OGDEN — Ben Mendoza’s life was filled with drugs, alcohol, guns and gangs.
He was 10 years old.
If that isn’t shocking enough, take a look at Mendoza now and the person he’s transformed himself into.
Mendoza is a senior on the Ben Lomond High boys basketball team with opportunities to play at the next level. He’s brilliant in the classroom and an advocate of not letting circumstances decide outcomes.
Mendoza “got out,” and he believes if he could get out, anybody can.
“These kids … their motto is ‘The streets raised me.’ I don’t believe that,” he said. “You control your own self. You make your own decisions. You’ll have all the advice you want. But until you take that first step and you want to make those decisions for yourself, you’re going to continue to be a loser, and that’s just a hard fact.
“You can be whatever you want if you want to. You’re not stuck in one position, ever.”
Colors of Success
Ryan Wilcox, a 2001 graduate of Ogden High and current counselor at Syracuse High, met Mendoza during the 2007-08 school year when Mendoza was in the third grade at James Madison Elementary.
Wilcox was in his first year at James Madison and was running ‘Colors of Success,’ a program designed to identify and help at-risk youth.
Some kids were affiliated with gangs, some had substance abuse problems and some simply had issues with authority.
Mendoza was assigned to Wilcox’s caseload, and the interactions between the two weren’t pleasant, according to Wilcox. He said said Mendoza simply didn’t want to do what he was asked.
Mendoza described himself at the time as “a little hot-head, immature, bad kid. I thought I was a rebel and that’s what I went by.”
He lived that way because of the people he had surrounded himself with, people who were part of gangs, he said.
Wilcox spent just one year at James Madison before moving on to Mount Ogden Junior High. That same year he started at Mount Ogden, he was also named the head boys basketball coach at Ben Lomond.
Wilcox admits he left James Madison worried about Mendoza’s future.
“I would say he was probably sitting on the fence as far as which way he would go, honestly,” Wilcox said.
Eventually, Mendoza said, “It just got to the point where someone was really going to get injured.”
“After you’re 10 feet away from a gun that’s pinpointed toward your group, or possibly even you, it opens your eyes,” Mendoza said. “You think to yourself, ‘Alright, I’ve got to do something different. This is not for me.’”
R.W. Montague took over ‘Colors of Success’ after Wilcox left. During Mendoza’s sixth grade year at Mound Fort Junior High, Montague made him a deal that as long as he stayed out of trouble, he would take him into the gym during lunch to shoot hoops.
Mendoza quickly became addicted — and not only did he love it, he was good at it.
Wilcox remembers watching a junior high game to inform himself about the kids he would eventually coach at Ben Lomond. He found himself impressed with one player in particular.
“He had a very good form on his shot,” Wilcox said. “I could tell that he made the right decisions at the right times.”
Wilcox had no idea it was Mendoza, the same kid he struggled with at James Madison. He didn’t make the connection until about a year later.
“Honestly, it was a little bit of a shock,” Wilcox said. “I was very happy for him, because I knew that he had found something that had gotten him out of the street life.”
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In addition to his talent, which Wilcox described as “raw,” Mendoza also was supremely confident. He approached Wilcox as an eighth-grader and told him he was going to be on the team.
Mendoza became more than just a member of the team, he became one of only two players who started as a freshman in Wilcox’s seven years as the head coach.
As drastic as the change in Mendoza’s life since the third grade was the difference in his relationship with Wilcox.
“I’ve told him a lot of times, I like the high school Ben a lot more than the elementary Ben,” Wilcox joked.
Mendoza clearly liked basketball coach Wilcox more than counselor Wilcox. When the coach announced during a team meeting he was departing after the 2014-15 basketball season to take the counseling job at Syracuse, Mendoza walked out.
“When you feel like somebody believes in you, you get really close to that person,” Mendoza said. “You really tie into them because they believe in you. You constantly want their attention. You constantly want it so you don’t lose that motivation, so you don’t get self-conscious and then not believe in yourself or maybe not continue to do what you have to do.
“I walked out of that room and 20 minutes later, I regretted it because I thought to myself, ‘That’s selfish of me. I don’t know the situation.’ I was hurt. Now that I look back to it, I understand the situation. I would have done the same thing (if I was him).”
A New Life
Mendoza said he “lost so many friends” after choosing to step away from what was life in the third grade, but he “didn’t really care” because of how much loved basketball.
Mendoza doesn’t like to think about where he’d be without basketball, but admits he asks himself that every day.
“It’s taught me so much,” Mendoza said. “I’ll tell you that right now. Just beyond the game of basketball, it’s taught me to be patient … how to communicate with others. It’s been awesome for me.”
Andrea Eggett — who was a counselor at James Madison during Mendoza’s last two years there and has remained a friend since — said the difference in Mendoza’s life is evident on the basketball court.
“I’m amazed because sometimes I see things happen when he’s playing out on the court and I’m like, ‘Oh, man.” Eggett said. “There are things that are frustrating, they make you mad, they’d be upsetting, and he manages.
“Sometimes I can tell he’s mad, but I can also see him take a deep breath and come back. I haven’t seen him just lose control of that anger in years. That’s huge. That’s a big deal that he should be proud of.”
Sometimes, Eggett has a better memory of Mendoza’s past than he does.
“When we were chatting the other day, I brought up an incident of something that happened when he was in the sixth grade,” Eggett said, referring to a playground fight. “He’s like, ‘That didn’t happen.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, it did.’
“He genuinely didn’t remember the incident,” she said.
Mendoza credits the people who helped him.
“I’m telling you, when you have people who believe in you, you can do some great things,” Mendoza said.
Contact sports reporter Ryan Comer at at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter at @RyanComerSe and at facebook.com/RyanComerSe.