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Monday, November 10, 2003
Updated: December 13, 6:21 PM ET
Hard time with Kevan Barlow

By Stacey Pressman
Special to Page 2

SAN FRANCISCO -- I am merely a casual observer of this group, standing outside an office having a high-spirited discussion about football. Typical water-cooler talk. One man, whom I have just met, argues passionately against the way the 49ers rotate their backs. Not a big fan of the Niners' running-back-by-committee philosophy, he contends that they should stick with one --Garrison Hearst or Kevan Barlow.

He turns to me and asks, "You ... you work in sports. What do you think?"

"Ahem, Ernest, whatever you think is probably right," I say. I'm nervous, yet ever so polite.

I'm not kidding. Whatever Ernest Morgan thinks is okay by me right now.

Kevan Barlow
Safe to say: Kevan Barlow is an impact player.
We're in San Quentin State Prison, where Ernest is serving a 15-to-life sentence. I am here as the guest of the 49ers' Barlow on one of his field trips to San Quentin, where he regularly visits the prison chaplain and speaks with inmates. Morgan and my three other new water-cooler buddies -- Abraham Glasper, Israel Amos and German Yabao -- are all convicted murderers.

But it's second-degree murder, they tell me. Like that's supposed to put me at ease.

*******

It was a Tuesday, Kevan's one day away from football. I'd told him we needed to do something uniquely "San Francisco." My ideas: a drive to the Golden Gate Bridge, a walk around Fisherman's Wharf, a race up Lombard Street for fun. The usual tourist-friendly suggestions.

I was the lame camp counselor trying to get my bunk excited over lanyard.

Kevan wanted to take me to a place where dead men walk.

My first response: "I know you take lots of hits to the head, but are you OUT OF YOUR FREAKIN' CLARICE STARLING MIND?! Why on earth would you want to take me to see 634 California death row inmates?"

Kevan, a criminal justice major in college, routinely visits the prison to meet with Reverend Earl Smith, who is the prison chaplain and the 49ers' team pastor. For the last five years, the 49ers have taken their rookies and free agents to San Quentin, where Reverend Earl takes them on a guided tour. (The Reverend once played chess against former San Quentin inmate Charles Manson. For the record, they didn't finish. Manson started screaming obscenities in the middle of it.)

"It's humbling for these (49ers') athletes," said Reverend Earl. "With Kevan, he came here his rookie year in 2001. He's one of the guys who keeps coming back. We meet often to not only talk to inmates but to discuss matters in his personal life."

That personal life is one of the reasons Kevan spends time here.

On Thanksgiving in 1999, he was at home in Pittsburgh, playing for Pitt against West Virginia. That afternoon, two of his uncles were shot as they tried to break up a neighborhood argument. One of the uncles, Maurice Barlow, survived. The other, Sidney Barlow, died from the gunshot wounds. The murderer is currently serving a life sentence in Pennsylvania.

*******

So here we are at San Quentin ... 'Bastille by the Bay,' as it's been dubbed. From the outside, it's surprisingly picturesque. Who knew that Manson, incarcerated here until he was moved to Corcoran State Prison in 1989, had such a magnificent view?

As I stare at the outer walls, I can't help but think about Polly Klaas, the 10-year-old taken from her bed in the middle of the night and murdered by a monster named Richard Allen Davis. And about little Danielle van Dam, killed by David Westerfield in San Diego. Davis and Westerfield are both in San Quentin. Just knowing I'm within reach of these pieces of garbage makes me weak in the knees.

Kevan Barlow
On the field, Barlow's used to squeezing into tight spaces.
"You better watch out," Kevan has told me earlier, chuckling. "They're going to love you in there."

I walk through the metal detector at the outside gates, clutching my pen like it's the ice pick in "Basic Instinct." It's my first time in prison. And I'm scared. I look over at Kevan and ask, "Any idea what T.O is doing today?"

"Yeah, that fool ... he's probably relaxing or out shopping," Barlow replies.

Suddenly, I am daydreaming about the Valley Fair Mall and wondering why I didn't ditch Kevan for a day of shopping and an Orange Julius with Terrell Owens ("that fool"). Instead, I'm spending the day diagramming the trap play with Hannibal Lecter. Yeah, Mr. Sharpie's no fool. That role is being played by me.

Security is similar to what you find at an airport. A guard meticulously goes through my bag. I stand idle as he opens my eyeglass case and my large felt marker. I wonder where he's going with that. He has to see if there is anything inside the cap. He digs intently, until he asks about the small zipper compartment on the inside of the bag.

I'm honest. I tell him the only thing in there is a tampon. He steps back abruptly, as if I've just told him it's a pack of howler monkeys. He says, "Ma'am, that's way too much information."

Then, "You're fine. Please step aside and walk through the iron gate."

I'm fine. How does he know I'm fine? I suddenly feel less secure. This guy works in a place where killers live, and he's scared to look at a feminine product?

*******

Andrea Kremer, ESPN's NFL reporter, is with us. Her presence temporarily quells my rookie nerves, as she's been to prison before ... on interviews, of course. As we walk past the cell blocks, she grits her teeth and tells me to avoid eye contact with the inmates. I take her sound advice ... for all of 30 seconds. I can't help myself. I've never looked a murderer in the eye, but I do now.

