POMPANO BEACH, Fla. — The cornerback steered his custom truck through familiar streets. The ex-convict sat shotgun and pointed out landmarks, this “drug hole,” that “crack house,” the best routes for eluding the police.
They met 25 years ago, two boys from the same neighborhood north of Miami, bonded by break dancing and back flips and music above all else. That was before Harris went to the N.F.L., before Soto went to prison, before either man had heard of Christian rap.
“All these years, music kept coming up, kept bringing us together,” Harris, 35, said. “It always came back to music, no matter what we did, or where we went.”
In August, Harris and Soto will release a Christian rap album, the culmination of two lives that veered in opposite directions and converged again recently.
The cornerback wore shoulder pads for the first time at age 2, already certain his future was in football. The local boys’ club produced a stunning number of elite athletes, including the N.B.A. guard Eddie Jones and the seven players from Harris’s Blanche Ely High School teams who have played in the N.F.L.
The ex-convict preferred hip-hop. Soto owned one of the first portable stereos in the neighborhood, and he wrote rhymes about street life and Burger King commercials and rapped over the latest beats.
The boys rode the same bus to different schools, with Soto three years older. They engaged in enough adolescent mischief — lobbing batteries at buses, breaking car windows with rocks — that the bus driver separated them by at least two rows, they said.
Soto protected Harris as if he were his brother, wary of the dangers. Their hometown once consisted entirely of fields; beans, peppers, squash and tomatoes lined the horizon. Eventually it filled with families, lower and middle class.
Then came crack cocaine, which produced the usual byproducts: gangs, drugs and crime. The worst centered in Grace Apartments, at the dead end of a one-way street. Soto lived there for years, his favorite memory the night when police officers, clad in helmets and carrying shields, refused to advance beyond a certain point.
“When they tore down those projects, people were upset,” Soto said. “And I was one of them. To a juvenile delinquent, that was like Disney World.”
Even while their paths diverged, the cornerback kept tabs on his friend. Harris heard that Soto carried a gun and experimented with marijuana and cocaine. Harris’s father, Johnny, worked at the high school and noticed Soto driving stolen cars.
“Your boy, he’s heading down the wrong path,” he told his son.
Florida court records show what happened: felony arrests for aggravated assault with a firearm, battery, cocaine possession, robbery with a deadly weapon and marijuana distribution, all between 1990 and 1996.
Soto, 38, estimated he was picked up by the police more than 100 times. Eventually he served three terms in prison, where he said he felt more comfortable than outside.
He outlined his criminal past with detail but not emotion. He stashed drugs in lockers and went high to school, eventually being kicked out. He hid several stolen cars around the neighborhood. He escaped from juvenile detention. On and on it went.
A typical story: “The cops came to the house, and I ran out back. I jumped off a seven-story balcony and broke my kneecap. I have a full cast on my leg. I’m on the run from the police. My wife is tired. I can’t go back home. And I’m still going out trying to keep my drug spot going.”
The ex-convict felt abandoned and rejected by the father he never knew. In Johnny Harris, Soto saw the effect of parental influence. Johnny Harris never cared how many friends his son hosted. Their house sometimes filled with 20 children, but all under his watch.
The cornerback went to junior college, then boosted his N.F.L. stock at Texas A.&M.-Kingsville. Harris started 175 straight games with Philadelphia and Green Bay and became a Pro Bowl regular.
There were chance meetings with the ex-convict over the years, at gas stations or neighborhood haunts. Sometimes, Soto looked muscular, buffed by prison workouts.
After Harris spent 1997 on Tampa Bay’s practice squad, he visited a music studio back home, and recognized Soto’s voice inside the booth as Soto rapped with the lights off. Afterward, Harris asked Soto if he would consider a career in music.
But Soto was not ready. As recently as 2008, behind on child support, depressed and an alcoholic, Soto said he considered suicide. His wife, the mother of five of his six children, initiated a divorce.
What happened next made even Harris skeptical. On April 2, 2008, Soto went to church. He went again. And again. He fixed his marriage and became an usher. Now, the ex-convict counsels prisoners on Wednesday nights.
Eventually, Harris formed 31 Entertainment and teamed with Soto for this project. Last August, they started to make the album they long envisioned, with a twist.
Soto still rhymes about the life he lived, but he also speaks to consequences and incorporates his faith. What results is music at once gritty and introspective, a cross between traditional and Christian rap. Soto calls himself Proof — of God’s work, of redemption, he cautiously hopes.
“No one paints the whole picture,” Harris said. “Mothers who lost sons. Kids who lost their dads. All to live up to some lifestyle that isn’t worth it.”
Harris admitted that even friends were skeptical of the new venture. For years, he had tightened his inner circle, and then he went out and hired an ex-con.
Producers worried that Soto would return and rob their studio, Harris said. Others wondered if he had really changed.
“Al always believed in Kevin,” Johnny Harris said. “Sometimes, that’s what it takes.”
Soto recently finished a mix tape and distributed it to build buzz for the album they plan to release in August. Soto’s appendix burst during production, and less than one month later, Harris sustained a gruesome and rare knee injury that threatened his career and still requires rehabilitation. His future with the Packers appears somewhat uncertain, but he said he thought he would play this season.
The album reflects those struggles, along with their friendship, now 25 years strong. In recent discussions, Harris and Soto talked less about music and more about family, about faith, about men sharpening men.
“We’re going to change everything,” Harris said. “This is a movement. We’re saying, you can do all the right things and still be cool.”
Most Sundays during the off-season, the cornerback arrives late to the Word of Living God Ministries in his hometown. His longtime friend, the ex-convict, waits at the side entrance.
That, to Harris, is the essence of their story: friendship, faith and open doors.