From the mean streets of California, to the battle for his job in the CFL, kicker Alexis Serna has defeated adversity at every turn. Sun football writer Kirk Penton takes a close look at the Blue Bombers placekicker, who has been one of the few bright spots in a dismal season.
When the guns came out, Alexis Serna figured it was time to get out.
It was his Grade 11 year of high school, and Serna was at a party in his hometown of Fontana, Calif., when shots rang out.
"Luckily I wasn't outside at the time," the Bomber placekicker said recently. "It was mostly a backyard party. We actually went to the pool house when the shooting started happening. Everybody hit the ground."
When the gunfire ceased, Serna's crew, which included friends and friends of friends, decided it was best to get out of Dodge. They were travelling in several vehicles, and they ended up outside the house of someone in the group.
That's where they learned the shooting victim back at the party was a cousin of someone in the group.
It was time for revenge.
"They come out of the house, and they have guns and stuff," Serna said. "Me and my buddy looked at each other and said, 'Nah, we don't want to be a part of this.' So we took off. It wasn't good for us."
The 24-year-old has done well in the decision department of life, like choosing not to remain with his gun-toting friends that night seven years ago or to always stick it out, even when things get remarkably rough.
It's difficult to picture innocent-looking, 5-foot-7 kicker Alexis Serna -- dubbed Mighty Mouse by former Bombers coach Doug Berry last season -- packing heat, but it's a life he could have easily slipped into growing up in Fontana, an hour outside of Los Angeles.
"It definitely is easy, and you could easily get into it, but I was always in sports," Serna said. "I was always active, I was gone every weekend playing sports.
"I had friends in high school who did some bad stuff. They were friends of mine all through high school and even in middle school, but when it got around that time I had to realize and sit down and look at my situation.
"I got invited to walk on at Oregon State, and I didn't want any opportunity to mess that up. So I just cut off all ties, and I realized that I needed to straighten out and get ready for college ball."
Serna slowly distanced himself from his "friends" during his senior year at A.B. Miller High School, but he ended up visiting one of them the summer before he left for Oregon State.
That's when he noticed the marijuana plants growing in the basement.
"I was like, 'If I were to get caught here, I'm in trouble.' So I was like, I can't do this and dropped them all," he said. "I haven't really talked to them. Every once in a while I'll run into somebody, but I never really kept in touch with them. It's a better situation for me not to."
Serna's parents separated when he was in Grade 3, but his dad remained in the picture and his mom, Celia Gonzalez, made the Rock of Gibraltar look like silly putty.
Gonzalez raised Serna and his four siblings while going to school and working full time.
"She ended up getting her degree in 2000, and she became a teacher," Serna said proudly. "She's an awesome lady, a great inspiration for me.
"I'd be in college and think, 'Oh, man, this is so tough.' Then I'd sit back and think, 'How did my mom do it with five kids and working and we played sports at different times?' She did an awesome job."
Serna figures always playing soccer (he wanted to go pro) in Alta Loma, half an hour from his home, played a big part in his staying away from the gang life, but he believes his family is reason No. 1.
"I had very good role models growing up," he said. "My family's the only one out of everybody -- my cousins, aunts and uncles -- that actually really went to college.
"So we're a very successful family. I was lucky, I guess. I'm very fortunate."
Making it through his childhood relatively unscathed made college life and his rookie pro season last year in Winnipeg seem like a cake walk, although they weren't without their challenges.
First was the move to Oregon, which was quite the step for a full-blooded Mexican.
"My school was actually 85% Mexican population," he said. "When I went up to Oregon, it was a culture shock for me. I'd never seen so many white people. It was a little awkward for me, because people would actually stare at me."
Then there was his first college game, in 2004, a nationally televised tilt against the defending champion LSU Tigers. The Beavers would have pulled off the biggest upset in school history -- if Serna hadn't missed three extra point attempts.
LSU won 22-21 in overtime.
It was so bad that some of his defensive teammates had to be restrained from verbally -- and some believe physically -- abusing Serna in the locker-room after the game. Serna didn't feel comfortable around his teammates until his junior year because of that incident, but it didn't stop him from being named the NCAA's top placekicker in his sophomore campaign.
Bad news cleared customs and continued to dog Serna last season in Winnipeg, his first in the CFL, when he connected on only 67% of his field-goal attempts.
Berry was always yelling in his ear, and the media was perpetually in his face. Not surprisingly, the kid never flinched. He said all the right things, worked hard to improve, and look where he is now.
Going into tomorrow's contest in Montreal, Serna is sporting an 87% field goal success rate (20-for-23), second only to Calgary robo-kicker Sandro DeAngelis. Serna, one of the best Bombers in a dismal season thus far, also has the longest field goal of the CFL season, a 54-yarder he belted in August.
Serna is in the option year of his contract and the Bombers haven't talked to him about an extension, which is odd considering they've gotten everyone and their dog locked up until 2011.
Director of player personnel John Murphy said the Bombers are waiting to see what the salary cap will be after the current collective bargaining agreement runs out in May.
Serna would be able to explore the NFL when he becomes a free agent on both sides of the border in February, but going south is not a priority. He's marrying his fiancee, Julie, in January, and he just wants a job.
"I just want security," Serna said. "I just want to enjoy my time and have fun. It's a stressful business, and if it happens, I'm just going to play it by ear. I'm not really worrying about anything.
"I'm just kicking the ball, hoping it goes in. I'll see where it takes me. If an opportunity comes up, that would be nice. If it doesn't, no big deal."
There is no worry in Serna's voice. As he's shown, he's ready for anything and always makes the right call.