow-up to its 1990s documentary "Gang War: Bangin' In Little Rock" and many say it doesn't paint an accurate picture of today's capitol.

The sequel, "Back In The Hood: Gang War 2", follows a few of the same characters from the first documentary and focuses on gang life that's still alive and kicking.

But there are signs that Little Rock teenagers' lives are different and the University of Arkansas is benefiting more than ever from a change in attitude among the area's youth.

More are choosing school over hustling and selling drugs.

"The thug life just left," said Hogs freshman defensive tackle Fred Bledsoe, who graduated from historic Central High in the heart of the city. "That's all over because it was overrated. Now it's all about sports and school and trying to do something with yourself.

"You've got to stay away from that stuff if you want to make yourself better."

It sounds like a growing number of Little Rock's youth are thinking like Bledsoe.

"When you look at our juvenile arrest records, it's at an all-time low," said Carlos Corbin, Little Rock's assistant chief of police. "People talk about the gangs and the crime, but most of the crime that we have is drug-related. You have very little youth around it anymore whereas if you go back just 10 years when we had the problem with gangs, juvenile crime was the highest.

"All of those robberies and homicides, most of that was juvenile crime."

When HBO's first documentary aired, it was right on track. The Arkansas capitol-- with an estimated population of 180,000 -- was the site of 139 homicides in 1993-94, giving it the highest per capita murder rate in the country.

Corbin said today's figures are a smaller percentage of those record totals. A number of variables -- such as early intervention and after-school programs -- have helped shape new interests in youth and it has helping increase the flow of Division I athletes from the area.

Arkansas has more scholarship freshmen (6) from Little Rock than the other three classes combined (2). More Little Rock athletes are on the way.

Seventh-year Arkansas coach Houston Nutt hasn't lost many prospects in his hometown since he returned in 1998. He also hasn't lost any games in Little Rock's War Memorial Stadium, where his Hogs play Louisiana-Monroe at 6 p.m. Saturday.

"Since we got here, more people have been excited about football," said Nutt, who graduated from Central High in 1976. "There's 7-on-7 and spring football going on now and I see more touch football games than ever before, so I've been really proud of the Little Rock area.

"It's been a good change."

Some of Little Rock's best athletes from the late-1980s and early '90s are firing up a menthol cigarettes or something stronger these days.

Hogs junior tailback Dedrick Poole said that's one reason he chose to burn up the field at Central High instead, where he became the state's second all-time rusher with 6,059 career yards.

"Back then, it was really when all the gangs and stuff like that first started, so you didn't have guys that had been there and done that to tell you that it's a lie," Poole said. "Now you have guys around that have been there. They've smoked (marijuana) blunts and had drinking problems and stuff like that, and now you get to see them, so you know what happens to those guys.

"It's reality and you can look at them and say, 'Man, I don't want to be like that.'"

True freshman Marcus Harrison, who hails from Mills High and should make his third consecutive start at defensive end against Louisiana-Monroe, sees what he calls "has beens" all the time.

"They used to be good, and all they can do is dwell about what they used to do in the past because what they're doing now ain't worth nothing," Harrison said. "I look to be better than them and I'm glad I learned off their mistakes because it taught me what not to do."

On the flip side, there's a growing number of positive role models hanging around Little Rock. Phoenix Suns forward Joe Johnson and Detroit Lions receiver Reggie Swinton spend off-seasons in their hometown.

"These are guys from here that actually went out and did something positive," said Corbin, who's been with the Little Rock Police Department for 21 years. "You can go to the park and actually go up to one of those guys because they see them out there three or four times a week practicing.

"It gives these kids a chance to be able to reach out and touch a dream and know that it can become a reality."

Nutt said the positive role models go beyond those who make it to the professional ranks.

"I think there's role models when they see guys getting, not one, but two degrees and playing on Saturdays and being on TV," Nutt said. "It's appealing. Media is powerful, TV is powerful and they see that and think that, 'Hey, I can do that.'

"They start dreaming their dreams and they feel like they can accomplish anything, and it's a good thing."

Bledsoe was struggling in school when he found help from Little Rock's Positive Atmosphere Reaches Kids' (PARK) after-school and summer programs.

"When I got in PARK, I was making like 1.9s and 2.0s (grade point averages)," Bledsoe said. "And soon after I got into the program, I started making 3.5s, then 3.8s and 4.0s. They really helped.

"It's a Christian program and they make you feel like you're at home because they take care of you like they're your own parents."

PARK was founded by two-time Super Bowl champ and current Razorbacks football color commentator Keith Jackson in 1996.

Jackson, a Little Rock native, said he was playing for the Philadelphia Eagles when the idea for PARK hit him in 1990.

"There were so many kids that were getting in trouble back when I was in Philadelphia," said Jackson, whose son, Keith Jr., is a sophomore at Arkansas. "Watching the news, I really saw that there was a need to have a youth program that deals with a certain kind of kids.

"That's where the vision started, so I wrote it down and we raised money over the years."

PARK is for "at-risk" kids in grades 8 through 12 from Little Rock, North Little Rock and Pulaski County School Districts. It promotes homework management, tutoring, sports, recreation, leadership development and community service.

Participants even earn class rings and graduate.

"Kids were limited in what they had to do when they got out of school, and that's when gangs really got out of control," Corbin said. "That gave them a lot of time to get in trouble. And now, with all the intervention and programs that really target youth, it's given them another choice. So they've been able to change the environment and sway a lot of kids into a lot of positive activities like sports."

Nutt's former coach, Charles Ripley, is PARK's athletic director.

"They believe in him like I did and he guides them in the right direction," Nutt said. "It keeps us informed of the guys that are doing well in school and on the field. I think it's a positive deal.

"They see guys being successful, playing collegiate ball and getting jobs and all those things appeal to them."

Now fear of wearing a Colorado Rockies hat to places like the University Mall, which is down the street from War Memorial Stadium, is over. Many equated "CR" for "Crips Rule" during the height of the gang period. The rival Bloods, who, like the Crips sprouted from Compton, Calif., often sported St. Louis Cardinals red.

"I have two boys in public schools, and one loves to wear red (Blood gang colors) and the other loves to wear blue (Crips)," Corbin said. "Ten years ago, I wouldn't have let them out of the house in those colors because of everything that was associated with those colors.

"When they leave home now, I don't have to worry about what they have on a because it's no longer an issue."

Redshirt freshman fullback Farod Jackson moved to the Little Rock Mills school district as a sophomore. Around that time, he first watched HBO's original documentary about the city's gang problem.

"I was a little nervous after seeing that," Jackson said. "But by the time I got there, it wasn't as bad as HBO made it look. It's really turned into a nice place."

Jamaal Anderson, a true freshman defensive end from Parkview High, said the problem still exists, it's just more isolated.

"There's still some bad parts, but it's smaller," Anderson said. "A lot of it has cleaned up and a lot of (area citizens and former gang members) are supporting the Razorbacks now. So it's going to be exciting to play in front of those people Saturday."

Farod Jackson said it's important that the current crop of Razorbacks remember why they're here, especially when they go home this weekend.

It's their turn to be the role models for Little Rock's youth.

"They look at us as celebrities now even though we still look at ourselves at regular people," Jackson said. "Everybody looks up to us because we're trying to do something positive.

"So we've got to stay strong for people back home."

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