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Who is Rick Ross? Shoot-’em-up raises new questions

Rick Ross has always styled himself as a tough guy who grew up in Miami’s cocaine cowboy-like underworld, mingling with drug traffickers and armed outlaws. The successful rapper has powered his way to the top of the hip-hop world with rhymes about his rags-to-riches life, scraping for food while his mother worked three jobs.

His critics and fellow rappers, however, have been relentless over the years, accusing the self-proclaimed “Boss” of rap of letting his thirst for riches get in the way of the facts of his life.

So when he was caught in a fusillade of bullets on Las Olas Boulevard earlier this week — all of them missing the 300-pound rapper, his girlfriend and the Rolls-Royce they were riding in — it resurrected questions about the real Rick Ross.

Some, including fellow rapper and nemesis 50 Cent, have said it’s difficult to believe that anyone firing that many shots would miss such a large target. They essentially accused Ross of staging the shooting to boost his larger-than-life image.

They have good reason to wonder, since Ross has not always adhered to literal truth in his self-portrayals. He was outed in 2008 as once having a respectable career as a Florida prison guard. At first, he denied the notion, but was forced to come clean when The Smoking Gun website printed his Florida Department of Corrections personnel record, which included a citation for perfect attendance. Then a former drug trafficker named “Freeway” Rick Ross sued him for stealing his moniker, which Ross claimed was morphed from his many high school nicknames. The lawsuit further dented Ross’ credibility in the rap world.

Fort Lauderdale police are investigating this week’s gunfire, and have released few details and have no suspects. But Ross does have his enemies, chief among them a gang named the Gangster Disciples, who have demanded The Boss pay them for using one of their leader’s names in his songs. In November, the Florida branch of the gang posted a video threatening to kill him if he doesn’t pay up. But the shoot-’em-up has not been tied to the gang.

After the incident, Ross beefed-up his security, but has yet to publicly comment. His lawyer, Allan Zamren, declined to address the matter. His publicist has not returned phone calls.

So who is Rick Ross?

Ross, whose real name is William Leonard Roberts II, came from a middle-class family with educated parents, earned average grades in high school and was a standout football lineman his senior year. He won a football scholarship, became a prison guard, then, suddenly, completely changed gears.

By 2006, Ross at the age of 30 was on the verge of rap mega-stardom. His first two albums debuted at the top of the Billboard 200 album chart. His second single, Push It, was an homage to the movie Scarface. His first album went gold.

Last year, Ross seemed to make it to the pinnacle of his fame as both a rapper and the founder of Maybach Music Group, despite the furor over his past. He made the cover of Rolling Stone, unabashedly shirtless, pants hanging low, wearing his signature dark shades. The headline: “Gangster of Love.’’

Ross has been nominated for a Grammy Award this year for best rap album, for his fifth studio album, God Forgives, I Don’t.

He is not the only rapper to embellish his image for financial gain. Street cred is part of the theater of rap, an element woven into the fabric of the genre’s culture. In fact, rap is often fiction layered with characters. Rappers taking on personas — the kingpin, the baller, the epic lover, are as old as the music genre itself, no different in some ways than movie roles played by actors, said author and scholar Todd Boyd, a University of Southern California professor who specializes in the study of race and popular culture.

William Leonard Roberts II was born in Mississippi, but moved to Carol City when he was young. His mother was a nurse and his father, whom she divorced, had earned several educational degrees. Until Ross was 14, he lived in a tidy corner house in a hard-scrabble neighborhood around the corner from Carol City High, where he later played football under legendary coach Walter Frazier.

“He wasn’t an angel. We used to get on him about missing practices, especially when it was hot,” Frazier recalls. “Football was important to him, and he hung with a special group of guys — fun-loving guys who all went out together.’’

One of them was Ross’ lifelong best friend, Alfonzo Morgan, who, like Ross, played football and had hopes of going to the NFL. They both won scholarships to Albany State University in Georgia. Ross dropped out after one semester in which he majored in criminal justice, according to a university spokesman.

Two years later, Morgan also left, homesick and tired of the academic rigors.

“He was cool, and we were together practically every day,” Morgan said. He said they pretty much stayed out of trouble, other than an occasional shoplifting or stiffing a cab driver. The friends were both hefty and called each other “Fat Boy” from the time they were kids.

Frazier said Ross’ nickname in high school was “Big Bill,” and he was far from the thug or gangster that he writes about.

They were typical teenage boys, Frazier said. They were part of community programs, and his mother participated in the team’s booster program, he said. “He was no different from the other kids, an average student, well liked.’’

His neighborhood, now part of Miami Gardens, is cleaned up. The house at 17th Avenue and 181st Street is pink, with three bedrooms and one bath. If Ross initially grew up in a rough neighborhood, he didn’t stay. In 1992, when Ross was 16, county records show that his mother, Tommie Roberts, purchased a 2,300 square foot home in Rolling Oaks Estates, an upscale cul-de-sac community in Miami Gardens. Ross was always tinkering with cars, and drove a blue and white Chevy Impala to school, Frazier recalled.

“What I most remember is he used to remove the steering wheel and carry it with him so that the car wouldn’t be stolen.’’

He always wore flashy threads and was popular with the ladies.

Morgan said Ross always talked about music and never was without a notepad, upon which he would scribble lyrics incessantly.

“He wrote on that pad so much that it was actually aggravating,’’ Morgan said. “He always had headphones on, listening to rap.’’

But after dropping out of college, Ross’ mother pressured him to go to work so that he would stay away from the grittier realities of street life, Morgan said..

In 1995, at the age of 19, he graduated from the training academy and was hired as an officer at the South Florida Reception Center, a prison facility. When he resigned two years later, he was earning $25,000 a year.

Morgan said Ross had bigger dreams. He and Morgan had long envied the prestige and cash that the drug dealers were earning on the streets of Carol City, so they began to drift on the other side of the law. Ross changed his appearance, covering himself in tattoos, growing a scruffy beard and flaunting a new streetwise, dangerous persona.

Morgan ended up serving time in jail for drug dealing, but Ross, whose fourth album was titled Teflon Don, seemed to avoid anything more serious than a couple of arrests for marijuana.

Morgan, who now works at a Publix warehouse, was with Ross at his birthday bash at LIV club in the Fontainebleau Sunday. He said he spoke with Ross on Thursday, but they didn’t talk about the shooting.

“He’s pretty much seen what I’d seen growing up,’’ Morgan said. “We would be playing outside and seeing drugs and other bad stuff.’’

Rapping about that “bad stuff” made Ross rich. He claims to have earned $40 million.

Frazier said he was shocked when he learned who “Ross” was. He happened to see him on television and was taken aback by some of the language in his music.

When he saw Ross a few years later, the rapper told him, “Hey coach, I have to make a dollar.’’

“I guess you have to do what you have to do to be popular and sell records,’’ Frazier said.

But he praised Ross for remembering where he came from by supporting the school and its football program. At one appearance in Carol City, he warned young kids who look up to him against being fixated on the money and fast life he portrays.

Florida rapper Haitian Fresh, who has known Ross for years and has worked with him, called him “a perfect example of an artist that has never given up. He’s constantly reinventing himself and went against all odds.”

Fresh dismissed talk of Ross’s middle class upbringing and past as “he-say, she-say” speculation.

“The only person who knows Rick Ross is Rick Ross,” he said.

Miami herald staff writers Jacqueline Charles and Nadege Green contributed to this story.