BRADENTON — Four teens from Pride Park sat at a table at Mattison’s Riverside across from Tampa Bay Buccaneers offensive tackle Julius Wilson.
Wilson, 25, who graduated from Southeast High School in 2002, did most of the talking as they waited for dinner.
He talked to the teens ranging from 13 to 17 years old.
Wilson, who grew up without a father, said he gave way to finding trouble in the streets. The teens were mostly shy.
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Wilson said with focus he has fulfilled one of his dreams — playing pro football.
He stressed the importance of making smarter choices.
“Now I feel like I’ve found my home,” he said, describing his team and location close to his family in Bradenton.
The teens, some of whom have been in and out of the detention center, are affiliated with gangs and carry guns. They are part of a YMCA-based program.
A 14-year-old boy dressed in all black said, “I’m just used to making my own decisions,” when he was asked why he got into trouble.
“Why do you have a gun?” Wilson asked at one point.
“To protect myself. I’m not just going to get shot up,” the boy replied.
“You don’t need to have a gun. You just need to hang around the right people,” Wilson said. “It’s gets old looking over your shoulder every day.”
The boys were asked what they want to do when they graduate.
One boy said, “I don’t know.” Some were silent.
“You guys need to start dreaming. … You see poverty. You see hurt. Life isn’t easy, but it’s what you make of it,” said YMCA Pastor Jerry Parrish, sitting at the dinner table.
Wilson said it wasn’t too long ago that he was like the boys.
“I sat in the same seats at the Boys and Girls Club. I was on the wrong path. I was into selling drugs because that’s all my eyes ever saw. You have to change your life around. You really have to work to change your life,” he said.