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Skirting peril en route to a dream

By KEVIN KELLY, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 23, 2003

SAN DIEGO -- He wore the wrong hat into Burger King.

It was 1 a.m. and DeLawrence Grant and friends had just entered the restaurant. A man approached.

"This guy asked me where I was from and I guess he didn't get the response he wanted," Grant said. "He ended up robbing us and taking our food."

The Houston Astros logo on Grant's hat, an innocuous display of support for a baseball team, was a sign for a Crips gang in Los Angeles.

"I was from a Bloods neighborhood in Compton," Grant said.

Now a starting defensive end for the Raiders, Grant returns home often during the offseason.

There are gunshots and robberies. The high school football games are played on Saturdays to avoid potential violence on Friday nights. Even then players still ride to the games with their helmets on.

But Compton, a notoriously dangerous neighborhood between Los Angeles and Long Beach, is home. That modest house near the intersection of Central and El Segundo will always be home.

"Of course I've seen shootings," Grant, 23, said. "I've seen all that stuff. It's not as scary, I guess, once you get used to it.

"But when I went away to school and went away to Oregon State, it would take me a while to readjust. There's a big difference, no doubt."

The Raiders have a tradition each training camp. One by one players stand before their teammates and tell their life story.

Trace Armstrong remembers Grant's tale.

"It's a great way to build camaraderie," Armstrong said. "We all know who we are and where we came from. The one thing we have in common is this game.

"When you look at a guy like DeLawrence ... he had to overcome a lot to get here. When you take somebody who's able to overcome adversity in life, it breeds strength and it breeds character."

Grant avoided gang life, and it avoided him.

"He picked certain friends," his mother, Marlena Tyiska said. "I think he would've turned out all right regardless, no matter what. I had my foot down and tried to guide him in the right direction.

"Life is more than just being a knucklehead. You can make it. You don't have to be a butt. And he did pretty good staying away from the wrong people."

He spent hours on the playground courts and school gym, playing basketball before discovering there isn't much of a market for 6-foot-3 centers. Always too tall and too heavy to play Pop Warner football, it wasn't until his junior year at Centennial High that he tried football.

"When I first started, I (stunk)," Grant said. "But after my first year I kind of picked it up."

Colleges noticed.

He went to El Camino Community College in nearby Torrance for two years before moving on to Oregon State where he became an All-American.

"Sometimes I think about if I didn't really get into sports, where would I be?" Grant said. "But I don't think I'd be in the streets like that. I probably would've done something else positive. The gang life just wasn't me.

"When I go back (to Compton) and see the things that I could've done ... I talk to people all the time and tell them to pick up a ball. A lot of kids don't like to go to school. It's hard to go to school with problems at home. You're not eating well. You're not dressing well. It's hard to go to school with dirty clothes on. Luckily, I never had to deal with that, but I've got little cousins that have and I can tell that's why they act out."

The Raiders drafted Grant in the third round of the 2001 draft. They liked his size but loved his speed even more (4.53 for 40 yards).

Grant has started 13 straight games at defensive end for the injured Tony Bryant and 16 total this season.

"DeLawrence's athleticism, his natural strength and explosion is something that has been a real positive for us and we've tried to take advantage of it," Oakland defensive coordinator Chuck Bresnahan said.

"He's done a great job handling damage-control plays; the reverses, bootleg passes. When he does get in a bad position he has enough athletic ability to recover and make the plays. He's brought a wealth of physical talent to the field for us."

That he will play in a Super Bowl only a short drive from home and that 15 family members and friends will be at Qualcomm Stadium to cheer for him in a Raiders uniform is unfathomable.

Of those 15 will be Grant's mom, sister and brother.

"I'm still dreaming," he said. "I grew up a Raider fan. My family are Raiders fans. To play for the team that you grew up watching, that is big.

"It's nice to be able to live and eat and do different things when I want to and how I want to. But I like the competition more than anything."

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