He grips a football and signals to go long. Hurling a pass 40, 50 yards through the air in this parking lot along the Buffalo waterfront, Kevon Seymour assures he played some quarterback in high school.
“And I won a throw-off at USC!”
Moments later, he spots two geese and four ducklings waddling near the dock and rushes over to snap a photo. There’s a charm in his eyes, an innocence in his voice, a buoyancy in his gait as he redirects toward the jagged rocks lining Lake Erie and gazes north with wonder, awe.
“How is a lake so huge? Look at how far deep that goes! I mean, that’s beautiful!”
The sun sets in a museum-worthy, light-orange canvas. Waves crash. Seagulls swoop overhead. An ice-cold wind whisks off the rocks, as a sense of peace overwhelms the Buffalo Bills’ newest cornerback.
Then, suddenly, he turns toward you and details the night he should’ve been shot dead.
Scene by scene here on Erie Street, Seymour re-enacts the horrific experience. He was visiting his friend and former teammate, Devian Shelton, in Inglewood, Calif., the summer before his junior year at USC when the conversation shifted to the NFL, to the fact that Seymour could lift his family out of the “Snake Pits” in Pasadena.
“We were chilling just like this,” Seymour said. “The next thing you know…”
A man, 15 yards away, opened fire. Holding an imaginary gun sideways, Seymour shouts “Boom! Boom! Boom!” All he saw were muzzle flashes. All he heard was “Get down!” from one voice and “Run!” from another, sending him in violent stop, drop, roll and sprint panic. His limbs scraped bloody red on the pavement.
Others slid under nearby vehicles. Seymour took off into the pitch dark.
“I’m running. I have blood everywhere. I’m trying to stay calm.”
Seymour took a left on notorious Crenshaw Boulevard, sprinted, stopped to gather himself, a car crept behind him and he revved back into a sprint. That’s right when a Hispanic man appeared out of nowhere and started chasing him while yelling “Come here!” Seymour found another gear.
Finally, he saw a light and ducked into the Look Motel Inn. Panting, bleeding, praying, he looked at his phone and saw a string of missed calls from his girlfriend.
Back home, she actually woke up in a panic the moment Seymour was under fire.
Only later did Seymour discover this was part of a “100 days, 100 nights” campaign by gangs in the area to kill people for no reason.
“God really was looking out for me,” he said. “He emptied the whole clip.”
Sure, he understands many NFL players overcame rough backgrounds – but not like this. He’s certain nobody has seen what he’s seen. Long before this near-fatal night, Seymour grew up in the rugged Community Arms Apartments, a 19-building black hole dubbed the “Snake Pits.” Bloods. Crips. Drugs. Fights. Crackheads. Shootings. This was his world, 24/7, since he can remember.
To his knowledge, Seymour will be the first pro athlete ever from The Pits.
Many childhood friends are dead. Many are in prison. Many more are on a fast track to both.
Yet Seymour is proud to say he never smoked weed, never joined a gang. He somehow dodged trouble like he dodged those bullets in Inglewood. He’s now on a mission to lift his mother and 5-year-old sister out of the Snake Pits.
“Seeing what I’ve seen,” Seymour said, “every time I’m on the field I think about what I’ve been through. I think about my mom and baby sister growing up in there and I don’t want that to happen. I want her to grow up somewhere else.”
His mom grew up in the Pits. His mom’s mom grew up in the Pits. It’s time to break the cycle.
Here on the Buffalo waterfront, a man in preacher’s attire appears, asks to run a post route and Seymour’s joy returns. He hits his receiver in stride.
“Want to head to Taffy’s?” Seymour asks. “Man, they’ve got the best milkshakes!”
Taffy’s it is. He gets into your truck, you head to Orchard Park and Kevon Seymour relives the jarring stories that made him.
One shooting, one fight, one crackhead, one lesson at a time.
“Two Cake Candy shakes, please.”
