He escaped, and he is going to make it, perhaps with his name in lights one day.
And all because of family ... and family values.
"This story has to be told," said Ira Coogler, Ryan's father. "People in the neighborhood have to see it the parents, the kids. Just hang in there and believe. There's delayed gratification."
Richmond was dishonored last month as the nation's ninth most dangerous city. Ryan is a role model for the youth of Richmond.
He has a chance to become a star rather than a statistic.
He graduated this year with honors from Sacramento State University. Next month, he begins a three-year master's program at the University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts.
He wants to write and direct movies and he wants to direct them in Richmond and Oakland, the nation's fourth most dangerous city. He lived in Oakland with his family until he was 8.
"My goal is to start a (film)business in this area, something that can employ people," he said. "It will be something the people can point to and kids can see it, saying 'I can do that,' instead of doing things that are glaring to the environment."
He dreams of making major films the Spike Lee of the East Bay.
"It comes from the intense poverty that we experience as a city," he said of his localfocus, "and the conditions my friends were living in.
"The reason I'm here now, standing proud, are my mom and dad. Take them away and my story could be one you hear all the time."
Ryan and his father were interviewed last week at Century Theaters at Richmond's Hilltop Mall, where they hope Ryan's films will be shown one day.
Ira and Joselyn Coogler certainly gave Ryan, 21, and younger brothers Noah, 17, and Keenan, 15, an advantage numerous Richmond kids don't have a two-parent home.
Ira, a San Francisco probation officer, introduced his three boys to sports, driving them to events around the Bay Area so they could play in safe conditions, and also coached them.
Joselyn, a community organizer in Oakland, introduced Ryan to the movies, thereby planting a seed. They watched movies together all the time.
Ira also brought the strict discipline so needed in the inner city, with its senseless violence and mounting homicide figures. Dad made certain his three sons knew that the word "home" didn't mean the Richmond streets.
"He was and still is (a disciplinarian)," Ryan said. "It was difficult to accept at first, but I did. I thought I knew everything. As I got older, I started realizing what was going on more, and I saw what my father was talking about come to light, and it was the right thing."
The father knew from years of experience.
"I've been in corrections 25 years and I still believe it's (about) choices," Ira said. "At some point, there's 'the call of the wild.' I had friends who were notorious drug dealers in the area. But my father always told me I had two choices: The right way and the wrong way."
Ryan's parents graduated in the mid-1980s from what was then Cal State Hayward, where Ira played football. Like father, like son, Ryan was a wide receiver at Sacramento State, twice making the All-Big Sky Conference team.
His bachelor's degree is in finance, but his one year at St. Mary's College as a freshman chemistry major proved pivotal. That's because his English professor, Rosemary Graham, encouraged him to become a screenwriter.
"She looked at my essays and told me I had a creative eye, that I should go to Hollywood and write screenplays," he said. "I thought, 'Where is she getting this?' Then I thought 'Why not?' I went on the Internet, learned how to write a screenplay and fell in love with it."
St. Mary's dropped football after Coogler's freshman year, so he transferred to Sacramento State, where his writing time increased. He wrote "Story of a Dollar," about a $20 bill that circulates around the Bay Area and the lives of the people it reaches.
He received film training in Sacramento and made a 12-minute movie, "Eyes Like Mine," about a young man in college who struggles with loss after his girlfriend dies. The film was shown on campus.
Getting into USC's film school is very difficult. Ryan said 45 students are accepted each semester from a list of 400 to 700 applicants, who are judged solely on writing samples.
Some day, Richmond residents will be watching the Academy Awards and there might be Ryan Coogler, handsome and resplendent in a tuxedo, and smiling into the television camera as he hears his name called as an Oscar winner.
"My parents went to college, so I went to college," he said last week. "But if my dad was a drug dealer, I would have been a drug dealer."
It's a coin flip, to fall into a dark hole or to reach for the moon. Ryan had parents he loved, respected and emulated. So he aspires to be somebody. He had friends who lacked that home life, that discipline and who were swallowed up by the unforgiving, deadly streets.
Ryan's dad is right: It's all about choices.
Dave Newhouse's columns appear Monday, Thursday and Sunday, usually in the Metro section. Know any Good Neighbors? Phone 510-208-6466 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.