Ex-con actor lays it down for local team

Los Angeles Daily News

By Amy Raisin Darvish
Staff Writer

Saturday, January 22, 2005 – SANTA CLARITA — It takes a lot to impress teens these days, especially boys, so when the head football coach at Golden Valley High was looking for a motivational speaker to visit the team, he knew he needed someone with not only presence, but the credibility to back it up.

When convicted felon and recovering addict-turned-actor Danny Trejo walked into the classroom Thursday at Golden Valley — baggy black jeans and black shirt draped on his sturdy, tattooed frame — the roomful of teenage boys fell silent.

“I’ve been in every penitentiary in the state of California,” Trejo said, a backward baseball cap allowing a clear view of his weathered, hardened features. “You got two types of people in the pen — predators and prey. You may think you’re a predator, but someone’s looking to make you prey.”

With nearly 100 films to his credit, Trejo understands the make-believe world of acting. What sets him apart from other actors, however, is that he doesn’t need to research the mannerisms or behaviors of violent criminals to effectively portray such characters on the screen.

Convictions for robbery and gang violence earned the Pacoima native a total of 11 years in state prison, including a lengthy stretch in San Quentin. The father of three has been sober for more than 20 years, but he speaks the language of the street and still looks every inch the menacing tough guy he admits he used to be.

It didn’t take long for Trejo, who looks younger than his 60 years, to make the teens forget he was an actor. At times funny, other times chillingly serious, the man known for his performances in films including “Heat,” “From Dusk Till Dawn,” “The Replacement Killers” and “Spy Kids” called on his real experiences to tout the importance of education.

Rob Swartz, head football coach at Golden Valley High, which opened its doors for the first time last August, said the sophomore team had a combined grade point average of 1.28 upon arrival last year, an academic record he was determined to address.

“The major issue has been grades, behavior, accountability,” Swartz said following Trejo’s visit. “These guys need to hear the message of what Danny had to say. It’s about accountability, and Danny is someone who lived it.”

Many of the boys said they could relate to Trejo’s tales of peer pressure and a lack of self respect that caused the former gang member to blow off school, use drugs and make poor decisions.

“I had an ‘I don’t care’ attitude” when school started in August, said Tyrone Millett, a 10th-grader and football player. “My attitude, my grades, basically everything. But a lot of that has changed.”

Millet, 16, credited his improvement to Swartz, who has begun a tutoring program for his players, as well as a mentoring program, which is what drew Trejo to the campus.

“He’s one of the men I respect,” Millett said of Swartz. “I’ve lost a lot of men in my life, and I don’t let too many men get close to me. But I respect Coach, and I can tell him things.”

Trejo echoed Swartz’s mantra that education comes before anything else, including football.

“Since I was a little kid, all my teachers would say to me, ‘You better get your high school diploma. If you don’t have a high school diploma, you’ll never get a good job,”‘ Trejo said, affecting a voice that brought laughter from the audience.

Trejo told the teens that he never paid much attention to the teachers’ nagging about a diploma. That is, until he was incarcerated in San Quentin.

“When I get there, all my homies are there,” he said. “They said, ‘Eh, homie, you gotta get a job doing dry cleaning. That’s the best job (in prison).’ So I write on the (work detail card), ‘Dry Cleaning.’

“You know what? I got it back and it said, ‘Denied,’ ” he said. “You now why? That’s right: You gotta have a high school diploma to work dry cleaning. I couldn’t get a job in prison without a high school diploma.”

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