This is Kevon Seymour’s go-to. He’s been making the 25-minute walk from his apartment to Taffy’s for this treat alone. He picks a table in the corner of the hot dog hut where to his left is a collage of family photos and, to his right are tables packed with teenage boys and girls sipping milkshakes.
In other words, the exact opposite of his childhood. Allow Seymour to guide you through the Snake Pits.
“People in the back smoking weed. People shooting dice. Crackheads in the front. Like, legit crackheads.”
He stands up to demonstrate, gyrating his shoulders and bobbing his head. You know Tyrone Biggums from Chappelle’s Show? “Just like that!” he says. Seymour could wake up at 1 or 2 a.m. any night, peek out his window and see crackheads congregating on the benches outside. Community Arms eventually removed those benches in an attempt to shoo away the addicts, which only meant they roamed the gates.
“And if somebody opened the gates,” Seymour said, “they’d run in.”
His childhood memories were gang members duping addicts into buying popcorn ceiling patch as crack and the addicts rushing back later in “Aghhhhh!” anger. His memories were PDL – the Pasadena Denver Lane Bloods gang – patrolling the Snake Pits with “deuce-deuces” (a .22-caliber gun) in the pocket of their sweatpants or tucked in a sock.
Knockout fights over dice games. Police raiding apartments. A SWAT team pointing sniper rifles at the building next to his with Mom clutching his baby sister on the living-room floor. Arrests. Constant, constant arrests. Yeah, these are Kevon’s memories.
He was only 6 years old, on the Snake Pits playground, when he learned how someone joins a gang.
“I see two dudes squaring up against this one dude,” he said. “They’re swinging on him – ‘boom, boom’ – and he gets dropped. They tell him to get back up. He gets up. And they dropped him again. And again. Until finally they dapped him up and said, ‘Aight, you’re good. That’s your big homie over there.’ They jumped him in. In order to get into a gang, you have to get jumped in.”
Of course, this is only the first step. Initiation can include theft or murder.
His memories were the house parties up the street. One gang member used to point his gun straight into the air and start shooting whenever he was angry. At which point Seymour, a young teen, scurried behind a car.
Drew Pearson, one of Seymour’s mentors later in life, lived in the Snake Pits in his 20s.
He compares this terrain to the TV show “Gangland,” saying he’d round up 6- and 7-year-old kids into the nearest apartment when gangs started shooting.
“It goes from 0 to 60 in the blink of an eye,” said Pearson. “You could see shootings. You could see a fight. You could see a gang fight. You could see blacks versus Mexicans. ... There’s nothing you wouldn’t see at a young age in that area.
“You know how parents try to stop you from watching rated-R movies? Well, this is a rated-R movie right in your face, your life.”
Seymour only had one parent, too. His mom was a nurse working 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.
His own father wasn’t in his life. Few are here.
Naturally, this all reared Kevon Seymour to the position of cornerback.
“It’s like life,” he said. “It’s about not dwelling on the past and having that next-play mentality. When a corner makes a mistake – and it might not even be your fault – it’s all on you. So it’s about how you react, how you bounce back.
“Are you going to think about the play or are you going to have that next-play mentality?”
A hit close to home
In eighth grade, he was cuffed simply because he was walking toward the Snake Pits.
By 11th grade, cops knew Seymour. He was a football star at John Muir High School. They’d laugh and yell at his car “Can I pull you over? I want to tell my friends I pulled you over!”
Seymour was breaking the mold. And so was one of his best friends, Brandon “B-Franchise” Jackson.
One day in the weight room, during their junior year, the two of them gazed up at the wall.
“My jersey’s going to be up there, Kevon,” Brandon told him. “Mine and yours.”
That same school year, on Feb. 16, 2011, B-Franchise was murdered.
It all started at a nighttime church party near Jackson’s Altadena home when strangers from Los Angeles showed up. Brandon’s group told them to leave. They did. Brandon waited 20 minutes before leaving himself at about 10 p.m.
That’s when a red Dodge Neon pulled up behind Jackson and called him over looking to fight.
