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Fresh Start in Moorpark Backfield : Clemons Has Overcome Gang Life and Surgery

November 30, 1995|FERNANDO DOMINGUEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOORPARK — All it took for Gary Clemons to get the picture was a real-life canvas, with a gun as the centerpiece.

Clemons, Moorpark College's stellar running back, recalls an incident two years ago when his attitude was resoundingly adjusted.

Along with two of his best buddies from Inglewood High, Clemons was cruising for a bruising.

"We were in a gang and we all thought we were big dogs," Clemons said. "We got into a thing with two guys and one of them pulled out a gun. I just thought later that if I was going to leave this world, I didn't want it to be that way."

Instead of checking out with a toe tag, Clemons checked out of the neighborhood--his body parts still intact. He contacted Moorpark Coach Jim Bittner about playing for the Raiders, moved to Simi Valley and became one of the team's top players.

Clemons, 19, says it was his wisest decision.

"I almost got kicked out of [high] school a couple of times," he said. "My two friends, one is in jail and the other just hangs around."

The main places Clemons hangs around are classrooms and football fields. A sophomore majoring in accounting, Clemons has devoted the past two years to schoolwork, Moorpark football and his baby daughter, Lisa.

He concludes his Raider career, one nearly derailed by an injury last season, on Saturday when Moorpark (7-3) plays host to El Camino (7-3) in the Western State Bowl at 1 p.m. The Raiders are making their eighth consecutive bowl appearance.

The game is especially meaningful for Clemons, who was born in Tinton Falls, N.J., and moved with his mother to Inglewood four years ago. His father is coming from New Jersey to watch him play for the first time in college and Clemons will face some of his former high school opponents and teammates who play for El Camino, a team that recruited him.

"It's going to be emotional for me," Clemons said. "I have a lot of friends on that team who will tell me, 'You should have come here,' so I'd like to beat them. I want to do good, especially for my dad."

Clemons, 5 feet 9, 173 pounds, already has done well for himself. He was ninth in the WSC in rushing with 760 yards in 165 carries and scored a team-high 12 touchdowns. Pretty solid numbers, considering that doctors told Clemons his football days might be over after he injured his right ankle and foot in a game late last season.

The injury occurred in the second quarter of a 45-21 victory over Hancock on Nov. 5, 1994. Clemons entered the game with 462 yards rushing and had gained 59 more in 13 carries against the Bulldogs when disaster struck.

"I was getting tackled and I knew right then that it was broken," Clemons said. "I saw the trainer's eyes open up real wide, so I looked down and I saw there was a big bump on the inside of the foot. I wish I hadn't looked."

His foot and three toes were broken and dislocated and the ankle was dislocated. Four pins were inserted to secure the ankle during season-ending and career-threatening surgery that night, but Clemons refused to leave the sidelines for treatment until after halftime.

"There were about four or five minutes left in the half and I told him we needed to get him to a hospital," Bittner said. "He said he wanted to stay and talk to the team at the half. He gave an emotional talk. We exploded in the second half and blew them out of the game."

Clemons wasn't amused by a gloomy prognosis. He didn't have time for self-pity. Five days before Christmas, Lisa was born.

"I was on one leg with a cast on when my girlfriend was having the baby," Clemons said. "We are separated but we are still good friends. I have the baby every weekend. My mom watches her while I play the games and I take her after."

For a while, it was doubtful Clemons would play in any of those games. His ankle responded well to rehabilitation, but Clemons didn't test it fully until the season opener, when he rushed for 50 yards in 13 carries in a 19-0 victory over Ventura.

Three weeks later in a 20-17 loss to Santa Barbara, Clemons came all the way back, rushing for 160 yards in 27 carries. He hasn't pampered the ankle or measured his moves on the field.

"When the doctor told me I wouldn't play football again or run normal, that made me work harder," said Clemons, who is being recruited by Nevada Las Vegas, among others. "I don't really like people telling me I can't [do something]."

Even Bittner now admits he wondered whether Clemons could bounce back.

"Some guys can't shake those types of injuries," Bittner said. "But that's the kind of guy he is. He has done everything that it takes to make it."

The barrel of a gun can be a great motivator.

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