B-Side Blog: Just Stand!

"What do you do when you've done all you can, and it seems like it' never enough? And how can you smile while your heart has been broken and filled with pain? What do you give when you've given your all? After you've done all you can, you just STAND." Donnie McClurkin (Gospel Singer)

Every coach, at some point in their career, will have an athlete who is the star of stars. They've got all the talent, God-given ability, work ethic, determination and swag. They win titles and appear to be on their way to greatness. But somewhere along the way they get caught up and make a mistake. It's a mistake that you don't get a second chance to correct.  It costs not only your life, but someone else. I know of such an athlete.  This isn't to put him on blast but as a way to warn the youth of today of how fast the sport of track and field can be taken away- or any sport for that matter. Many coaches warn their athletes year after year to stay on the right path with school, grades, and association with the right people.  A lot of times, like in the following instance will fall on deaf ears. 

I tried to warn him but he would not listen-

The athlete Deandre (not his real name), between the years of 2004-06 he was the most dominant sprinter in Central Illinois. At one point in 2005 he was #1 in the US in the 55m. He was the first athlete from IL to participate in the Simplot Games as well as NSIC (now New Balance). At the NSIC meet in '04, he finished 11th as a sophomore.  Back then there were no Freshman or Emerging Elite divisions like today.  Everybody was in the Championship Division. He was out leaned and just missed the final losing to the '12 Olympic 4x4 leadoff leg and Long Beach Poly HS great Bryshon Nellum. After that race, the colleges came calling and noticed that a sophomore had competed with the big boys. It was unheard of for a sophomore, especially from IL, to come to NYC and boxes of letters came.

In '05 he got 13th competing against the great Jamaican 4x1 Olympic lead off Nesta Carter. In 06 we drove from IL to Pocatello, Idaho for the Simplot Games.There was a major storm and the only way we could get there was to take a two lane highway in the mountains on black ice that was only used by semis.  He was sleep of course, but at one point I looked and thought "Man it's foggy up here." The clouds replied "That's not fog, "you're driving in the clouds. "And what is a brotha doing in the mountains on Black Ice at this hour?" We got a few hours of sleep, and Deandre' was a finalist in the 60m.
Deandre' never won state, but he was city champ all four years. He was conference and sectional champ three out of four years. He was on his way as the letters kept pouring in from Syracuse, Wisconsin, Notre Dame & LSU, etc. I knew one more visit to NY would or could seal the deal to a scholarship. But 2007 started the beginning of the end. There were close calls on his life even being jumped at the bus station causing him to miss his final trip to NY with a back injury.  He was loyal to his family to a fault, especially his brother. There were countless times I said "Shrek you got to cut him loose." The streets didn't have a problem with Deandre' but when you are involved with someone who does, well...  Deandre's grades began to slip and my exact words to one teacher was "any extra work you have to keep him eligible is appreciated.' "I'll make sure he does it." "Track is his escape from the streets, and if he doesn't run he'll be dead or in prison in three years.
Exactly three years after my statement, he was the driver of a drive-by shooting in which his brother was involved and was the actual shooter. I remember it like it was yesterday as he sent me a message on Myspace (yes, there was no Facebook then) saying he was tired of working at McDonald's and wanted to use my computer and go through the list I had for him a couple years back of junior colleges. DeAndre'' message came five minutes before he would get off work.

Bullets don't know names and the bullet meant for someone else actually killed his friend who was minding his own business standing in the crowd. I got the call with the  infamous words all coaches or anybody for that matter, hate to hear.  "Did you hear about DeAndre?"  I literally fell apart. Yeah, it was 3 years after leaving my tutelage/club team, but I was ruined!  All the time, money, and work we had put in, the progress and interest from colleges...Gone!  He had just made a decision to go to junior college and run track and just within minutes, it was all gone.

It took me a long time to go visit him in jail. Word was on the street he was asking for me to come see him.  Finally, I did and if you haven't been, the whole experience was uncomfortable.  I felt like I was a prisoner myself; looking at him on the other side of a little window with prisoners walking around was a lot.  I started asking myself questions. "What did I do wrong?" "How could I have prevented this?"  "Maybe if I had said or did this he wouldn't be there.  He was a good kid who got caught up.  The school district had chosen him as one of the five students to go to grade schools and speak to kids about the importance of staying in school and grades.

I had decided as a coach, I was done!  I would focus only on my son (Champ).  It literally killed my spirit to coach!  Coaches had gotten word, I was done and began calling and emailing once they heard.  There were people in the community who tried to talk me into coming back.  Coaching was my passion but this was too much.  Then Coach Smith from Champaign had a squad going to nationals in Virginia Beach.  He said, "coach we're missing something, we need you!  Your attitude is what we need.  You don't have to drive or coach, just be here!"  I told him I'd think about it. I laid on my couch for days praying whether to stay out of track or go help my friend and his team.  After a few days of prayer, I decided to help them.  We made it to the finals and got 7th in the 4x4.

The trial came up and I went to support his grandmother.  Right before it started, I'm told I'd be called to the stand as a character witness.  I had no time to even get my thoughts together.  What I said may keep him from getting a life sentence.  When they brought him out, shackled to the feet, my heart dropped.  He couldn't even look at me, he was so ashamed.  I was called to the stand and the state came at me like I was the mastermind behind what happened.  They wanted him to get life!  I realized what was going on and I knew it would be mentioned he used to be on my club team.  Therefore, giving people the impression that I had a "thug" team.  I came back at the state and called them out stating he was a grown man when all this happened, no longer part of my team.  I also told them he was the first athlete to go to NSIC and Simplot Games in Illinois history.  He was a speaker in grade schools; all stuff the judge and state had never heard.  He didn't get life, but I'll probably be gone IF he lives through his sentence, by the time he gets out.

Two weeks ago, I went to my mail box and the last envelope had his name on it.  I didn't know if he was dead, or it was the last letter he'd written.  So I stood there in shock and held it.  I looked at it for five minutes wondering what was on the inside.  There hadn't been any contact since the sentencing and he was walked out of the courtroom.  All the thoughts came back, the practices, meets, missed opportunities as well as the hurt and pain.  I opened it and he wrote as if he was just off in the military or something, not locked up in prison.  I could hear his voice.  As he got to the end of his letter, he said, 'Coach, I never got a chance to tell you how sorry I am for putting you through what I did. And I appreciate everything you tried to do for me.' My eyes started watering and I just sat there.  What could have been?  It didn't have to go this route.  But then again, maybe it did.  Maybe his story can be told or shared and someone can be saved.  Maybe there's a track athlete or any athlete for that matter, hanging with the wrong crowd who will read this and turn it around.

Coaches, continue the fight and lead because in the end, after we've done all we can, just STAND!