“He tried to run and they shot him down,” Seymour said. “So those Crips who came from L.A. made it seem like it was the Bloods.”
Seymour was at a party himself Saturday when he received the text, “B-Franchise was shot.” The next morning, he found out Brandon was dead.
L.A. investigators never found a clear motive, offering a $10,000 reward for any information that could lead to an arrest. Jackson wasn’t involved in any gangs, any trouble at all growing up, though his twin brother, Brenden, was a Crip.
One lieutenant on the case said the killers could’ve mistaken Brandon for Brenden.
After Jackson’s death, a string of retaliation shootings broke out in the area. Eight months later, Brenden was charged with battery for allegedly punching a man’s face so hard he required plastic surgery.
At Taffy’s, Seymour squints and stares ahead. He pictures the last time he saw Jackson alive. Seymour was having a rough day in class, refusing to speak to anyone, but he chatted with Jackson and ended that conversation like he ended every conversation with his friend.
“Be safe this weekend,” he told him. “Be safe.”
Only one of their pro jerseys will hang on the wall now.
His turning point
So why didn’t Kevon Seymour succumb? If this war zone was all he’s ever known, why didn’t he give in to temptation?
He’d see friends in the new Air Jordans … shoes he desperately wanted but couldn’t afford. He’d rebound for drug dealers betting stacks of $100 bills over half-court shots … without a male figure steering him elsewhere.
How is he here in the NFL? This does not compute.
Seymour pinpoints the exact moment that set the course for his life. A snot-nosed elementary-aged kid, he loved stealing Gummy Bears at the neighborhood liquor store. He’d usually tuck the $1.25 packs in his pockets while buying two Slim Jims for 50 cents. There were cameras on site but conniving Lil Kevon knew how to position his body so the owner could never catch him.
One day, with 10 stolen packs in his possession, Seymour refused to give his twin brother any. So Keon told their sister. Their sister told Mom. And Mom, oh lord, was Mom livid. Veronica Starling Donald pulled Kevon into the bathroom, yanked his pants down and unleashed a spanking for the ages.
“How many packs did you steal?” she yelled.
“Eight, maybe 10.”
She handed him a $20 bill.
“You take this money and you go back to the store,” she said. “You give it to the man and you tell him why you’re giving it back!”
Talk about embarrassing. The older man behind the counter adored Kevon. So when Kevon entered the store the next day, he froze. He shook. He began to cry. He threw the money on the counter and ran home.
“And that was that,” Seymour said. “He never questioned me and I never stole again.”
Never stole and never joined a gang. If a joint was passed at a party, he declined. And peers never tried to bully Seymour because, well, they knew he’d knock the hell out of them. They remembered the two boxing matches in the pits. Kevon and Keon kept a pair of boxing mitts in their apartment as kids, so whenever an argument broke out, someone would yell “Get the gloves!” and they’d settle the dispute.
Seymour fought twice, won twice.
Once, he clocked his cousin with a left and a right in the eye. Another time, he took on his pal AJ.
Beforehand, AJ told Seymour that if he hit him in the nose they were taking off the gloves and fighting for real.
“So as soon as I see an opening,” Seymour said. “I’m taking it. Same thing. Boom, boom. Left, right. I hit him in the nose twice. A bunch of people are watching. As soon as I hit him in the nose, I took off my gloves and I was ready. He took his off and said, ‘No, I’m good bro.’ ”
Those haymakers were never forgotten.
Seymour was respected, yet feared. This was his key to survival.
Take the wait in the high school lunch line. Once, Seymour heard one known Blood shoving kids out of the way behind him. One by one, he bullied his way to the front.
“He’s a Blood and thinks he’s hard,” Seymour said. “I look back, put my arm out and he stopped right behind me. I’m thinking, ‘I wish you would try to cut me!’ He’s cutting all these damn people. That’s not cool. Bring it on. I wanted to fight him.
“I’m a good dude but people like that trying to take advantage of people? I want to put them in their place.”
