Commentary

Price goes from L.A. streets to NFL

Former UCLA defensive lineman has prospered in the face of tragedy

Updated: April 23, 2010, 8:17 PM ET
By Shelley Smith | ESPN

It's a beautiful spring day in south Los Angeles, and UCLA's big defensive tackle Brian Price lumbers onto the asphalt playground of his former high school and eases onto a bench near the football field.

Crenshaw HS
Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty ImagesA police presence is common around the campus.

"It's deceiving, isn't it?" he asks, surveying the sleepy-looking houses beyond the chain-link face surrounding Crenshaw High School. The sparkling sun masks the night violence Price says is pervasive.

"You can't see it now," he said, "but you know it's there."

Price has never blamed the violence in his life for his furious desire to change it. But it would be understandable if he did. Nor does he say it's why his demeanor is gentle and kind. But that would be understandable, too.

On the cusp of achieving his boyhood dream of playing in the NFL, Price simply likes to think of himself as a quiet storm. It's as much for the fierceness with which he plays as for his penchant for leading by actions, rather than by words.

"A lot of people have been through the same or worse than I have," he said with a shrug that quickly turns into a serious stare. "But not a day goes by that I don't think about them."

Almost as proof, he then he lifts up his shirt. On his massive left shoulder is a tattoo of three wolves: one that is shaded in, representing him, and two that are left transparent, for his brothers who are dead.

"They are gone," he said, "but they are always with me."

'I knew then that he was hurting'

Seven years ago, Brian's oldest brother, Damon, was driving his car down Crenshaw Blvd., when a friend sitting in the back seat fired a bullet into the back of Damon's head. It was a retaliation hit, Brian's father, Frank Price said, because Damon wouldn't pay the prison gang that had taken him in after he was sent there on a robbery conviction.

Damon had been an "active" member of the gang Rollin' 30's Crips, Frank said, but after he got out of prison he tried to quit the lifestyle and refused to send money to his protectors on the inside. Frank said the prison gang had tried in vain to hire people to kill Damon before but failed because Damon was street smart, constantly changing locations and habits. He moved away from home so that his family wouldn't be targeted. And so, because his enemies couldn't get to him, Frank said, they paid off one of his friends.

"This kid that killed Damon come by the house and put his feet under the dinner table and ate with the family," Frank said. "He laid his head on the bed and slept in the house. That devastated Brian. It was devastating that someone so close to us had betrayed [Damon]."

Five years earlier, Brian's 18-year-old brother, Eddie, was killed in a drive-by shooting that Frank said was not meant for Eddie but for the teenage girl he was walking to the bus stop. She was shot four times and lived. Eddie died a block away from his house.

At the time, Brian was just 9 and said he really didn't understand what had happened. All he knew was that Eddie wouldn't be coming home again. It was Damon's death, he said, that sent his world spiraling. His devastated parents saw it unfolding.

"Brian asked me after Damon's death, 'Am I next?'" his mother, Jeanetta Price, said. "I couldn't find the words to comfort him."

Crenshaw Plaza
AP Photo/Damian DovarganesThe Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza is off Martin Luther King Jr. and Crenshaw Blvd.

Damon had been home from prison only a short time and, before the death threats came, had formed a bond with Brian, taking him to play basketball at Crenshaw, talking to him about not doing what he had done.

"Brian loved having his brother back," Frank said. "He adored him."

The father said Damon was working on a rap CD and a movie script.

"He felt bad for being in prison when Eddie was shot," Frank said. "He thought if he had been on the outside, he could have prevented it. He wasn't going to let that happen to Brian, or anyone else in the family, and that's why he moved out when they started looking for him."

When Damon was killed, Brian withdrew from his family, his friends and his schoolwork. Even football. He retreated into himself, sullen and fearful, even though he had vowed never to get caught up in the streets.

"I watched Brian lower his standards," Jeanetta said. "He always hated to miss school, but for a while he didn't have the strength to get up and go. He very easily could have slipped up, retaliated or become all his brothers didn't want him to become."

Frank didn't know how deeply Brian was affected until Robert Garrett, longtime football coach at Crenshaw, called him into the office and asked if he knew what was going on with Brian.

