Diamond in the rough Navy: From a rough-and-tumble start in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, freshman defensive end Bwerani Nettles shows what it takes to rise to the top.

October 09, 1998|By Alan Goldstein | Alan Goldstein,SUN STAFF

Bwerani Nettles has adopted a motto to shape his future.

"Obstacles are what you see when you lose sight of his goals," he said in a rich baritone that earned him a place in the Naval Academy gospel choir.

Perhaps no one on the current Navy football team has overcome more obstacles than Nettles, a freshman starting defensive end just two months shy of his 23rd birthday.

In many ways, he is a man among boys, earning an invitation to the Academy through hard work, perseverance and a dauntless attitude that helped him survive the warring gangs and drugs of South Central Los Angeles.

"Growing up in an environment like Watts, it's everywhere around you. You really can't escape it. I had friends who were killed or got hooked on drugs. My mother kept me in the house or busy with school or sports. She wouldn't let me get involved with the gangs."

His mother, Regina Webb, now living in Norwalk, Calif., said: "I always told my children, you don't have to be a product of your environment. You have to be your own individual. Sometimes, you don't think your kids are listening, but Bwerani obviously got the message.

"I kept him involved in activities he was interested in, especially sports. But, as a parent, you also have to get involved. It's just not dropping them off at some gym. I made sure Bwerani knew I was supporting him."

But the mean streets of Watts were always beckoning.

"When I walked through the neighborhood, I made sure to wear neutral colors, so I wouldn't offend the rival gangs. Some guys tried messing with me, and I witnessed shootings. Fortunately, no one ever shot at me."

But Nettles' life changed dramatically at 16, when his younger brother, Brian, was permanently paralyzed after being accidentally shot at a friend's house.

"Brian is the most inspirational individual in my life by the way he's learned to cope with his disability," said Nettles. "There's always a smile on his face and a song in his heart. He's attending high school now and trying to be as independent as he can."

In a sense, Bwerani became the man of the house with his parents already divorced. Singled out as an excellent student, he traveled two hours every day by bus to attend Grover Cleveland High, a magnet school in San Fernando Valley where he could study humanities.

After school, he helped supplement his family's income by working as a retail clerk and bank teller.

"Those jobs were just steppingstones, a means to an end," said Nettles, who had always hoped to attend one of the service academies. "I didn't want to be 25 and first start working toward a college degree," he said.

Nettles sought counsel from all three services before deciding -- the Navy's nuclear power program was the most appealing.

After enduring a frigid winter in boot camp at Great Lakes Training Station in 1995, he was assigned to Nuclear Power School in Orlando. He then applied to Annapolis and was accepted on the condition he first attend the Naval Academy Prep School (NAPS) in Newport, R.I.

Because of his work schedule, his high school football career was limited to less than a season. But he made an immediate impact as a walk-on at NAPS.

"We get about 40 or 50 'priors' a year, guys who were in the Navy or Marines for a few years trying out," said NAPS coach Bryan Brouse.

"They're a lot more mature physically and mentally than the normal 18-year-old kids. But football-wise, Bwerani was real raw."

By season's end, however, Nettles had established himself as a team leader and defensive force.

"As a player and person, the one thing that stands out is his enthusiasm for life and his upbeat attitude," said Brouse. "He's positive about everything and it lights up the whole team.

"I'm not certain how far he'll go as a player in college, but he'll continue to work hard to be as good as he can be. He does things 100 miles an hour. He's a class individual."

Plebes do not participate in spring practice at the Naval Academy, but Navy coach Charlie Weatherbie had seen Nettles perform against the jayvees and knew what to expect.

Three weeks into the current season, he replaced junior Gino Marchetti as a starter at defensive end and will be lining up against Air Force's explosive offense in Colorado Springs tomorrow.

"Nettles is very mature because of what he's been through," said Weatherbie. "It takes a lot of pressure to take a piece of coal and make it a diamond, and right now, he's a diamond in the rough.

"But he is already a natural leader on this team, vocally and spiritually. On the field, he is relentless, giving you a second and third effort to make a tackle. But leadership is his real strength."

Enticed by the closeness of Washington, Nettles is planning to major in political science.

Perhaps his parents gave him a head start by naming him Bwerani, an African name that means, "Come, you are welcome." It is a name befitting a leader, and Nettles is already playing the role.

Pub Date: 10/09/98

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