NEW PORT RICHEY— The man under the lights commands the attention of the 19 teenagers the courts sent here, to the West Pasco Judicial Center.
The shoplifters, the vandals, the drug users and pushers as young as 13 — Dee Reed looks them all in the eye. The former Pasco High football star asks them about the bad decisions they made, the ones that led them to Courtroom 1B on a Tuesday afternoon.
Then Reed tells them about his own.
He tells them what he could have been— an ACC quarterback, a business school graduate, a professional football player.
And he tells them what he became. A drug addict foaming at the mouth. A crack dealer with a gun at his temple. A federal prisoner with a tunnel of mistakes that followed him from middle school to his wedding day.
"I'm gonna tell you why I did it," Reed says, "and why I'm not gonna do it no more."
• • •
Dee Reed was in control.
The three-sport star and Dade City native had just taken Pasco High from 2-8 in 1989 to the 1991 state quarterfinals in football and to a region title in basketball.
"I'm the hero," Reed said. "I was the superstar."
He cemented his legacy under the lights at rival Hernando High. The top-ranked Pirates trailed the No. 7 Leopards 21-0 in what the newspapers called the biggest game in Hernando County history. A news helicopter circled overhead.
On fourth and seven with 40 seconds left, Reed brought Pasco fans to their feet by rolling left and finding Mike Penix for the tying touchdown. The Pirates prevailed 28-21 in overtime to earn the district title, silencing 8,000 Hernando fans.
"It was like something you would have seen TV," Pirates assistant Ricky Giles said.
Recruiters from Georgia Tech, East Carolina and Illinois started pushing harder for the 6-foot-1, 200-pound athlete. Reed signed with Maryland, where he could star as a run-and-shoot quarterback and put a business degree to use in the Washington, D.C. job market.
In 1993, one of the Terps' best athletes held field goals and extra points and lined up against Charlie Ward's national champion Seminoles, but Reed threw only one pass — a 20-yard fake punt against West Virginia.
Reed wanted more.
• • •
Reed smoked his first joint at age 13 and started partying in high school, often to celebrate a Friday night victory after the lights went black.
In college, he drank more, smoked more and listened to the voices who told him he was still a hero. Reed left the Division I-A Terps to start over at I-AA Bethune-Cookman, where he had a solid two-year career at quarterback and running back.
A knee injury during his senior season in 1996 forced him to think about life after football. What would he do when the stadium lights turned off forever?
"That's when you started seeing the tunnel beginning to get darker," Reed said.
He had a way out. The Canadian Football League's Saskatchewan Roughers liked his pro day performance and all but guaranteed him a roster spot.
But Reed said no. He told the team he wanted to finish his degree. He never did.
The tunnel grew darker.
• • •
In 1996, Reed started selling cocaine and crack, according to federal court documents. Three years later, he began taking cocaine from Miami back to Daytona Beach, where others turned it into crack. He went from partying on weekends to partying every night.
Police arrested Reed on suspicion of selling marijuana in 1999 and for possession in 2000.
The tunnel grew darker.
In July 2002, someone called his on-again, off-again girlfriend, Taffini Ellis, after Reed's night of alcohol, Ecstasy, pot and cocaine.
Ellis had never seen him in such poor shape. His mouth foamed as she drove his sedan to the hospital. Nurses thought he was trying to kill himself.
"I was losing him," Ellis said.
When the hospital released Reed a few days later, he pledged himself to Christ. But the tunnel grew darker still.
"Even after that, I tried to hang with the same friends," Reed said, "still tried to do the same things."
In March 2003, he told Ellis that he was in too deep with the pushers and users. Only God could pull him out.
A week later, the doorbell rang at his mom's Dade City home. It was the U.S. Marshals.
• • •
Federal authorities arrested Reed as part of a $15 million drug ring.
He pled guilty to conspiracy to distribute cocaine in exchange for 87 months in federal prison. The courts sent him to Estill, S.C., and Pensacola, where inmate No. 40995-018 pulled weeds from an endless field in the summer and shivered in freezing showers in the winter.
Somewhere along the way, he remembers meeting a balding prisoner who recognized Dee Reed, former high school hero.
The man sounded like a disappointed father. He looked Reed in the eye and told him he wasted a shot at a career few athletes ever get.
How could you end up here? he asked.
Reed had never heard anyone talk to him like that before. The tunnel began to lighten.
• • •
After Reed was released from prison in April 2008, the Rev. Jesse McClendon noticed something different in him. McClendon had tried to help plenty of ex-convicts shed old friends and begin a new life. Reed actually followed through.
"He's the first man I was counseling that stuck to it," said McClendon, a bishop at New Life Family Church in Dade City.
Reed reconnected with Ellis and they were married Aug. 30, 2008 — 10 years to the day after they first met at a Bethune-Cookman football game.
"I know who he was," Taffini Reed said, "and I know who he had grown to be."
The former business student landed a job at Wingstop, one of the only places that would hire a felon. Reed saved up enough money to start a car detailing service, Back 2 Life, and hired another ex-convict trying to start over. He became a youth minister.
"I was determined to do what's right," said Reed, 37.
He opened Goody Two Shoes, a Dade City women's boutique. He bought a house on a golf course in Zephyrhills, and his three-year probation ended in April.
But Reed wanted more. Soon after he got out of jail, he began telling his story at courtrooms, prisons and churches across the area. He's a regular speaker in the Juvenile Diversion Program, which works with youths who have already been arrested.
Saturday, he'll host a basketball tournament, Ballin' for Jesus, at Pyracantha Park in Dade City to give youths a way to stay out of trouble for one afternoon.
"I just wish all of them realized just how lucky they are to have someone like him," said Rosalie Johnson, the diversion program's manager at the Pasco County Sixth Judicial Circuit.
Some do. He keeps a folder full of handwritten letters from kids at home:
I don't want to be a cocaine cowboy like my dad, one writes.
I am going to be a hero, not a zero.
You're like a father I never really had.
• • •
The former quarterback looks in control under the lights in Courtroom 1B. With an animated face and booming voice, Reed looks the teenagers in the eye and tells them why their choices — and his — were wrong.
Alcohol damaged his liver. Drugs left one of the top athletes in Pasco County history with a bad heart. The wrong crowd in high school led to five years in jail plus probation that kept him from leaving the state for his honeymoon.
Maybe some of the teens had never heard someone talk like this before.
"If I had a chance to learn what y'all are learning now," Reed tells them, "I'd be worried about this lockout right now."
The session is almost over, and Reed brings the children to their feet. He asks them to make a full turn. Some, he knows, will end up back in this courthouse. Maybe he'll see them the next time he visits jail.
Then he asks them to turn around halfway, away from the judge's stand and toward the way out.
"If you exit that door," Reed says, "will you ever see me again?"
The teens start to fidget. His hour and a half is up.
Before they reach the door, he tells them he loves them, all of them. That's why he's here.
News researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Matt Baker can be reached at (813) 435-7314 or firstname.lastname@example.org.