CLEARWATER — Chris Archer was not there to talk about his big contract or his fancy new car or the big league lifestyle he now enjoys, though a few of the kids fanned out in front of him inside a classroom at the Pinellas Juvenile Detention Center were interested in those very topics.
Archer wouldn’t go there.
Where he did go was back to the time he and his friends vandalized a truck. Archer talked about that day.
He also talked about the fights he got into in school and how he acted out against authority and was rude to his teachers and the few times he got away with petty theft and how he never knew his biological father and how he barely had a relationship with his biological mother and how, since he was a biracial child adopted by a white couple, he often struggled to find an identity.
“At one point in my life I was on a similar path as you guys,” Archer said. “I made silly decisions.”
Archer volunteered to spend a few hours before a Tampa Bay Rays game last week talking to three groups of detainees, male and female, ages 10 to 18, who were at the center for various crimes, which, depending on the day can range from grand theft auto to murder.
Archer asked for the opportunity because he wanted to tell the kids that they can change their path, that their mistakes do not have to dictate their future.
“You are the sole creator of what you can be,” Archer said.
Want proof? The guy sitting at the front of the room, who didn’t look much older than some of the kids in the oldest group, found a path that lead him to the major leagues, where he is a young pitcher with plenty of upside.
And since not everyone can become a big-leaguer, Archer tossed out a few examples of others who found their way through some pretty heavy obstacles, men like Nelson Mandela, who spent 27 years in prison before becoming the first black president of South Africa; and Frederick Douglass, who was born a slave, taught himself to read and became a leader in the abolitionist movement.
“You can be a teacher or a lawyer or a doctor,” Archer said. “You can be all that, and the story you will have behind that will be so incredible.”
Archer first visited the center in September 2013. Some of the detainees wrote about the visit in their writing assignments. Some wrote Archer letters. Archer followed up with a few of the kids he met that day.
“There are no words to describe someone like that who wants to make an impact and volunteers to come here and wants to come,” said Robin Fate, the center’s instructional leader. “For him to follow up on it, it means even more. He’s not just coming here to talk.”
Archer opened the room to questions. He was asked about being adopted. He was asked about how it felt to not know his biological father. He was asked why he came to visit.
He was also asked a number of times about his contract and his ride.
Archer talked openly about being adopted, how it was the best thing to ever happen to him.
He talked about meeting his biological father just before spring training in 2013 and how he was not impressed with the man and how he was glad he was raised by someone else.
“I was happy he didn’t raise me, because I wouldn’t be where I am today if he did,” Archer said.
Archer’s message to the group was about character and challenged his listeners to not walk the path beaten by others. He encouraged them to read.
He told them how he was teased in high school for reading, how his friends told him he was weird.
“Weird is good,” Archer said. “I knew I was stronger than the desire to fit in.”
Archer was in his early teens when he met Ron Walker, who would become his mentor. It was Walker who challenged Archer to change his ways.
“He opened my mind as to what I can be as a person,” Archer said. “I realized I couldn’t be that person if I continued to be on the path that everyone else is on.”
Archer knows his troubles were not as serious as those who sat in front of him. He never did drugs, and while he was on the path to an alternative school before he put the breaks on his deliquency, he was never arrested.
He wanted the opportunity to talk at the center because he feels he can make a difference.
“I want to expand their awareness,” he said.
Archer speaks at the Boys & Girls Club and area schools. He visits the children at All Children’s Hospital. But the kids inside the detention center, who visits them?
No one, said Fate. At least not athletes.
“In their mind, they don’t even exist. I wanted to go there and let them know they exist,” Archer later said. “They are at an age where they still have so much life to create as long as they learn from their experiences like I did. We’ve all had experiences that we’ve learned from. Theirs are a little harsh, but they’re going to learn a greater lesson than what we learned.”
Archer leaves the class with this thought: “Don’t let other people’s reality of you be your reality.”
Archer thanks the group for their time and walks out of the room. A few seconds later he returned to high-five a kid in foster care who might be seen as worthless to some, but not to Archer.