“Things This Good Don’t Happen to Kids Like Us”

01-lets-heart-it-pa“Why did you stay?” he asked as we waited for the light to turn green. I always thought he knew. “I love you,” I answered. “That’s what I thought you’d say,” he replied. “But … why … why did you stick around and do everything you did?” The answer to Dartanyon Crockett’s second question was not as tidy as the first. Because life can be a knotted mess and, sometimes, love is not enough.
Dartanyon and Leroy Sutton found their way into my heart four years ago. As an ESPN television producer, I chronicled human-interest stories in sports. I covered everything from legends like Derek Jeter and Michael Jordan to disabled amateurs and terminally ill Little Leaguers. But what I found on the wrestling mats at Cleveland’s Lincoln-West High School in 2009 caused my spirit to sink and soar, all in the same moment.

Dartanyon was Lincoln’s most talented athlete. A winner in multiple weight classes, he was five-foot-seven, with muscles bunched like buckeyes. He was also homeless. His mama had died of an aneurysm when he was eight, then relatives took him to live in a crack house. Where it was Dartanyon could not say, because he is legally blind. Born with Leber optic atrophy disease, he can barely make out the facial features of a person a few feet away.

Perched atop Dartanyon’s back—yes, riding on his back—was teammate Leroy Sutton. Dartanyon carried his friend to and from the wrestling mats at meets because Leroy had no legs. When he was 11, he was hit by a train. His left leg was amputated below the knee, his right leg below the hip. His mother, ravaged by guilt, slipped into drug use and disappeared for stretches, leaving Leroy to care for his sister. His father spent nearly all of Leroy’s youth in jail. The boy learned to mask his torment with a quick smile.

The one with no legs being carried by the one who could not see. At first, I stayed because I simply could not look away.

Dartanyon and Leroy shared a handful of classes, always sitting side by side. Dartanyon would get up to sharpen Leroy’s pencils; Leroy would read the small print for Dartanyon. Yet each time I reveled in their tenderness, they reverted to teenage humor with a twist only they could share. “Did you guys do the homework?” the teacher asked. “Dartanyon tried,” Leroy said, “but he couldn’t see it.” “Leroy ran over,” Dartanyon said, “and read it to me.”

They barreled down the hallways together. Dartanyon kept a hand on Leroy’s wheelchair, in part as a guide for himself but also to act as a protector, a brother. Their teachers told me that they were “some of the good ones.”

Their cheerfulness stood out at Lincoln. Teens poured through metal detectors each morning, many stopped for pat-downs. Less than 50 percent would ever graduate. Yet Dartanyon and Leroy moved through the chaos with grace, with a refusal to have their hope tainted. Dartanyon scribbled on pages in his notebooks “Destined for Greatness.”

In order for their friendship’s nuances to unfold on camera, I needed to be a part of it. This was difficult at first because I grew up on the other side of Cleveland. My parents had scrounged up money for private school to protect me from “those people,” and I’d always silently wondered what was so bad about them. Now I realized their discomfort was akin to the uneasiness I wore in Lincoln’s halls.

But Dartanyon and Leroy eased me in. They taught me their lingo and poked fun when I used it. They opened up about their struggles—Dartanyon with eagerness, as I suspect he had waited all his life for someone to want to know him. Leroy’s revelations emerged more reluctantly. He had been abandoned too many times. But sharing his past became a type of therapy for him.

Next: This was becoming less about a story and all about soothing the suffering »

I stayed because I would not be next on the list of people who walked out on them. After wrestling season, Dartanyon and Leroy competed in power lifting, a sport in which they both excelled. Leroy held the state record in bench press, Dartanyon in dead lift. Immediately following a conference championship win in April 2009, Dartanyon discovered that all his belongings had been stolen.

That week, I drove him around to replace his items. A new bus pass. A cell phone. A trip to the Social Security office for a state ID, which required a birth certificate, which had been confiscated during his dad’s eviction. His was a cruel world, and how he endured it baffled me. I paid for his items, crossing a journalistic line. But this was becoming less about a story and all about soothing the suffering. Dartanyon later told me that that was when he grew convinced God had placed me in his life for reasons beyond television.

I traveled to Akron to film Leroy’s old neighborhood. This required a police escort. “Welcome to Laird Street,” a police officer said. “We call it Laird Country because once they’re born into Laird, they never leave. They just move from house to house, up and down, following those drugs.”

I stayed because my heart was too heavy for my legs to walk away.

That summer, I edited their story, “Carry On,” praying that one viewer would be moved to help. After the airings, hundreds of e-mails flooded my inbox, offering money and sharing how this friendship shook their souls awake. Dartanyon and Leroy were no longer invisible. I curled up and wept.

I responded to nearly 1,000 e-mails. Each time I shared exciting developments, Dartanyon gushed with thank-yous and hugs. But Leroy’s stoic posture never budged. “Leroy, if at any point you don’t want this, you need to speak up,” I said. “The last thing I want is to inflict my desires on you.”

“No, it’s all good,” he said.

“But usually when it’s all good, people smile or say something,” I said. “Each time I call with good news, you are so quiet. I’m not even sure you’re on the line.”

“No one’s ever called me with good news before,” he said. “I don’t know what I’m supposed to say.”

I stayed because I vowed then to fill Leroy’s life with a thousand good things until he burst with joy. In November 2009, thanks to viewers’ generosity, he moved to Arizona to study video game design at Collins College. I had doubts that he could manage on his own, but time and again, he disarms his skeptics. He was the first in his family to graduate from high school, and in August, he was the first to receive a college diploma, as Dartanyon and I applauded.

Dartanyon received his life-changing offer from the U.S. Olympic Committee in March 2010. Coaches invited him to train in Colorado to learn the Paralympic sport of judo. This was like winning the lottery: shelter, sports, mentors, school, medical care, and, as he proudly showed me, his first bed.

“Top judo athletes begin training at a very young age,” his coach confided. “We don’t know that he can make up the years by 2016.” But he worked his fingers into calluses and swiped a spot on the 2012 team. At the Paralympics in London, Leroy and I celebrated as a bronze medal was draped around Dartanyon’s neck. Once forgotten by the world, he stood on top of it.

“Things like this don’t happen to kids like us,” he cried that night, his tears soaking my shoulder. He’s right. Blind and legless kids from the ghetto don’t get college degrees and medals, but they should. And that is why I stayed. Because hope, love, and redemption can happen to kids like them. And people like me, people from the “other side,” who can soften life’s blows for them, ought to help.

Those who know the story heap a lot of credit onto me for dedicating four years to improving Dartanyon’s and Leroy’s lives. I’ve removed obstacles from their paths, exposing new horizons and piling on encouragement. I taught Leroy how to pay a bill. I sat with Dartanyon at the Social Security office to apply for disability, something he could have received all his life had anyone submitted the forms. I soothed the burn of Leroy’s broken heart and phantom limbs. Through it all, we grew into an eclectic family. We carried on.

When he visited the eye doctor, I asked Dartanyon to include me on the consent form so I could access his records. Later, the administrator called. “I just thought you should know what Dartanyon wrote on his form,” she said, somewhat undone. “Next to your name is a space that says ‘relationship to patient.’ He wrote ‘guardian angel.’ ”

I stayed because we get only one life, and we don’t truly live it until we give it away. I stayed because we can change the world only when we enter into another’s world. I stayed because I love you.