Cruel is the word Domenic Betts uses to describe the past few years of his life. And that's probably an understatement.
Betts battles back
Domenic Betts has been able to turn his life back around and is being recruited to numerous college programs.
The path he traveled – from football standout as a sophomore at Banning (Calif.) High to expelled as a junior to possible witness in a double-homicide trial to football standout as a senior – puts cruel to shame.
The saga started nearly three years ago, when Betts, then 14, was a freshman. As a running back/cornerback on Banning's varsity, he drew raves and popped up on recruiting radar screens throughout the West.
But in a school with too many bad crowds and in a neighborhood without enough role models, Betts found himself in trouble.
During his sophomore season, police started showing up at Banning practices to ask about a murder case. Then Betts, feeling isolated, started using drugs before and after school. Then he was expelled.
A nearly two-year journey ensued. As quickly as he had eluded defenders, Betts blazed a trail to rock bottom.
But now he says he's back. In 7 games, Betts has scored 18 touchdowns, and the Broncos are 3-4. Not great, but better than last season's 2-5 start.
And coaches have noticed his play. At 5 feet 10 and 180 pounds, Betts squats more than twice his weight and runs the 40-yard dash in 4.5 seconds. Coaches from UCLA have called, and letters from Oregon - among others - fill his mailbox.
"It feels good to have something to do again," Betts says. "For a while, I just felt like I had nothing going on. I didn't realize how much I'd miss playing until I couldn't."
A GANG-RELATED KILLING
In February 2006, two men were murdered in Wilmington – south of Los Angeles and west of Long Beach – in what is believed to be a gang-related shooting.
Court records show that Vincent McCarthy and Demetrius Hunt were fatally shot in front of an apartment complex; records show that they were killed after an argument ensued when Robert McMorris wanted to switch gang affiliations and join his brother's group.
Court records show that during the argument, McMorris, 19, fell to the ground, which prompted his brother, Vince Bryan Smith, to pull out a gun and start yelling. Investigators said at least three other people at the scene fired guns and that Hunt, 18, and McCarthy, 33, ended up dead.
The homicides sparked the largest murder case in Riverside County history. In an attempt to quell gang-related activities, the Riverside County district attorney's office charged 14 people with two counts of murder with special circumstances and with street-gang participation in connection with the deaths.
Though most of the defendants weren't accused of firing weapons, they were pursued because of their alleged gang affiliations.
In March of this year, before the first of several hearings began, court records show that 17-year-old Lonnie Walton pleaded guilty to two counts of voluntary manslaughter. Three defendants were found not guilty in May. The rest of the defendants will be tried in multiple hearings in the near future.
Betts says he wasn't at the scene of the crime and he never was charged with anything related to the murder. But several of the people arrested were Betts' childhood friends, and two of the defendants were on the Banning football team at the time of the murder.
Police became regulars at practices, trying to get Betts to tell them what he knew about the case.
"The cops were super-aggressive, looking for anything they could use," says Banning coach John Stockham, who was an assistant at the time. "You know, you're glad they did it that way because it let the kids know they weren't messing around. But it was crazy, constantly pulling him out of practice to ask questions. It was really wild."
The thing that had previously separated Betts from his gang-member friends was football. He said playing ball since childhood kept him busy, kept him out of trouble.
Betts remembers the day the murders occurred. His childhood friend, Aaron Lee, then 16, didn't show up to practice. Later that night, Lee was found at the scene of the crime, and he eventually was charged with murder.
"He just threw his life away that day," says Betts, who nearly did the same thing the following year.
SLIDING INTO THE ABYSS
Betts says he never "snitched" on his friends, but he also says they didn't believe him. The friends Betts grew up with didn't trust him and, in turn, he felt deserted. Betts turned into a recluse – and also turned to drugs.
Football, his first love, became a lesser priority. His teammates, the guys Betts says he should have stayed close to, grew distant. Betts wanted to be alone, and the only person he trusted was himself.
"Honestly, we didn't think he was all that bad at first," says junior cornerback Derron Smith, who has played football and basketball with Betts since they were in junior high together. "I knew he was having problems, but I didn't know how much he was going through."
Charley Ellison, Betts' father, remembers dropping his son off early at school and driving away feeling helpless. Ellison had to work and he couldn't stick around to watch Betts actually go to class. Sure enough, Ellison would get automated phone calls at night reporting Betts' absences.
When I saw the crowd he started hanging with, I just knew it was bad. I would tell him he's the one with the most to lose. Those other guys were zeroes.
— Charley Ellison, Domenic Betts father reacting to the crowd his son was hanging out with
Instead of going into the school building, Betts would go across the street and get high.
That wasn't the son Ellison raised.
