To those with the odds stacked against them,
When I was in high school, I had a football teammate named Darren, whose father was the superintendent of schools in Paterson, New Jersey, where we lived. Darren came from a very stable family and lived on the “nice” side of town in a house with his parents and two siblings. We lived in the same city but were seemingly worlds apart. I was the youngest of six children. My father never lived with us and died when I was 12 years old. We didn’t own a home or have a lot of money, but somehow my mother provided what I needed. We lived in subsidized housing or housing projects in communities plagued by low academic achievement, unemployment, drug abuse, and violence, among other things.
If you put my profile next to Darren’s, nine people out of ten would bet on Darren to beat the odds for Black men and for me to fall victim to them. But Darren, an All-State football player with a full-ride to an ACC school, developed a drug habit that resulted in a ten-year prison sentence for armed robbery. Since Darren and I graduated high school in 1986, I was blessed to play Division I college football and attend law school thereafter (I wasn’t good enough for the NFL). I worked as a lawyer at big firms and as an in-house counsel for a large company. I served as a state and federal prosecutor and as Chief Operating Officer in the city where Darren and I grew up. Now, I am what I call a “lawyer-preneur,” where I practice law and am involved in different charitable and business endeavors that provide me further opportunities for meaning.
I remember meeting Darren in prison – Darren was an inmate, and I visited him while a top prosecutor.
At the time I thought, “Why did Darren go to prison while I was able to pursue a career in law?”
I am still a work in progress, but, as I have heard some say, I managed to overachieve. And I still can’t help but wonder, “Why me?”
Transitions, the cycle of life
When I was a child, I initially wanted to be a firefighter, a police officer, or a construction worker because those were the people I saw making money in my community. We didn’t have family or friends who were doctors, lawyers, accountants, or engineers. But in fourth grade, my mind shifted. I had a teacher named Wyzetta Jones. She knew how to motivate kids. We played different academic games, and I was extremely competitive and argumentative.
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One day she said to me, “You would make a great lawyer.”
And I asked, “Why did you say that, Ms. Jones?”
She said, “Because you talk too much.”
The idea of becoming a lawyer stuck with me. Because Ms. Jones planted the seed, I began to have a dream, a vision.
My family moved five times by fifth grade – from one part of the city to another. Fortunately, I was a good athlete, playing football, basketball, and baseball, which gave me confidence and made it easier to connect with new people and make friends. I also played on city-wide teams, which helped me build a network around the city and beyond. Because I learned how to adapt to new environments at an early age, I became unafraid of change.
A perfect storm – drugs, disease, and mandatory minimums
During my teens, the crack cocaine epidemic spread through the “hood” like wildfire. I witnessed family, friends, and classmates, who were perfectly healthy and vibrant, become a shell of themselves almost overnight. One of my brothers died from a drug overdose, and another brother succumbed to HIV AIDS. I loved those guys, and they apparently looked out for me more than they did for themselves.
Also, the implementation of mandatory minimum sentences for drug and gun-related offenses disproportionately impacted Black and brown people. Once a person got into the criminal system, the cycle started and seemed inescapable. And I wasn’t exempt. I’ve had a few close calls. One time, in particular, a local drug dealer accused me of holding his stash, so a police officer stopped me and reached for his gun. In another incident, the police raided my block the day after I left for Rutgers. One day earlier, I would have been arrested in that sweep just for being there.
With that said, I was not dealing drugs or using them, but I lived in the community with those who did. They were still my friends and neighbors. Thankfully, I knew I wanted more out of life than what I saw, and my mom, coaches, and teachers told me that more was possible if I applied myself.
Mentorship has its privileges.
