• Former gang member shows 'unthinkable' turnaround
Just as he did in a previous life, Elton Seals stood on the corner of North Failing Street and Haight Avenue one recent afternoon and hustled his business to friends and passers-by.
He wasn't peddling dope, as he did as a lanky 12-year-old gang member. He wasn't getting into fights or dodging the police.
High on the adrenaline of seeing old friends, Seals was handing out business cards and fliers and networking the business he started a year ago that has become his full-time passion.
A perfectionist who tends to get involved with things to the point of obsession, Seals as a youth had been heading nowhere quickly, getting involved with the Unthank Park Hustlers in his teenage years and landing in prison at age 17 for robbing a drug house and pistol-whipping someone.
That was 10 years ago next week.
Today, he's a college graduate, aspiring pro football player and entrepreneur, whose biggest hurdle in life is his rap sheet.
A handful of loyal mentors in North and Northeast Portland beam at Seals' success, calling him a dynamic example of the efforts they put forth every day as they try to help youth overcome obstacles such as single-parent homes, poverty, the court system and the school system.
'It feels so good to see the ball go out of the park every now and then,' says the Rev. Robert Richardson, a Northeast Portland pastor who has been one of his closest mentors.
Anthony Stoudamire, one of Seals' youth football coaches, says he remembers how determined Seals was in life as far back as sixth grade. 'A lot of them turn themselves around, but they don't do it to the extent that Elton did,' he says. 'From where he came from to where he is now Ñ it's unthinkable.'
Seals, who turns 27 this week, is hard to miss as he stands on the corner, wearing his red graduation cap as a hat and carousing with his friends.
'Woe-life!' he says, with a huge, contagious grin and a head bob to everyone he sees. The boys who greet Seals in his old neighborhood are the younger brothers of his former friends, many of them dead or locked up in prison.
Their eyes light up as they return Seals' greeting, 'Woe-life!' It's the name of his new Internet venture, Woe-life.com, which he describes as 'the new urban eBay,' posting advertisements for everything from used snowboards to old Elvis records to dreadlock hair kits at discounted prices. He operates the Internet venture through his company, Mobile Entrepreneurs Inc.
The catchphrase has become the new 'What's up?' in their circle, a mantra that Seals says represents 'the struggle for equality and prosperity.'
Seals says the phrase was born out of the heartbreak he felt last year, when he missed out on a pro football contract because of his troubled past.
He had been playing with the Western Oregon University Wolves for two years and had gotten good vibes from NFL scouts, he says, but he was forgotten when draft day came around.
'The New York Giants scout said to me, 'It was too much to overcome,' ' Seals says, speaking of his criminal record. 'Too much history,' he heard from others.
'It was depressing and embarrassing,' the 6-foot, 200-pound defensive back says. He had trained and was on track to receive his degree; he'd even taken a few inches off his dreadlocks to clean up his image, he says.
'I said, this has been one hellacious woe life,' he says. 'What can I do? Where can I turn to?'
Judging from his hyper personality, it seems nothing can bring Seals down. But talking about his adolescence is difficult for Seals. It's even worse for his mother, Mary Neal-Hill, who now lives in Aloha.
The troubles began in Los Angeles, where Seals at age 10 got caught up 'throwing rocks and stuff' with a gang called the Denver Lions, named after the city's Denver Street.
With his father in prison for conspiracy for 17 years in Los Angeles, his mother moved 12-year-old Seals and his two younger brothers to Northeast Portland in 1987 to live a better life. An older sister and younger sister stayed behind with other relatives.
Ironically, Seals' mother settled the family in a house across from the Boise neighborhood's Unthank Park Ñ in the middle of the gang violence that was just beginning to heat up in Portland.
His mother returned to Los Angeles to raise the two other children there, but Seals stayed in Portland because he was excelling at sports. He was in the care of his aunt in Northeast Portland while he attended Tubman Middle School and Benson High School, playing baseball, basketball and football.
'He was quite an athlete,' says Stan Hillman, who coached Seals as a 15-year-old playing in Little League and quarterbacking on a Pop Warner football team. 'Kids followed him. He's got a charismatic personality. He's fearless, and he plays hard. É Everything Elton's ever done, he's been a leader at it. That's got both good sides and bad sides.'
Despite his talent, Seals began getting into trouble, running with the Unthank Park Hustlers, who sold crack cocaine in Unthank Park.
'The Unthank Park Hustlers was not a gang, we were just a family,' Seals says. 'We went to school, would come back, and try to make ends meet.' The group hung out at the park and along Northeast Alberta Street, from Ninth to 15th avenues.
What separated the group from a gang, he says, was that they didn't identify with colors or have natural rivals: 'We only beefed with people that beefed with us.'
As a juvenile, Seals was arrested several times for selling drugs and on other charges. Seals' aunt kicked him out of her house, and he was soon expelled from school for not having a legal guardian, he says. He spent the next few years homeless, sleeping in motels or in his car.
In 1994, at 17, he served his only long stretch in prison, under Measure 11 charges of robbery, burglary and assault.
'Elton was misjudged as a kid,' says Stoudamire, his former coach. 'He was never a bad kid. He just kind of got away from us.'
Another former coach, Murray Todd, remembers being in the courtroom watching the prosecution make its case against Seals. 'I really lost faith in our system, but I never lost faith in Elton,' he says. 'He was a victim of the system and had to pay the price. But he's hung in there.'
Seals Ñ who refers to his gang years as being 'comatose' Ñ says he did what he did because it was the 'urban lifestyle,' the way to cope with the domestic drama all of his peers were experiencing.
'My mom, my family, we've been poor all our life; why can't we get a break?' he says. 'I was tired of the struggle, of doing the right thing.'
The way out
Prison was the turning point, he says. With so much time on his hands, he began directing his energy and ideas into positive outlets, sketching ideas for his future company, Mobile Entrepreneurs Inc., and scribbling notes for the book on his life he is now close to finishing.
He took courses and obtained his high school equivalency diploma in 1994, attending Portland State University for a term and then a junior college in California until he was offered a full football scholarship to Western Oregon University in Monmouth, where he has an apartment today.
On June 14, dozens of mentors and relatives Ñ including his grandmother, who traveled from Los Angeles via Greyhound Ñ saw him receive his university diploma. He earned a 3.2 grade-point average and graduated with a bachelor of arts degree in liberal arts and a bachelor of science in interdisciplinary studies.
This summer, Seals will head to an offseason training and conditioning football camp at the Phenom Factory in Altadena, Calif. He hopes to sign on with a professional team, possibly in the Arena Football League.
'I am so proud of Elton for getting his life together,' says Neal-Hill, who acts as her son's personal assistant, accompanying him on trips to market the company. 'I thank the Lord every day. It's been a long road.'
In addition to running the Web site for the past year, Seals is always brimming with a half-dozen other ventures. The projects Ñ which hinge on his ability to obtain funding Ñ include a compilation CD and DVD that he plans to produce, featuring himself and his younger brother's rap group, Young Poets; a line of urban lifestyle clothing that he's designed; and a vending operation he plans to bring to stores in Portland.
Everything he owns Ñ from his red graduation cap and gown to his clothing and the van he drives around as his mobile office Ñ is emblazoned with the Woe-life logo.
His friends are sure Seals' talents were born of his street days. 'If you grow up on these streets, you get hustling savvy in you,' says 21-year-old Evan Fountaine. 'You can hustle anything.'