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Casey Christie / The Californian

During Friday's 25th annual Kern County Middle Grades Student Leadership Conference at Bakersfield College, students listen to keynote speaker Aaron Davis in the school gymnasium.

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Casey Christie / The Californian

Students listen to keynote speaker Aaron Davis, in the Bakersfield College gym during Friday's annual Kern County Middle Grades Student Leadership Conference.

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Casey Christie / The Californian

Aaron Davis, the keynote speaker for the 25th annual Kern County Middle Grades Student Leadership Conference, talks to a large group of students in the Bakersfield College gymnasium Friday.

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Casey Christie / The Californian

Cooks had their hands full preparing meals for students at Bakersfied College Friday afternoon during the 25th annual Kern County Middle Grades Student Leadership Conference.

Aaron Davis is a former football player for the University of Nebraska. He proudly wears a championship ring he got as part of the 1994 team that beat the University of Miami in the Orange Bowl.

But the accomplishment is tainted.

"You see this ring, here?" he told an audience at the 25th annual Kern County Middle Grades Student Leadership Conference, held Friday at Bakersfield College.

"I should have two of these rings," he said.

Davis, 39, admits he got sidelined by "bad choices" that led to him quitting football and dropping out of college.

Davis warned young people to pay attention to the company they keep because there are "friendships" and there are "fakeships."

Fake friends "like to see you screw up," he said, so they'll encourage you to be self-destructive. They'll tease you about going to class and getting good grades. They'll call you names if you don't party with them. They'll make fun of your dreams.

"My father used to say, 'Show me your friends, and I'll show you your future,' " Davis said.

You can't shed light if you're "hanging out in dark places with dark people and dark thoughts," he added, referring to the theme of this year's conference, "Leaders: Be the Light."

In college, Davis befriended "a bunch of knuckleheads" who smoked and got high.

He'd started school a buff 220 pounds with good grades, and left at 180 pounds with a 1.7 grade point average.

Fortunately, he had a supportive family that pointed out to him that he was "blowing it" and needed to get his act together.

It was too late to resume his football career, which dashed his dreams of playing in the NFL. But Davis eventually returned to school and earned a bachelor's degree in psychology.

Today, he's a motivational speaker and co-owner of a small software company.

"For me to get where I am today, I had to realize sometimes you're going to fall down, but you have to get back up," Davis said.

His presentation wasn't all doom and gloom, though.

Davis opened his remarks by picking a few students from the audience to demonstrate dance moves to Cali Swag District's "Teach Me How to Dougie" and Baauer's "Harlem Shake."

"Why do I start off with goofy stuff like having fun?" Davis asked the conference. "A lot of times you hear about leadership, and it's all folks who have been dead for 100 years.

"Leadership is right now. There are little eyes watching you right now all the time. Eighth graders, guess who's watching your back at your school?"

Younger students, he said, which is why everyone should model kindness and stand up for victims of bullying.

"What example are you setting?" Davis asked.

The former athlete was one of several speakers at the conference, which drew 540 fourth- through eighth-grade students from 78 schools.

They also heard from Tim Terrio, president of Terrio Physical Therapy & Fitness, past president of the Greater Bakersfield Chamber of Commerce and founder of the Bakersfield chapter of League of Dreams, a nonprofit sports league for disabled children and young adults.

Terrio knew about the league because his company worked with a lot of disabled children. When he asked around about why Bakersfield didn't have any teams, "They said, 'Nobody has started it.' "

That was enough for Terrio. "I said, 'OK, that's about to change.'"

The local League of Dreams now offers baseball, bowling and basketball, is preparing to launch a fitness and wellness program, and last year opened a permanent indoor athletic field to protect players with respiratory sensitivity from dusty air.

Brent Morel, a Bakersfield native and third baseman for the Chicago White Sox, has named the League of Dreams his official charity.

"Don't be a person who sits on the sidelines and waits," Terrio told the crowd. "Leaders step up. Leaders say, 'This is what we're going to do.' "

In break out sessions, participants listened to charities and community service organizations suggest ways young people could give back to their communities.

At times the atmosphere in the Bakersfield College gymnasium felt more like a rock concert than a youth conference. There was loud music, cheers and dancing. And there was a parade of 20 college flags as participants divided into groups aligned with universities across the country.

Students said they had a great time.

"It inspired the kids not to bully and to learn from your mistakes," said Fernando Barboza, a 13-year-old eighth-grader from Belridge Elementary School in McKittrick.

Kayla Ginn, a 12-year-old seventh-grader from Kern Middle School in Bakersfield, said the conference was energetic and entertaining.

"It was funny, but you were still learning something," she said.