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U. football player pushing criminal past behind him

He changed his life the day after his best friend died. They were at a party when angry words were exchanged and a shot fired. Tai Lepule saw him slump over, but thinking his friend was ducking at the sound of the shot, Lepule disappeared into the night with fellow gang members. In reality, the bullet struck down his friend; it wasn't until the next day Lepule learned he had been killed.

"I couldn't get to him. There were too many people," he says, tears filling his eyes.Until then, Lepule's life was a nonstop cycle of crime on the hardscrabble streets of National City, a suburb of San Diego. His resume was substantial: robbery, drug-dealing, car-jacking, vandalism, theft of car stereos, computers, guns and jewelry.

"And drive-bys," he says, looking down. "I'd shoot, but I didn't really aim. I aimed away, missed on purpose, and nobody knew."

As Lepule sits on a bench outside the University of Utah's Dee Glen Smith Athletics Center, he is far from his angry past. He is a smiling young man with dreams of working with disadvantaged children someday. A 22-year-old senior fullback for the Utes, he weeps remembering his troubled teenage years and worries at the pain he caused. He thinks of his former friends back home, his older brother and his mother, who stayed by him through the rough years. "Can you put in the story that I love my mom and my brother?" he says.

Lepule's story isn't unusual for someone who grew up on the streets of a major American city. He considers his former life a rebellious teenage phase.

His older brother, Tana, was what he calls "the good son." Tai was the troublemaker. He ran with a dangerous crowd that stayed out late and slept with one eye open.

The difference between Lepule and most of his friends was that he had a chance to escape by playing football.

Lepule wasn't the first troubled athlete from National City to end up at the university. Martel Black, who played with the Utes in 1987, attended the same high school as Lepule, seven years earlier. Though he was a reputed gang member, Black denied involvement. What is known is that Black was a drug dealer. While he was at the U. he was convicted of distributing cocaine and sentenced to six years in a federal prison in Texas.

Indeed, there is a strange irony in the stories of Lepule and Black, two streetwise fullbacks from the same school, both coming to college in Utah with hopes of success. But while one went to prison, the other changed his life.

By the time he arrived in Utah, Lepule was already well into leaving his bleak past behind. He joined a church last year and now works with Dr. Theresa Martinez, a University of Utah sociology professor, assisting homeless and troubled youths. He speaks at group homes (where youths are released after being placed in detention) and schools about the risks of gang life and the dangers of drugs. Lepule shows his contagious smile. The clouds are burning off and another sunny autumn afternoon is on the way. Teammates come out the door of the locker room and tease him as they leave for lunch. In a few days, he'll be back at another transitional home, trying to help the children cope. It is a life he nearly missed. And from the darkness of his past, there is light.