Because I listened to the people who invested themselves in my success, I received several Division I scholarship offers for football. My oldest daughter was born at the beginning of my senior year of high school, which certainly impacted my life, but I was determined to be a good father and follow my dream from fourth grade. I decided to stay close to home and accepted a football scholarship to play at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, where I initially struggled academically before I began taking law classes. Rutgers is where I met the late Mr. G, a Rutgers alumnus and fitness buff who loved supporting and employing student-athletes. Mr. G was a lawyer by trade, but he parlayed his law degree into a remarkably successful business career. He introduced me to lawyers and judges and helped me get my first internship with the late Clive S. Cummis. He planted the seeds of entrepreneurship to leverage opportunities with Emil J. Solimine, a confidante and business partner of Mr. G.
At first, I didn’t know if I could trust Mr. G. I was an insecure Black kid from the inner city and was mistakenly taught not to show weakness or trust anybody, let alone a man who didn’t share my ethnicity and background. Mr. G was a Caucasian Jew. I wondered what motivated him to mentor me. Despite my doubts, I continued to invest in the relationship with Mr. G. I couldn’t afford all my books and housing for law school, so he helped me. But even more memorable was this one phone call I made to him after my first year of law school. There was pressure in law school to perform at a high level. One day, I was down because I didn’t feel like I scored high enough on a final exam. I called Mr. G to deliver the “bad news.” His response caught me off guard.
He said, “Kid, I am proud of you.”
That’s when I knew he really cared about me. Our relationship evolved through the years from mentor-mentee to more like father-son. And to this day, even though he is no longer alive, his influence echoes throughout my life through his family, his long-time friend, my mentor, Emil, and others. Because I trusted the process and allowed myself to be vulnerable, I developed faith in God and His ability to use family, friends, and mentors to help others. By the grace of God, I survived and made it to adulthood.
Focus, focus, focus
If the odds are stacked against you, as they were for me, it is important that you find one thing or one person to help keep you focused because distractions are everywhere. You cannot get rid of some distractions, but you can learn to focus regardless of their presence. Sports kept me disciplined and focused, but for you, it may be science, technology, engineering, the arts, or math. I was motivated to stay in school and do well because I wanted to play on the team. My coaches would sit or suspend players who did not meet behavior or academic expectations. I was benched a few times and am thankful to them for doing so. I learned that there are consequences to action or inaction.
Get an education. Don’t quit school because it will severely limit your options and opportunities if you do. Create a network for yourself that will help you grow and develop in your chosen field. “Play Up” by using your gifts, talents, skills, and abilities to leverage an opportunity or solve a problem. Growing up, I played on teams with older kids who were more skilled, but it taught me to constantly challenge myself to compete and get better at something every day. Seek guidance from people in your school, community, church, club, or other organizations who have what you want or have access to those who do. Join a team, organization, or club where you can grow in the community and be surrounded by supportive adults who will invest in your success and development.
A promise made and kept
Darren’s experience taught me this: There are no guarantees in life. In many instances, we are defined more by the choices we make than the choices our parents made. It is undeniable that parents can set children up for success, but the power of choice can destroy the best-laid plans. While in prison, Darren promised his parents he would complete his college studies. In May 2022, almost 36 years later, Darren graduated with honors from Lincoln University. His parents passed and were not there to physically witness his remarkable comeback, but I was there beaming with pride while wondering what Darren’s life would have been like if he had made different choices. I shifted my thoughts and decided to stay in that moment because he can’t go back. None of us can.
Giving thanks with a grateful heart
Today, I am 53 years old and am gaining a deeper understanding of God’s purpose for me in this life. Mentoring, coaching, and serving are all a part of my portfolio as a lawyer-prenuer
I have a grateful heart and often marvel at God’s grace upon my life. I have a wonderful wife, three incredible children, and a lovely grandchild. When I think about, “Why me?” I am not sure I have the right sociological answer, and I have learned to accept that. The important thing is that no matter where you come from or how many people count you out, success is closer than it may appear if you remain faithful to your vision, surround yourself with supportive people, and get after it.
You can do it!
P.S. For more information on Vaughn, please check out Playing Up: One Man’s Rise from Public Housing to Public Service through Mentorship. Also, chat with Vaughn and Darren Thursday 6/23 on zoom at 7:30pm E.T.. Details HERE