Seymour escaped Community Arms. He prays his little sister will do the same.
He couldn’t take the visuals anymore. Finally, Kevon Seymour deleted his Snapchat account to effectively delete his old life. Every time he opened it up, he was reminded of the hell his sister’s now in.
Yet even after creating a new account, reminders still appear in damning five- and 10-second bursts.
“I’m going to show you something,” he says.
There’s one kid he boxed blowing marijuana smoke into the camera.
There’s another kid smoking weed. “This dude right here,” Seymour says, pursing his lips, “he’s supposed to be hard but he knows better than to try me.”
There’s another childhood friend with a joint tucked inside a $100 bill with the words, “Plotting my next move.”
Next, Seymour pulls up Twitter where one Snake Pits regular is vowing to “(Expletive) the streets up” when a friend is released from prison. There’s a photo of someone holding a mug of “purple drank,” the promethazine/codeine concoction.
“This is allllll you see,” he said, throwing his arms up. “This is the norm.”
Seymour blazed his own trail at USC, totaling 19 pass break-ups and two interceptions in 2013 and 2014. Yet be it the Inglewood escape or any trip to the Pits, he continued to witness the thin line between life and death. Sleeping with his girlfriend one night, he awoke to gunfire, walked outside and saw a man screaming in agony.
“His bike was over there,” Seymour said. “His shoes were over there.”
Another night at home, he saw a driver cut his lights and open fire on bystanders.
“A guy got shot,” he said. “He survived but he kind of paid for it. He walks different. He holds his hands different.”
Taffy’s is closing now. The front door is locked and Seymour walks out the back with his head down. He sighs. With his first contract, he’ll buy his mother a new car because her current vehicle “barely freaking works.”
But he can see his sister gliding down the slide at the same park where he witnessed that violent initiation. He sees her playing at the nearby park where he witnessed his first shootout between rival gangs.
“I don’t want her to get too comfortable in there,” he said. “It’s not like everybody in there is bad … but things happen.
“Anything can happen.”
Point to prove
Before you bring Seymour back to his apartment in Orchard Park, he needs to make a quick stop at Tops to buy Gatorade. Walking through the aisles, he can’t shake one more thought.
NFL teams thought he was “soft.”
Maybe it was his gentle tone, his GQ smile, his godly generosity. Maybe a college coach tainted his name. But practically every team Seymour met – and he had formal meetings with Indianapolis and Miami – questioned his toughness, his competitiveness. In the passenger seat of his ride home, Seymour’s zest flips to agitation.
“Talks soft?” he said. “I’m like what does that have to do with anything? Anybody here can test me if they want to. I told them ‘I don’t mean to be hostile,’ and they’re like ‘No, no, we want to see that.’ ”
His only interaction with the Bills was with secondary coach Tim McDonald at his pro day. They didn’t know his full story. But soft, no, soft is not part of Kevon Seymour’s makeup.
Watch the film, he told teams. He never turns down tackles. Either way, he fell to the 218th pick. Injured and benched at USC, he lost millions of dollars that could’ve been used for that new home, the new life his family needs.
Seymour takes a deep breath and goes silent for five seconds.
“Take a right here.”
This right turn isn’t quite the left on Crenshaw, nor a stroll through the Snake Pits. On Countryside Lane, there isn’t a peep. Seymour’s frown fades.
“At the end of the day,” he said, “God has my back because I still got drafted.”
We are what we “accept.” To Seymour, it’s simple. He never “accepted” the initiation, the drugs, the gangs as normal.
When the truck door opens, a light shines on his tattoos. There’s the quote, “God gives his toughest battles to his strongest soldiers” on his right biceps. The names of his two sisters and mother ring his wrist.
A “Forever” is scripted on one wrist with “Grateful” on the other. His aunt’s name – “Crystal” – is on his forearm. She beat cancer.
Seymour is now beaming as he steps out of the truck. He walks halfway toward his apartment before turning around.
He has one more thing to say.
“Get home safe. Let me know when you get home.