Victor, Harris on Different Paths Out of Westlake Village

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Same high school, same college aspirations, same electrifying football talent.

Westlake High seniors Jamal Harris and Jason Victor can change a game on one play. Harris is a tailback who combines great acceleration with relentless second effort. Victor is a receiver who outruns and outjumps defensive backs with astonishing ease.

Both are being recruited by Division I colleges. Their times in the football 40-yard dash are in the 4.5-second range. After the season, both plan to play basketball. And they will pass the baton to one another during track season.

But when they head for home, the likeness dissolves.

As he is on the field, Harris is the grounded one. He is on a tight leash held by his mother, Carolyn Biggs-Harris, a successful businesswoman who expects excellence from her son in every phase of life.

Harris already has mapped out the steps that will make him successful, finding trouble only when someone provokes a fight. Proud and determined, Harris won't back down.

As he is on the field, Victor is the elusive one. He is an upbeat enigma who spends idle time developing an artistic flair by drawing cartoons.

Lacking family support, Victor is like a leaf in the wind, having lived at the homes of his coach and a succession of teammates while trying to keep up academically and socially. Now you see him, now you don't.

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The intense preparation for Westlake's Marmonte League game against unbeaten Newbury Park was lightened this week by a practice-ending drill of four-on-four.

Harris and Victor whooped it up, displaying their best moves and launching errant passes. Their team lost on the final play, and as a penalty ran to a row of portable toilets, laughing and shouting all the way.

"Football is one of the things I've dedicated my life to, so I want to make it as fun as possible," Harris said.

After practice, Harris hopped into his Volkswagen convertible and soon was doing homework, taking calls from college recruiters and chatting with his girlfriend.

"Jamal is not a follower; he's followed by others," said Mike Mini, a senior defensive end. "He has a mind of his own and he definitely knows what he wants to do."

And what his mother wants for him. When gang members began recruiting Jamal at the age of 9, she promptly moved from Los Angeles to Rancho Cucamonga. Four years later they moved to Thousand Oaks.

"You can't keep kids away from bad influences, you can only steer them in the right direction," Biggs-Harris said. "Jamal is like all teen-age kids. He has a lot to give and there is a lot he wants to do. We as parents have to stay on them and not just let them go."

The only trouble Harris finds is from youths Mini describes as "punks who want to make a name for themselves by fighting Jamal Harris."

The windows in Harris' home were smashed early this year. Harris ran into the suspected culprit at a local mall and a fistfight ensued.

Westlake Coach Jim Benkert found out and laid down the law, telling Harris that people who don't know him could misread his actions. Don't jeopardize what you have earned, the coach said.

Benkert and Biggs-Harris had Jamal sign a contract, stipulating that he must act responsibly or lose his driving and telephone privileges.

"I gave Coach Benkert the right to act as me," Biggs-Harris said. "We've double-teamed Jamal and he must walk the straight and narrow."

Harris also receives advice from his father, Lester, a businessman who lives in Los Angeles. He attends Westlake games and sees Jamal on weekends.

"My parents know I have the talent and brains to do what I want," Harris said. "And Coach Benkert is like a big brother or father-type guy. They keep me moving in the right direction."

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Moving has been a way of life for Victor, who has stayed with the family of junior linebacker Kenny Pickard since July. After several nights of sleeping on a couch, the Pickards invited him to remain through the school year.

"Kenny's mom is real strict with me," Victor said. "She treats me like her son. It's pretty good."

After having bounced from place to place the previous year, Victor relishes the continuity. The Pickards bought him a bed and on his 18th birthday in August, celebrated with a cake and gifts. He also accompanied them on a vacation to Pismo Beach.

"When he came here he had a backpack and that was it," said Charlotte Pickard, Kenny's mother. "It seems to me he's a survivor."

Victor has little contact with his father, who lives in Ohio with Jason's younger brother, or with his mother, who lives in the West Valley with his younger sister. His older brother, John, graduated from Westlake in 1993 and attends Pasadena City College.

Charlotte Pickard is amazed at Victor's demeanor given the turmoil in his personal life.

"I never hear him talk about what he doesn't have," she said. "He just focuses on living through today. Jason is a remarkable guy. In his mind, he will be happy. He will make the best of it. He won't allow anything to make him down on life."

Benkert has been the most-prominent male figure in Victor's life for four years and Victor lived at Benkert's home for several months last year.

The player does not conceal his affection for his coach. In the Westlake game program, seniors listed their favorite athlete. Harris wrote Barry Sanders, Victor wrote Coach Benkert.

"He gave me money when I needed it and he made me do my homework," Victor said. Breaking into a smile, he added, "And he made me cut the grass every weekend."

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The mere thought of cutting across the turf on a Friday night makes both players smile.

Harris has rushed for 777 yards and nine touchdowns, averaging 8.6 yards a carry.

Victor has 27 catches for 537 yards and five touchdowns.

The mere thought of sitting in a room with a No. 2 pencil on a Saturday makes both players squirm.

Harris came close to achieving an NCAA qualifying score in his first try at the Scholastic Assessment Test. Victor will give it a go Nov. 4, the same day Harris will make his second try.

As for the core-class requirement, Harris is on track, although he must maintain a 2.5 grade-point average.

College was in Harris' plans long before he blossomed as an athlete. His mother holds a master's degree and his sister, Crystal, is a senior at UC San Diego.

"College is definitely real to me," Harris said. "Now I see it all happening. I never thought I had what it would take as an athlete, but now in my heart I know."

Victor is just as adamant about continuing his education and football career, although his first stop probably will be a junior college. He stands little chance of meeting Division I requirements because he has not taken enough math.

"He had difficulty focusing on schooling when he was wondering where he would sleep and where his next meal would come from," Charlotte Pickard said.

When recruiters call, Victor is unfailingly positive about everything from football to academics. The reality of being academically unqualified is something he has yet to accept.

"I want to study architecture or graphic design," he said. "I watch college football all the time. I want to be there."

As long as he has Benkert, the Pickards and a team full of friends, Victor is content. However, they worry that after high school he will lack direction.

Harris also lives like he plays. He outlines every move, even to the point of predicting his future.

Under "life's goal" in the team's game program, Harris wrote: "To become a big-time businessman that sticks out like a sore thumb."

Victor addressed more immediate challenges when he wrote: "Do good in school and go far in football."

Ultimately, their differences dissolve. In their own ways, Harris and Victor believe in themselves.

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