Gonzalo Vasquez walks out the doors at FaithWorks community center and immediately grabs a basketball.
Instantly, little kids swarm around him. They jump for the ball. They run for the rebound.
They just want to be around him.
Almost like they sense something different about him.
Not many years ago, Gonzalo was like most kids from this destitute neighborhood just across the river from the glitzy growth of downtown Oklahoma City. His future was in a gang. His outlook was bleak.
Sports changed all that.
“If I didn't have sports,” he said, “I would probably be in the streets right now.”
Instead, this first-generation American has a future that looks brighter than anyone in his family ever imagined. He goes to college instead of the streets. He talks of staying in the neighborhood because he wants to, not because he must.
On a day that Americans celebrate independence, no one has taken advantage of the opportunity that this country affords any better than Gonzalo Vasquez.
“He's a one in a million kid,” said Jace Kirk, assistant director at FaithWorks.
Gonzalo was born in California, the third of four children born to Mexican immigrant parents. When he was 10, the family moved to Oklahoma and settled in the heavily Hispanic Capitol Hill neighborhood. They lived in an area that locals call “Top Town.”
It is home to some of Oklahoma City's worst poverty and gang violence.
The environment hardened Gonzalo.
When the van from the community center would go to the Ambassador Courts Apartments to pick up kids, Gonzalo never came along. But the workers still knew who he was. His tough-guy reputation was well-known.
“We didn't have much to do with him,” executive director Sally Goin said.
By the time Gonzalo started high school at Crooked Oak, he was bucking authority and doing just enough in his classes.
But he wanted to play football and soccer. Even though he had shown signs of following the same path so many in the neighborhood did, something in him said he shouldn't. Sports would help fill his time.
Go to school. Go to practice. Go to work at Buy For Less. Sleep. Repeat.
He knew plenty of guys who'd played sports through junior high and stayed on the straight and narrow. But then when they stopped playing in high school, their lives veered off track. Some joined the gangs. Some went to jail. A few had an even worse fate.
Gonzalo knew sports could buoy him.
To stay on the teams, though, he had to do what the coaches said. Had keep up his grades, too.
Greg Adams, then the football coach at Crooked Oak, was the first to push Gonzalo. The coach set standards and made requirements, then stuck to them.
Same for Kit Stephenson, who became the soccer coach when Gonzalo was a junior.
Gonzalo thrived with the expectations.
His mom, Oyuki — his biggest supporter — always disciplined him and set good boundaries, but something about his experience in sports was different. It pushed buttons that nothing else did.
As the years went by and he continued to get good grades and emerged as a team leader, a switch flipped.
Gonzalo wanted to go to college.
“When you live in a neighborhood like this,” he said, “your goal is just pretty much to graduate from high school.”
No one in Gonzalo's family had ever gone to college. Not his parents. Not his older brother or sister. Only his older brother had even finished high school.
Ask kids in the neighborhood what they want to be when they grow up, and they stare back blankly. They know nothing beyond what they see the adults around them doing. They believe they can only be house keepers or yard workers.
College seems as far away as Mars.
But Gonzalo's successes in sports opened his mind to the possibility of going there.
“I think that was the mental change for him — ‘I can actually do this. I can set my goals higher,'” Kirk said.
Gonzalo said: “When I started thinking about college, I started thinking, ‘I could make my family proud.' I've got a little brother — he's a freshman in high school — and I could lead him down a different path.”
Having started going to FaithWorks regularly, he asked Kirk and Goin to help him with college applications and essays. They not only did that but also took him to Central Oklahoma. They walked around the Edmond campus. They pointed out all the buildings. They went into a few classrooms.
“So many of our kids have no idea what college is,” Kirk said. “When you go and see it, you go, ... ‘It's not as intimidating as I thought.'”
It wasn't Mars.
Gonzalo applied to UCO, deciding to commute from home to school and scrounging together a couple scholarships to cover tuition. He won $1,000 as a finalist for the national Inspireum Soccer Award; he was one of a dozen from 250 applicants.
Then, he received his acceptance letter from UCO.
He was shocked.
“What did I get into?” he thought. “I don't know none of this.”
But the support system that helped him through high school — his mom, his coaches, his mentors at FaithWorks — encouraged him. Told him he could do it. Let him know they'd be there to help.
Now, Gonzalo has a year of college behind him.
He is majoring in Spanish education. He wants to teach Spanish and coach soccer, and he dreams of doing it in one of the schools near Top Town.
“I would like to come back to the neighborhood, back to this,” he said earlier this week as he sat inside the community center.
He knows how much kids here need good role models. How much they need hope.
He's not waiting to try to affect change either. He's interning this summer at FaithWorks. He's working with dozens of elementary school kids.
They follow him around the center like he's the Pied Piper.
And he just might be.
“The way this community's going to change,” Goin said, “is through people like Gonzalo.”
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at (405) 475-4125. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok or view her personality page at newsok.com/jennicarlson.