As apprehensive as I am, the inmates seem welcoming, and maybe not just because we are females or because we have cameras. Whatever acceptance they show is because of Kevan.

There are occasional hugs, some I-can't-believe-you're-here reactions. The warmth seems to humble Kevan. He grins often in embarrassment.

Kevan Barlow
Barlow won the race -- and beat the odds.
We gather in a courtyard with the "good" murderers -- the model inmates who have freedom to roam the prison grounds. My new water-cooler friend, the 5-foot-9, stocky Ernest Morgan, boasts to Kevan that he played halfback on his Pop Warner football team. Barlow asks to see his stance, then his first step when he hits the hole to the right.

Ernest, in a blue button-down prison shirt, jeans and an ear-to-ear smile, breaks out his Pop Warner glory and shows Kevan what he's got. Four inmates, watching, break out in laughter.

Shaking his head, Kevan shows Ernest how the pros do it: legs spread shoulder-width apart, both hands on the knees. "Keep your head up and make sure you always keep your eyes on the swivel, so you can follow the defense," he says.

"Oh, so that's how you do it," Ernest says. "That was my problem, because I was always looking in the direction I was running."

Ernest turns to me.

"I can't believe this guy, who I watch on TV every Sunday, is here talking and teaching me football," he says.

He stands next to Kevan, and can't hide his admiration. (Later, Ernest tells me, "I just had to go up to him and touch him.") I stand in admiration, too -- mostly of Kevan's emotional strength. How can he give these inmates such a sense of worth when men just like them have brought such personal pain to his own life?

After Football 101 class ends, Ernest challenges the running back to a 40-yard dash.

"Why is it when I come here, you guys always want to race?" Kevan says agreeably. We head to a blacktop near an athletic area. A sign on a baseball scoreboard tells me we're at the "San Quentin Field of Dreams."

Reverend Earl stands at a makeshift finish line, and calls to Ernest and Kevan to take their marks.

"Ready, set, go!"

Ernest takes two steps, slips on some gravel and belly-flops to the blacktop. Kevan easily wins. It's tempting to think of it as an eerie metaphor for life.

Now it's time for hoops. At the basketball court, Kevan meets with Tommy Clewis, a 21-year-old gang leader with the notorious Crips. They sit on a stoop.

Kevan Barlow
Kevan Barlow gives advice to gang leader Tommy Clewis.
Kevan: "So what did you do to get in here?"

Tommy: "Robbery. Messed with the wrong crowd. You know what I mean?"

Kevan: "How long have you been locked up in here?"

Tommy: "Since I was 17. I'm 21 now."

Kevan: "How long you got to do?"

Tommy: "Right now, I got nine more months."

Kevan (looking at Tommy's bandana and braided dreads): "Those your real braids?"

Tommy: "Yup."

Kevan: "If you want to go out there and do a real job, you got to look presentable, dog. You got to get it cut."

Tommy: "I know how to tuck them."

Kevan: "You want to be presentable. You know what I'm saying? You know, all this crime you're doing ... I could have gone that way, too. I grew up the same way you did, from a rough neighborhood, on the streets. You're not only hurting other people's families; you're hurting yourself. You got to be positive and go out there and do the right thing. Your mom and your girl don't want to see you locked up. You gotta go out there and hold it down. You know what I'm saying?"

Tommy shakes his head in agreement.

But after Kevan shoots some hoops with Tommy, he finds Reverend Earl and says, "I'm not so sure about him. I'm not sure he gets it yet."

We make a stop at German Yabao's pad, in a building with a sign that reads "North Block, INMATES ONLY!" German's place features 49ers banners and a 49ers sticker on his cell-block door. The space is so small that Kevan can barely maneuver his 6-1, 238-pound frame into it.

It makes me uncomfortable.

As he signs the sticker with his No. 32 inscription, Kevan says, "I don't know how you live in here, but you have it arranged pretty nice."

*********

Kevan Barlow
Leaving a lasting impression.
As we near the end of the day, I'm surprised to be feeling some sadness. Abraham Glasper, another of my water-cooler mates, looks at Andrea and me and says, "I like it when Kevan Barlow comes to prison. He isn't afraid of us, and it gives me encouragement that someone out there thinks I am, in fact, redeemable."

With a lump in my throat, I nod in acknowledgment. I wish he hadn't committed the murder. At this particular moment, I feel genuine goodness emanating from him.

But I also have to admit to the possibility that I'm being manipulated. I remind myself that someone else has paid the ultimate price.

Kevan brings that home to me, too. To this day, Kevan says, there is no way he could ever sit down with his uncle's murderer and discuss sports and redemption as he does with these inmates. And he fully understands the irony.

But it doesn't stop him from saying that some of the people we've seen here are "good men who made a mistake when they were young."

In an ever-so-serious tone, Kevan asks me what I think people's perception of him will be once they see that he spends time here.

I tell him I have no idea what others will think. I only know what I think.

As a famous doctor once said, "Quid pro quo, Clarice."

Stacey Pressman is a freelance producer at ESPN and a contributing writer to Page 2 and "The Jump" at ESPN the Magazine. She can be reached at StaceyPressman@aol.com.