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Pro wrestler Booker T connects with students at Urban League

Professional wrestling sensatiBooker T signs books for studens Quad County Urban League Thursday February 7 2013 Aurora. Booker T talked

Professional wrestling sensation Booker T signs books for studens at the Quad County Urban League on Thursday, February 7, 2013, in Aurora. Booker T talked about living a life of crime from a young age that culminated in a stint in prison for armed robbery before turning his life around and finding success. | Jeff Cagle~For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: March 11, 2013 6:28AM

AURORA — In the crowd of Urban League students Thursday morning, former pro wrestler Booker T was talking to one.

“You may not even see it in yourself,” Booker T said to Urban League student Rodrigo Reyna, standing at the back of the room. “But I can see you. You don’t want to be one of those guys” on the block.

The former WWE champion wrestler and SmackDown general manager had a message for the Urban League’s 65 at-risk students, part of East Aurora’s alternative education program.

As a kid, Booker T grew up on a block inundated with drugs and gangs. He saw people get killed right in front of him. At 21, one mistake landed him in the Texas Department of Corrections on an aggravated robbery conviction, he said.

“Each and every one of you has a choice. Do you want to live that way, or this way?” he asked.

Now 47 years old, Booker T said despite all of the accolades, money and celebrity he’s gained from his decades-long career, when he looks in the mirror, he still sees the man who didn’t graduate high school.

“Everything I’ve gotten, none of that compares to that one thing. I don’t want to go to my grave without my diploma,” he said. “Don’t be stupid like me.”

Booker T made other mistakes, too. First a father at 17 years old, he said he had no clue how to be a dad and his first son, now 30, eventually ended up in foster care. Booker T lost both of his own parents by age 14.

That struck a chord with eighth grader Yasmeen Contreras.

“I’ve been through foster care, too,” she said. “I wanted to tear up because I related to it — wanting to be special.”

The connection prompted Contreras to quick-fire questions at Booker T.

“When you talk about your past, did you ever black out thinking about it?” she asked.

“When you were little, was there a phrase that kept you going?”

“She’s gonna be someone,” Booker T said.

As a teen, Booker T lived with no water, no lights, while rats and roaches crawled the house. He went from dragging eight half-gallon jugs to the gas station so he could flush his toilet to being the general manager of SmackDown and the most decorated champion in wrestling, he said. He’s a five-time WCW champion.

“I used to catch three buses,” he said. “I have seven cars now. I will never catch the bus again.”

Booker T offered all of the kids a phone number where they could get in touch with him if they ever needed to talk to someone.

“You can be in the storm — it can get really rocky, but I know that the man upstairs has your back,” he said. “I need you guys to know it’s not impossible (to make it).”

Booker T also made trips to Paul Robeson High School in Chicago and Cook County Juvenile Detention Center in Chicago this past week.

The event was sponsored by Triple Threat Mentoring, a non-profit that works with at-risk youth in Aurora and Chicago, and Medallion Media Group. Aurora-based Medallion published Booker T’s autobiography, “Booker T: From Prison to Promise.”

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