Carrying His Own Weight

updated 08/11/1997 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/11/1997 01:00AM

PERCY CAMPBELL CONTEMPLATES a long iron bar, loaded with steel plates, that weighs a total of 365 pounds. Campbell, just shy of 17, is 5'9" and weighs 179 lbs. But if he can somehow lift the bar over his head, he will not only finish first in his age class at this World Natural Power-lifting Federation competition in Atlanta, he will set a new national record. Campbell grips the bar, inhales, then begins his biggest lift yet.

It is far from his biggest challenge, hoisting the massive weight. Away from this hotel conference room, Campbell must also overcome the heavy burden of his violent past. Before he turned 15, he had been convicted of 39 felonies, including 14 burglaries, 8 auto thefts and the assault of a police officer. Regional news stories referred to Campbell as Crime Boy and tabbed him as a symbol of all that is wrong with the juvenile justice system—"the ultimate lost cause," wrote the Miami Heral's Fred Grimm in 1994. "I always felt like I don't got anyone to care about me, so I ain't got nothing to live for," says Campbell. Stealing, selling drugs, armed robbery: "It was like a job."

A job he might still be doing if not for being arrested at 14 for burglary. Given his extensive rap sheet, he was waived to an adult court for the first time ever. "Percy was the worst I had ever seen," says Broward County Circuit Judge Robert Carney, who considered sending Campbell to state prison but, swayed by social workers, instead ordered him to the Last Chance Ranch in Venus, Fla., until his 18th birthday. The site of a 15-year-old program for Florida's most serious young offenders, Last Chance emphasizes discipline through long hours of outdoor labor, like landscaping and harvesting crops. "We hold them accountable for their actions," says program manager Lamar Crenshaw, 44. "If they mess up, they dig stumps from sunup until sundown. We are here to say, 'Hold it. This is where it stops.' "

But could a small collection of cabins, cows and apple trees in the middle of nowhere be enough to change the incorrigible Crime Boy? So far, the answer is yes. "They gave me the opportunity to think about what I wanted to do," says Campbell. "And I changed myself." In two years his education level has risen from second to seventh grade; he has also won all nine weight-lifting events he has entered. Before he turns 18 next May, Campbell hopes to have not only his high school equivalency diploma but also a personal trainer's certificate. "I used to think there was never no way to get out of that life," he says. "But I can see the whole world now. I can see out."

All he could see was despair in his old neighborhood, a poor, crime-infested section of Fort Lauderdale. There, he and his mother, Sandra Goodwin, lived with her mother; his father left before Campbell was born. "There was danger all around," he says. "Drug dealers everywhere."

When he was 7 his mother left to live with a boyfriend in Wrightsville, Ga. Campbell's first arrest, at 9, was for burglarizing a barbecue restaurant. "It wasn't planned," says Campbell. "Me, my uncle and cousin walked by, and it was out of the blue." In 1990, his mother's boyfriend shot and killed a sheriff while in jail, using a gun she had smuggled to him. She was charged with aiding in the murder and given a life sentence. "After that," says Campbell, "I really didn't care anymore."

He went on a five-year crime spree, but because of his age was never detained for longer than six months—until he was sent to Last Chance Ranch. There, counselor Neville Graham, 34, fostered his interest in weight lifting. "He saw a disciplined person in me," says Graham, "and he realized he had to be like that." Earlier this year, in a makeshift graveyard at the ranch, Campbell symbolically buried his past, hammering into the ground a wooden cross that read, Crime Boy, R.I.P.B. 1980, D. 1997.

Campbell is set to leave Last Chance on May 21, 1998. He plans on living with Graham and working at a gym as a personal trainer. Still, "it's way too soon to feel this kid has been saved," says Judge Carney, who also put Campbell on 10 years' probation. "We need to see what he does when he's out of custody." Which is fine with Campbell. "I don't see trouble," he says. "I ain't afraid to work."

Back in Atlanta at the May 17 power-lifting competition, that work ethic is obvious as Campbell grips the heavy iron bar and begins his biggest lift yet. With one move, he hoists it cleanly over his head, then drops it and smiles. On this day, at least, he is a champion.

ALEX TRESNIOWSKI
MEG GRANT in Venus

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