LARGO — As the clock ticked toward 6 p.m. Wednesday, about a dozen boys playing basketball in the Greater Ridgecrest YMCA gym were given a two-minute warning by Vernon Bryant, the YMCA executive director.
There was a big community meeting scheduled that night, an event Bryant and several other men from the Ridgecrest area west of Largo planned in the aftermath of recent violence culminated by a Nov. 23 drive-by shooting that killed 19-year-old Gregory Williams of Clearwater.
Bryant and the men were hoping hundreds of boys and young men would fill the gym Wednesday night to hear messages of concern.
As 6 o'clock came and went, only about 20 boys had gathered on metal risers positioned in a semicircle. Bryant began with a prayer, asking for God's help with the boys who were there and "boys who should be here."
Wednesday's meeting went on as scheduled, even if the turnout was much smaller than Bryant and Robert Whiting, the YMCA's sports coordinator, had hoped for.
The speakers Bryant and Whiting had invited — a bail bondsman, a real estate broker and a football coach among them — emphasized to the boys the importance of education and staying out of prison.
The boys' eyes wandered as the first few speakers talked education. Then a few minutes in, a large man entered the gym and sat behind the boys. Built like a lumberjack and dressed like a bag boy at Publix, the man got the boys' attention with his introduction.
"My name is 21951-018," he told the boys. They laughed. He repeated it.
The man was Greg Harvey, 44, a former youth football star turned drug dealer turned convict who grew up in Largo. The number he rattled off was his federal prison inmate identification number. He served eight years and 11 months, he said, for conspiracy to distribute cocaine.
Harvey told the boys about his exploits on the football field and in the streets as a teen. He scored touchdowns and sold cocaine, he said, coming to school some days with a gun and $3,500 cash.
"I had a scholarship sitting here," he said, holding out his left hand, and then his right, "and I had cocaine sitting here. I chose cocaine."
That choice landed Harvey in federal prison, a place where disputes were settled with lunchline stabbings, and where the joy of a visit from family and friends always ended with the shame, and pain, of a man with gloved hands performing a body cavity search for contraband.
"I went to hell on Earth and I survived, by God's blessing," said Harvey, who returned to Largo after getting out and now works at Publix. "My name is 21951-018. If you don't want to be 21951-019, I suggest you stay in school, obey your parents and you'll be fine."
The meeting ended with pizza. The boys lined up for slices of cheese and pepperoni, then played basketball.
Vernon Bryant attributed the low turnout to the Pinellas County all-star football game Wednesday night in Clearwater. He said he, Whiting and the others wouldn't be deterred, though, that Wednesday's meeting was the first of many for their new mentoring program.
As Bryant spoke, Chris Burgess, 12, sat on the risers by himself, letting a slice of pepperoni pizza digest. It was good pizza, he said.
Burgess wants to be a football player when he grows up — a linebacker. He said he understood what the men told him and why it was important. The most important message of the night, he said, was to get good grades. When he was asked why, Burgess looked at the person asking like the answer was obvious.
"So I can have a good life."
Will Hobson can be reached at (727) 445-4167 or [email protected] To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.