When I was 12, a bishop told me I was going to hell.
He said it quite matter-of-factly. It simply was the way things would be.
His issue with my life - how I was "allowing the devil into my soul" - had nothing to do with séances, Ouija boards, or animal sacrifices. No, I was damned, quite simply, because I played "Magic: The Gathering" and "Dungeons & Dragons."
And if I didn't stop gaming - boom - it would be fire and brimstone for me.
At that point, I resigned myself to my fate. Because, clearly, asking me to stop playing games was like asking me to breathe water.
I've always had two great passions: writing, which ultimately led me to the Journal, and gaming, which most people would say led me nowhere. Though, if I'm allowed to toot my own horn for a second, I'd say being ranked in the top 10 worldwide at three different games isn't exactly nowhere.
Regardless, I've long felt that I could and should do more with my gaming expertise - especially if I was doomed to perdition for obtaining this knowledge over long nights of Mountain Dew and Cheetos.
Inspiration first struck during my college days. When perhaps I should have been studying a bit harder, instead I was devising a new type of board game, combining aspects of war games, card games, and some pure imagination.
That game idea went on the back burner as I was forced to enter the real world, where I soon learned that work is much more time-consuming than schoolwork.
But last year, I found myself writing an article about the San Joaquin Entrepreneurship Challenge.
This event, sponsored by angel investors and local businesses, offered $20,000 in cash and prizes for the area's most promising small business idea. It was described to me as a bit like ABC's hit show "Shark Tank," but without the bargaining bit.
As I talked to 2011's first place winners Amalia's Cocina, a Denair-based company which produces some absolutely delicious Mexican sauces, I found myself thinking, "Hey, I could do that." And by that, I mean participate in the competition, not make sauces.
So when the competition deadline rolled around this year, I, like 51 other hopeful entrepreneurs, entered my business in the competition. The written application took financial projections, market analyses, meeting with business advisors, and a lot of hard work before my application was in a state I felt even mildly confident about submitting.
But when the dust settled, I was selected as one of 19 participants in the first round of the San Joaquin Entrepreneurship Challenge.
Now, I'm prepping for that first round of in-person presentations, coming up Feb. 29 in Stockton. I'll have just two minutes to pitch my business to the judges and to an audience of hundreds.
Then, my fate is in the four judges hands' once again. But the audience will have a say too, with the audience's collective vote carrying as much weight as a fifth judge.
Once the scorecards are tallied, the top eight will make the cut to a final round, set for mid-March. After that round, consisting of a 5 minute pitch and some question-and-answer, the overall winners will be selected.
I've still got a ways to go in the competition. And I've certainly got to work on tweaking my two-minute pitch if I want to even have a chance at seeing this through to the end.
But right now, I'm just excited to be in the competition. I'm glad to have the chance to share my game with the world - or at least a few hundred audience members, in the worst case scenario.
I'm happy that I am finally putting my love of gaming to good use, and I'm hoping my passion will carry me through to the final rounds.
Heck, maybe if that bishop was right, the devil will have already reserved a special seat for me at the winner's table.
To contact Alex Cantatore, attend the San Joaquin Entrepreneurship Challenge Round I competition, from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Feb. 29 at the Stockton Golf and Country Club, and vote for Cantatore's idea. Go ahead; tickets are available now at http://sjchallengefeb29.eventbrite.com/