- Associated Press - Monday, August 25, 2014

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (AP) - Marcellous Bennett had a couple things on his mind when he joined two older brothers in robbing, pistol whipping and carjacking a pizza delivery driver five years ago: money and trying to be an adult, like his siblings.

But Bennett was far from the grown man he wanted to be. Just 13 at the time, he wasn’t thinking of the physical and emotional pain the assault and robbery would cause his victim, Brady Middleton.

What a change five years - and an unlikely mentor - can make in a young man’s life.

These days, when Middleton, now 24, looks at Bennett, now 18, he doesn’t see the boy who’s partially responsible for putting him through three years of physical therapy for injuries that cost him college basketball scholarships. He sees an intuitive, deep-thinking young man who now has a chance at a bright future.

He also sees a friend.

“I see a lot of myself in Marcell,” Middleton told The Grand Rapids Press (http://bit.ly/1sPferT ). “I don’t see Marcell as a sum of mistakes and where he’s from. I see him as a human. That’s bigger and more important than any mistake, any background.”

Bennett grew up in Grand Rapids, where he found brotherhood among gang members. Middleton was raised in a Byron Center home with supportive parents. Despite their differences on paper, the two young men send each other text messages daily. To see them is to witness their genuine connection.

“He understand a lot of stuff, even though he came from a different background. He understands some stuff that most people can’t understand,” Bennett said while taking a break from a recent game of basketball with Middleton. “Even though he came from a side of the tracks where it was livable and they didn’t have crimes or nothing, he can understand.”

Middleton was on the last stop of his pizza delivery shift on a June night in 2009 when he rang the buzzer to an Oak Leaf apartment in Wyoming. Bennett and his brothers had placed the call and were waiting for him. Seconds later, Middleton heard a gun cock to his right.

“Everything slowed down. My heart dropped,” Middleton remembers.

By the time he turned to look, he was being attacked. One of Bennett’s brothers pistol whipped Middleton, the force of the blow sending him to the ground. He could feel the warmth of the blood coming from his head. With a handgun pointed at his face and a sawed-off shotgun aimed at his chest, Middleton’s assailants told him if he moved, they’d kill him. They took his money, phone and car keys.

One of the men with a gun ordered Middleton to his feet and marched him to a wooded area, where he was told to get on his knees. Middleton heard his car being backed up to the woods.

“I thought it was over at that point in time. I asked him, ‘Are you going to kill me?’ He said, ‘Yes,’” Middleton said.

Middleton was preparing to plead for his life when the assailant fled for the car.

Bennett and his brothers were eventually arrested. Bennett was sentenced to juvenile detention and probation. His brothers are serving prison time for the crime.

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