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Victor, Harris on Different Paths Out of Westlake Village

October 20, 1995|STEVE HENSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WESTLAKE VILLAGE — Same high school, same college aspirations, same electrifying football talent.

Westlake High seniors Jamal Harris and Jason Victor can change a game on one play. Harris is a tailback who combines great acceleration with relentless second effort. Victor is a receiver who outruns and outjumps defensive backs with astonishing ease.

Both are being recruited by Division I colleges. Their times in the football 40-yard dash are in the 4.5-second range. After the season, both plan to play basketball. And they will pass the baton to one another during track season.

But when they head for home, the likeness dissolves.

As he is on the field, Harris is the grounded one. He is on a tight leash held by his mother, Carolyn Biggs-Harris, a successful businesswoman who expects excellence from her son in every phase of life.

Harris already has mapped out the steps that will make him successful, finding trouble only when someone provokes a fight. Proud and determined, Harris won't back down.

As he is on the field, Victor is the elusive one. He is an upbeat enigma who spends idle time developing an artistic flair by drawing cartoons.

Lacking family support, Victor is like a leaf in the wind, having lived at the homes of his coach and a succession of teammates while trying to keep up academically and socially. Now you see him, now you don't.

*

The intense preparation for Westlake's Marmonte League game against unbeaten Newbury Park was lightened this week by a practice-ending drill of four-on-four.

Harris and Victor whooped it up, displaying their best moves and launching errant passes. Their team lost on the final play, and as a penalty ran to a row of portable toilets, laughing and shouting all the way.

"Football is one of the things I've dedicated my life to, so I want to make it as fun as possible," Harris said.

After practice, Harris hopped into his Volkswagen convertible and soon was doing homework, taking calls from college recruiters and chatting with his girlfriend.

"Jamal is not a follower; he's followed by others," said Mike Mini, a senior defensive end. "He has a mind of his own and he definitely knows what he wants to do."

And what his mother wants for him. When gang members began recruiting Jamal at the age of 9, she promptly moved from Los Angeles to Rancho Cucamonga. Four years later they moved to Thousand Oaks.

"You can't keep kids away from bad influences, you can only steer them in the right direction," Biggs-Harris said. "Jamal is like all teen-age kids. He has a lot to give and there is a lot he wants to do. We as parents have to stay on them and not just let them go."

The only trouble Harris finds is from youths Mini describes as "punks who want to make a name for themselves by fighting Jamal Harris."

The windows in Harris' home were smashed early this year. Harris ran into the suspected culprit at a local mall and a fistfight ensued.

Westlake Coach Jim Benkert found out and laid down the law, telling Harris that people who don't know him could misread his actions. Don't jeopardize what you have earned, the coach said.

Benkert and Biggs-Harris had Jamal sign a contract, stipulating that he must act responsibly or lose his driving and telephone privileges.

"I gave Coach Benkert the right to act as me," Biggs-Harris said. "We've double-teamed Jamal and he must walk the straight and narrow."

Harris also receives advice from his father, Lester, a businessman who lives in Los Angeles. He attends Westlake games and sees Jamal on weekends.

"My parents know I have the talent and brains to do what I want," Harris said. "And Coach Benkert is like a big brother or father-type guy. They keep me moving in the right direction."

*

Moving has been a way of life for Victor, who has stayed with the family of junior linebacker Kenny Pickard since July. After several nights of sleeping on a couch, the Pickards invited him to remain through the school year.

"Kenny's mom is real strict with me," Victor said. "She treats me like her son. It's pretty good."

After having bounced from place to place the previous year, Victor relishes the continuity. The Pickards bought him a bed and on his 18th birthday in August, celebrated with a cake and gifts. He also accompanied them on a vacation to Pismo Beach.

"When he came here he had a backpack and that was it," said Charlotte Pickard, Kenny's mother. "It seems to me he's a survivor."

Victor has little contact with his father, who lives in Ohio with Jason's younger brother, or with his mother, who lives in the West Valley with his younger sister. His older brother, John, graduated from Westlake in 1993 and attends Pasadena City College.

Charlotte Pickard is amazed at Victor's demeanor given the turmoil in his personal life.

"I never hear him talk about what he doesn't have," she said. "He just focuses on living through today. Jason is a remarkable guy. In his mind, he will be happy. He will make the best of it. He won't allow anything to make him down on life."

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