"He showed me Brian's grades, how they had dropped," Frank said. "I knew then that [Brian] was hurting."

Frank, already an assistant on Garrett's staff, quit his second job at the airport to help Brian. His mother held him tight at night and included notes of encouragement with his lunch each day. There was a lot of prayer. In the end, Brian realized he was slipping away.

"I got back to what I wanted to do, what goal I had for myself," Brian said, surveying the field that became his backbone. "I always had a goal of playing in the NFL, and I realized it wasn't going to happen if I let my brothers' deaths affect me in a negative way. I had to be the strong one. I couldn't be a burden to my mom."

Said Jeanetta, "He turned horrible tragedy into something positive."

The turnaround

Brian walks past the Crenshaw weight room, which was remodeled and upgraded his freshman year by Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila, who played at Crenshaw before signing with San Diego State and being drafted in the fifth round by the Green Bay Packers.

[+] EnlargeBrian Price
Brad Schloss/Icon SMIUCLA's Westwood campus fit Brian Price well.

"Before he did that for us, it was all kinds of different weights, no racks," Brian said. "But when he did that, everyone wanted to go in there more, lift weights. It helped a lot of players."

Brian started healing his grief by spending hours in that weight room, working out for himself, to be sure, but also as an example to the other players. His work ethic rubbed off. The team won the city championship his senior year and he was named Coliseum League MVP two years in a row. He became one of the top recruits in the country and quickly chose UCLA because of its pristine, lush green surroundings.

In UCLA, he saw a life where he could sit safely on the porch -- something so many take for granted but something he couldn't do when he was living around the corner from Crenshaw.

The surroundings of Westwood suited him. He was named a first-team All-American last season by the AFCA as one of the most dominant defenders in UCLA history. He figured there wasn't much more for him to prove. So that's when he decided it was time to take one more big step toward his dream: declaring for the NFL draft. He is projected as a first-round pick.

He got his driver's license in January, his first car a month later, fully enjoying the freedom of wheels and a promising future.

Dream realized

The killer in Eddie's death got 83 years in prison, Frank said. Both Jeanetta and Frank attended the trial. Neither Brian nor his six older sisters could find the strength to go with them. Damon's killer was shot not long after he killed Damon, Frank said. They aren't sure what happened to him. Both sons are buried at Inglewood Park Cemetery, not far from one another. Jeanetta visits often but has only rarely asked her children to come along. "I don't want them to see me cry," she said. "We've had too many sad tears."

When asked what it will mean to her to hear Brian's name called out at the draft, her voice breaks.

"These," she explains, "are tears of joy. My children are my heroes, and Brian is going to get his dream."

Paying it forward

There is another dream Brian wants to fulfill: creating a foundation he will call "Dream Catchers" that will help young adults find ways to achieve positive goals. Giving back to those less fortunate is a passion he said was instilled in him at an early age, feeding the homeless on Thanksgiving at his great-grandmother's church and now at his mother's church. He may be leaving the neighborhood for the bright lights of the NFL, but he said the neighborhood will never leave him. Even with the painful memories.

Price I will always support Crenshaw High. ... I love Crenshaw, and I like to come up here on my free time, be around the guys

-- Brian Price

"I will always support Crenshaw High," he said, "I've been coming here since I was a little kid. I love Crenshaw, and I like to come up here on my free time, be around the guys."

He was on the sideline during last fall's city championship game, which Crenshaw won, and on this sunny spring day poses for photographs with Garrett and high-fives some of the current players who just happen to walk by the football office and stare up at his massive frame with admiration they can't disguise. Price doesn't say much, but he is there: A quiet storm with a giant purpose.

"A lot of people say I escaped," he said. "I didn't escape, but I want to have a gateway for other families to get out. We always need to help each other. No matter what happens in your life."

Shelley Smith is a correspondent for ESPN based in Los Angeles.

Shelley Smith

SportsCenter correspondent
Shelley Smith joined ESPN in January 1997 after working part-time as a reporter for the network since 1993. She has covered Super Bowls, the NBA Finals, the BCS championship game, the Stanley Cup playoffs, golf and tennis championships and more.

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