When ex-NFL player Mark Seay made his way into a sweltering cafeteria, he was greeted by the restless eyes of the Rialto High School football team.
A flash of an AFC Championship ring and tales of his Super Bowl appearance with the San Diego Chargers slightly roused the teenagers.
But their eyes locked onto Seay, 39, when he started telling his own story: how he took a bullet to save his niece in Long Beach and later lost his two brothers to gunfire.
He explained how a man who has endured so much hardship can go on to the NFL, enjoy a successful career in corporate America and stand before them smiling, his religious faith stronger than ever.
Seay travels across the Southland sharing his story of perseverance with kids, churches and community groups on behalf of Colton-based Stater Bros., the largest independent supermarket chain in Southern California.
"This has taught me that when something happens, God prepares you beforehand, if you allow him to," said Seay, who still has a bullet lodged near his heart, a constant reminder of how close he came to death. "It's not coming for you to be worse off as a person. It's coming for you to be a better person."
Before college football teams recruited Seay, gangs tried.
They waited around corners on his walks home in Compton. But before he left school, he always made sure his younger brother, James, was at his side. They saw fights, heard gunfire and tried to blend in to survive.
"Although we were afraid within, we had to look unafraid," Seay said. "The gang-bangers preyed on those who looked scared."
He found sanctuary in sports and blossomed into a talented receiver and a speedy center fielder.
His father, Elvin Seay Sr., a minister, moved the family to San Bernardino in 1981 in search of a safer community.
Mark Seay broke nearly every offensive football record at San Bernardino High and led the team to the playoff quarterfinals his senior year.
"You could tell early on that Mark was a kid who had seen the most violent side of the world and somehow hadn't slipped into it," said Stater Bros. CEO Jack Brown, a San Bernardino High alumnus and football booster.
Brown befriended Seay while Seay played on the team and became a mentor after Seay's father died. Seay worked part time pulling weeds in the company's Colton truck yard.
The calls from colleges soon poured in. After trying professional baseball for two seasons in the Texas Rangers system, Seay accepted a football scholarship at Cal State Long Beach.
He was making an impact on the Long Beach football team, but his toughest challenge occurred off the field.
Still drained from a game earlier in the day, Seay attended his sister's Halloween party in Long Beach in 1988, arriving in a vampire costume.
Not long after the party began, shots were fired outside the home. Another round was fired into the apartment. Everyone dived for cover, except for Seay's niece, 3-year-old Tashwanda.
Seay shielded her with his body. A .38-caliber bullet tore through his pelvis, pierced a kidney and lung, and came to rest near his heart.
"To this day, I'm not completely sure what happened," Seay said. "I was on the telephone, I heard shots and I dove."
Tashwanda was unharmed, but Seay was hospitalized for 2 1/2 weeks. He lost a kidney.
"Really, the only thing that mattered to me was that my niece was OK," Seay said.
He spent two months in bed, eating only soup. Seay's desire to recover was strong, and he rejoined school and the football program for spring practice in 1989. But Cal State Long Beach, fearing liability, deemed him medically ineligible.
"It actually hurt worse than being shot," Seay said. "I loved football. It allowed me to escape the ghetto."
He sued the university, and the case was scheduled to go before a jury when Cal State Long Beach hired former Washington Redskins Coach George Allen. Impressed with Seay's story, Allen invited him back.
Seay dropped the lawsuit. While at Long Beach, he developed into a strong receiver known to be unafraid to take a big hit.
After college, Seay joined the San Francisco 49ers' practice squad. In 1993, he became a San Diego Charger and a favorite passing target of quarterback Stan Humphries.
"He wasn't the fastest, quickest or strongest receiver, but he was reliable and smart and knew how to play the game," said Chargers publicist Bill Johnston.
He led the team in receptions in 1994, and the Chargers went to the Super Bowl, where they lost 49-26 to the 49ers. He later played with the Philadelphia Eagles.
When Seay's football career ended in 1999, he headed back to school for a degree in criminal justice, this time at Cal State San Bernardino.
He was close to graduation when the call came.
His older brother, Elvin Seay Jr., 41, had been shot in a San Bernardino motel parking lot. Elvin spent 11 months in a coma. On one visit Seay inched closer to Elvin Jr. and whispered:
"It's really hurting us and taking a toll on Mom. I got Mom. We love you, and we are going to miss you, but we'll be able to make it."