"When I saw the crowd he started hanging with, I just knew it was bad," Ellison says. "I would tell him he's the one with the most to lose. Those other guys were zeroes. He had all this talent on the field, and those guys were jealous.
"But he didn't want to hear it. Kids are like that, I guess. They think you're just trying to make them act like you."
In the year after the shootings, Betts steadily descended.
"I kind of knew I was screwing up," Betts says, "but I just didn't feel like I could trust anyone."
Stockham had worked with teens on probation in a residential treatment program, so he realized Betts was headed downhill. He went to Betts' home to talk with Ellison and Betts' mom, Erika Williams. He gave them in-home drug tests to use with Betts.
Preparing for his first year coaching a team that had gone a combined 1-19 in 2005 and '06, Stockham didn't want to lose one of his best players. Nor did he want to lose a good kid to a life on the streets.
"It's hard because you don't want to overstep your boundaries as a coach," Stockham says. "But how do you not try helping out? I guess I'm kind of old-fashioned this way, but I really feel like as a coach you can teach a lot more than just football.
"You can't just let a kid go."
Eventually, though, that's what Stockham had to do. Because of drug and grade issues, Betts was expelled after his sophomore season and forced to attend an alternative school as a junior.
He was put on probation and forced to meet with a probation officer twice a month. He had to take drug tests and do community service. Worst of all, Betts said, he had to attend a school filled with kids who had messed up as badly as he had.
"The family lost some of its closeness when Domenic was struggling," Ellison says.
Betts' younger brothers, Anthony (10) and Eric (8), used to watch him play football, hoping one day they'd be like him.
"They were upset that they couldn't watch their brother doing the things he had before," Ellison says.
It was time for Betts to make a decision: give up his current lifestyle or give up, period. Betts chose the former.
ON THE REBOUND
For most of his junior year, Betts was a loner – not because he was doing drugs but because he was avoiding the kids who were.
"Most of the people there didn't care about what they were doing," Betts said. "I started to see I wasn't going anywhere. I couldn't play football. I couldn't do anything.
"When I got [to the alternative school], I think that's when I realized how much I wanted to go back to [Banning]."
The comeback process wasn't easy. First, Betts had to make it through the year without screwing up – no drugs, no out-of-school mishaps. And he was still being questioned about the double-homicide case.
Ellison credits Betts' turnaround to his increasing attendance at bible-study classes. When Betts saw that good things happen to good people, Ellison says, he realized how much he stood to gain by changing his ways.
Betts also went to anger-management and substance-abuse classes. He applied for reinstatement at Banning through the school board after he polished up his grades, then attended a hearing at which he had to prove he had become a better person.
The school board gave Betts a second chance. His old teammates, though, weren't as easy a sell.
"I had talked to him and seen him a few times when he was expelled," Smith says. "We had talked about him coming back, but [the team] wasn't sure. We didn't want to get our hopes up."
Banning was 3-7 in 2007 – by no means good, but light years ahead of the past several seasons. Stockham had spent most of his time cleaning up a program that had had four coaches in the previous eight seasons.
Betts battles back
Domenic Betts is happy just to be back on the practice field after nearly throwing his life away.
"To be honest, I was kind of afraid to mess with the chemistry we were building," Stockham says. "I thought Domenic could go either way. Maybe he kind of becomes a leader or maybe he turns into a bad apple.
"We let him start working with us, and I had a meeting with the rest of the players. I told them, 'Look, we've all made mistakes. I think we should give him a chance.' "
The decision is paying off. In his first game back, Betts returned two kicks for touchdowns and caught a 56-yard pass for another score. He gives the Broncos something they haven't had in years: a dual-threat offense.
After tallying nearly 1,500 yards last year as a sophomore, Smith is blossoming because of Betts' presence. Betts is a constant running threat, so opponents no longer can sit back in soft zone defenses waiting to pounce on Smith's passes.
Betts has good speed and soft hands. And he has the needed mind-set: "He loves the contact, loves to hit people," Stockham says.
He's confident, too.
"I feel really good out there," Betts says. "We lost some early games, but we should finish 7-3 or 6-4. We've already played the toughest teams on our schedule. Now we just need to take care of business."
The same goes for Betts, who says he doesn't talk with his old friends. Looking back, should Betts have picked different friends? Should he have been able to stay out of trouble, regardless of his surroundings?
"I don't know," says Betts, now 17. "I mean, I think I've been through a lot more than most people my age have. It's taught me a lot.
"But it's been really hard, you know? I don't know how I got through it."
These days, Betts only hangs out with his family, teammates and girlfriend. Those are the people he trusts, the ones with whom he feels comfortable.
"He needs to keep that focus," Ellison says. "I always thought he'd come back, but I didn't think it'd be so quick. Every aspect of his life has changed. It's wonderful."