Fire doesn't exactly shoot from Dave Kohout's fingertips, but he definitely gives off energy. Even as he sits on a ratty old chair across from a rattier old sofa, in a cavernous warehouse space he hopes will soon be a Boardman youth center, Kohout is generating sparks.
Ask the students he annually lectures at Boardman High School. Did I say "lectures? & quot; A better description would be motivates, energizes, even & quot;brings to tears."
"I cried for a long time after his speech," said soon-to-be BHS sophomore Kristen Haren. "He brought his life into the lives of teens. Brought it into what we do."
As part of his talk, Kohout usually gives kids a small pebble to remind them that no matter how bad it gets, there's something wonderful still possible. Something amazing they can contribute.
"They call me 'the Pebble Guy,'" said Kohout, who works with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA).
Years later, kids still have those little symbols. My daughter, who also saw Kohout speak last year, has hers tucked into a jewelry box.
"He was on his toes the whole time," Haren said. "It was really memorable. [His talk] is something I remember when I go make an important decision."
Kohout used to walk Boardman's halls himself, used to sneak out to smoke a joint or two (or five or six a day), used to come to classes hung over from booze on top of it.
"I started in eighth grade getting high behind St. Charles," Kohout said. "I had two parents ... and a nice home. I had no good reason; I just wanted to be accepted."
By Kohout's senior year, he was a true partier. He smoked pot, did a "little cocaine and PCP" and drank. "I don't know how you can be a druggie and alcoholic and smoking three packs of cigarettes a day by the time you're in high school, but I was," he said. "When my mother found out, it broke her heart."
When graduation neared, and his buddies voiced their college plans, he voiced his, too -- the plans of a guy who had earned a 1.68 grade-point average. "I ain't got any," Kohout said.
One friend said, "Look for God; join my youth group."
"But he was getting high with me," Kohout said. "I wasn't going to listen to HIM." Still, Kohout started to think about it, went home, did a "personal inventory," and realized he'd "rather be dead."
"God, if you're real, help me," Kohout recalled praying. In his talks, he tells his teenage audiences that, at that point, "the trees swayed and the earth opened up" and when the students look amazed, Kohout chides, "No, I'm kidding!"
In fact, nothing immediately changed for Kohout. When his parents left on vacation (one he refused to go on), he threw a big party that brought the police to his parents' home. But then some interesting things DID start to happen.
First, at a Laundromat in the Outer Banks, where he and his girlfriend were launching her family's vacation with a six-pack of beer, he had a strange encounter.
"A kid walked up to me and said, 'God told me to come in and say he loves you,'" Kohout recalled. "I said very sarcastically, 'Oh yeah? Is there anything else he told you?'"
The guy looked confused, said no, and walked away. But after a few seconds, he returned, told Kohout about a former heroin addict and handed the unimpressed Kohout a slip of paper. Kohout grimaced and shoved it into his pants pocket.
Later, when he was alone, Kohout pulled out the paper and gave a cursory glance to a gospel reading. It might have ended up in the trash had he not also glanced at the back, where one youth group address caught his eye.
It was 7580 Glenwood Ave. back home, across the street from his high school buddy who had suggested he "look for God."
"Can you imagine? I'm in North Carolina and I get this!" Kohout marveled.
How that little slip of paper changed his life is the subject of Thursday's column.