Last updated: February 19. 2013 11:08PM - 523 Views

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WILKES-BARRE ?? The message was simple, straight-forward and stern.


If kids in the GAR school system remain focused, stay smart and work hard, they may someday follow in Shakir Soto??s footsteps.


The GAR standout??s football journey will continue at the University of Pittsburgh, where Soto is headed to begin the January semester after signing a letter-of-intent Friday during the NCAA??s early signing period.


But Soto??s path there wasn??t always easy.


??He??ll be the first to tell you, elementary-wise, he was a rough kid,? GAR coach Paul Wiedlich Jr. said. ??We got him in the seventh grade, he was a wiry, tall, lanky kid.?


But Soto turned himself into a shining example of what diligence in the classroom can lead to.


Which is why he chose to hold his collegiate signing day at Heights-Murray Elementary School.


??I wanted to be an inspiration to the younger kids,? said Soto, who was named to the All-Pennsylvania Class 2A team earlier this week, ??to follow my path. Not necessarily by playing football, but working hard to get what you want. Football wasn??t really on my mind when I was here. I had other distractions.


??Really, the people here are the reason why I??m where I??m at today.?


The choices for children within the district these days are many, and they??re not all good ones.


Drug arrests have haunted the Heights during the past few years, and increasing violence has started to surround kids growing up in the district, if recent police reports are any indication.


??My whole life, I??ve had distractions,? Soto said.


He never fell prey to any such temptations of criminal activity.


But during his years at GAR, Wiedlich Jr. said, Soto??s main struggles stemmed from classroom work.


He overcame them.


??Shakir??s one of those kids who really headed our advice ?? if you have a problem at school, you lean on the coaches, the administrators,? Wiedlich Jr. said. ??He really leaned on the whole GAR community.


??He listened to the people who care about him.?


It helped Soto reach new plateaus.


Wiedlich Jr. talked about the irony of Soto??s 52 career sacks as a defensive lineman and 52-yard interception for his first-ever touchdown matching the No. 52 he wore on his GAR jersey.


But Heights Elementary teachers talked even more glowingly about a polite, personable Soto who will always be number one in their hearts.


??This is where his football career started,? said his mother, Rhonda Vieney.


It??s also where it almost ended.


??I didn??t really like football when I started,? Soto admitted during a visit with Heights 5th and 6th-graders. ??I was crying. My grandfather used to bribe me to stay on the football field.?


Pretty soon, though, the sport became his passion.


??He wanted to be a football player. He worked hard at doing this on his own,? his mom said. ??I??m very proud of him. This was his dream. He??s been watching the Pittsburgh Steelers since he was little. He??s been a Pittsburgh Steelers fan, hoping to play for the Pittsburgh Steelers.?


First, though, Soto will play for the Pitt Panthers, and study to someday become a nuclear pharmacist in case that NFL goal doesn??t come to fruition.


One way or another, Shakir Soto vows he isn??t going to let anything block his bright future.


And that attitude can light the way to similar success for kids who came from where he did.


??There??s going to be people trying to bring you down, haters,? Soto said. ??I heard people say I wasn??t going (to play) Division I football, for many reasons.


??You just have to stay on track and work hard.?


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