Best of America

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

I went to meet these two young athletes for a TV story I was doing. I stayed because I could not walk away.

Dartanyon Crockett and Leroy Sutton
Brownie Harris/ ESPN
“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 »

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