Aaron Craver was feeling pretty good about himself. He had escaped the mean streets of Compton and was living a life his boyhood friends would never touch. As a starting running back in the NFL, he had fame, a million-dollar contract and a beautiful home in the suburbs.
But Craver was put in his place one off-season when he returned to his old neighborhood. Gloria Boyd, a fifth-grade teacher whom Craver idolized, told the brash kid with the fancy car that he really hadn't achieved anything.
"She thought I'd be doing something more than just playing professional football," Craver said. "She had always heard me talk about Martin Luther King and all the good things he did for people. She figured I'd make a difference."
That's when Craver began preparing for the next, more meaningful stage of his life. As his nine-year career began winding down, he started speaking more to youth groups and school assemblies about staying on the right track and out of trouble.
He walked away from the NFL at 31 after being released by the New Orleans Saints, stunning teammates who had assumed he would hang on and keep cashing big paychecks until his body gave out.
Within months, Craver developed Light Speed, an after-school track-and-field program designed to develop athletic skills and prepare youths for high school and college.
The Irvine-based program began with only a dozen elementary school children, but in three years it has grown to 150 and now includes high school students and has expanded from the suburbs of Orange County to urban Los Angeles County. Two afternoons a week, Craver and his assistant coaches meet with children at sites throughout Southern California -- Irvine, Carson, La Palma and Cypress.
Craver, who was a track star at Compton High, formed Light Speed as a track and field club. But he has added study hall sessions, field trips, runs up Mt. San Antonio and pick-up basketball.
"I wanted to give some of these kids a chance to see what life is like outside of their neighborhoods," he said. "Give them a chance to relax without always having to put their chest in the air and defend their turf."
The program is free to families who can't afford to pay and the cost is minimal for others. Last summer, Craver paid for 20 youngsters to attend youth track and field championships in Detroit and Miami. The nonprofit organization is subsidized by Craver and a few clothing apparel companies, including Nike.
The parents are grateful.
"There's barely a charge for this," said Jean Rodriguez of Irvine, whose sons Ryan, 9, and Curt, 6, have been in Craver's program for a year. "I don't know how this man manages."
Quite well, actually. Between his shipping company, Road Warrior Express, and smart investments from his NFL days, Craver supports Light Speed and easily covers his living expenses. The workdays are long -- 16 hours sometimes -- and getting longer.
In the next few weeks, Light Speed will have a new hub -- Compton -- and possibly another 2,000 children. Craver has accepted a job with Compton Unified School District as recreation director for the city's elementary and middle schools.
"A lot of guys, when they achieve some success, rarely do they come back to their humble beginnings," said Ernie Carr, athletic director for Compton Unified. "Compton has a rich tradition of great athletes, but a lot of these guys forget their roots. It's refreshing that someone would be that big-hearted and fulfill that desire like Aaron has."
The new position includes a salary, but Craver plans to return the money to the financially strapped recreation program. "Some people thought I was crazy to take this job," he said. "They said, 'You've done really well -- why do you want to come back here?' "
Craver said the decision to return home had been easy.
"I remember Compton the way it once was, back in the glory days of the 1970s," he said. "You couldn't get a seat to a high school football game. The fields were in great shape and the city produced a lot of great athletes.
"Now, the fields are a mess and the youth programs are almost nonexistent. Once the best athletes reach high school, they transfer out of the district and begin filling up rosters of other city's teams. I want to make Compton an attractive place to be again."
Tired of hearing stories about athletes giving a few bucks back to their old schools or hometown, Craver wanted to do more.
"A few dollars doesn't really help," he said. "You need to give these kids the time and develop the kind of programs that will benefit long term."
His goal is to start a community within the community. Craver said he would ask Compton residents to contribute a dollar a month to bettering the city.
"It's a tough project, but I believe we can create our own resources here," he said. "We can't wait for the state or the politicians to help. We have to help ourselves."
Craver hopes that the citizens who contribute to his after-school program eventually will be able to own their own franchises. "I want to give people a return on their money and, ultimately, power," he said. "I've always wanted to see people experience what I have."
He admitted he was beginning to sound like a politician. Mayor of Compton, possibly?
"I've thought about it," he said. "I know I could do a better job than what's been done in the past here."