Two Young Men, a Journalist Full of Faith, and a Family Forged by God

 

two young men, a journalist and a family forged by god

 

Her answer came when one story fell into her life and never left. Leroy Sutton, who lost his legs in a childhood train accident, and Dartanyon Crockett, who was legally blind and had no permanent place to call home were first drawn together by their handicaps. The boys soon developed a brother-like bond and became inseparable—Leroy often found riding the back of Dartanyon wherever they went.

As Lisa filmed her feature about this remarkable friendship for ESPN, she grew to understand the suffering Leroy and Dartanyon had endured, and she fought for their trust and their confidence. The three formed a surprising and meaningful connection—and once the television story ended, Lisa realized she couldn’t just walk away.

She resolved to give them the chance she knew they deserved. She worked tirelessly to see them through school and athletic pursuits, broken hearts, phantom limbs, and the bewildering obstacles that, at every turn, tested their individual strengths even while strengthening the bonds between them.

More than a story of two underdogs overcoming innumerable hardships, the NAACP Image Award Finalist and Christopher Award Winner Carry On: A Story of Resilience, Redemption, and an Unlikely Family (Harper Wave, August), is a touching tale of an unlikely family forged through barriers of race, class, and disability. Their relationships serve as an example of how racial and socioeconomic unity are possible when the love of Christ leads the effort. This is a powerful memoir about grit, love, hope, and faith—and the courage to carry on, even in the most extraordinary circumstances.

Carry On

“Why did you stay?”

He asked me, unprompted, as we waited quietly for the light to turn green. My heart revved. 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 for us?”

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 isn’t enough.

As an ESPN television features producer at the time, I traveled the country, chronicling human-interest stories against the backdrop of sports. I covered Derek Jeter and Michael Jordan, as well as disabled amateurs and terminally ill little leaguers, all of whom imprinted their own special brand of heroics onto this world.

I witnessed countless incredible feats throughout my career, but one story topped them all. It was what I found on the wrestling mats at Cleveland’s Lincoln-West High School that caused my spirit to sink and soar, all in the same moment.

Dartanyon was Lincoln’s best and strongest talent. He stood 5-foot-7 with muscles bunched like walnuts and a winner in multiple weight classes. He was also homeless, subsisting on the soggy mozzarella sticks and badly bruised apples served in cafeteria lunches. His mama died of an aneurysm when he was eight years young, at which point his father collected him and took him to live in his East Cleveland crack house. Where exactly it was Dartanyon could not say because Dartanyon is legally blind. Born with optic neuropathy, a condition marked by acute vision loss, Dartanyon can barely make out the facial features of a person sitting a few feet away.

Riding atop Dartanyon’s back was teammate Leroy Sutton. He traveled around up there because he has no legs. When Leroy was eleven years young, he was hit by a freight train. Though the paramedics saved his life, they could not save his entire body. His left leg was amputated below the knee, his right leg below the hip. His mother, ill-equipped for her the intensity of her son’s care, soon slipped into drug use and disappeared for stretches of time, leaving Leroy alone to care for his younger sister. The “why” questions haunted Leroy, but he learned to mask their 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.

In addition to being practice partners, Dartanyon and Leroy shared a handful of classes, always sitting side by side. Dartanyon would get up to sharpen Leroy’s pencils; Leroy ensured Dartanyon could read small print. Yet each time I allowed myself to revel in their tenderness, they reverted to teenage humor with a twist that only they could share.

“Did you guys do the homework?” the teacher asked.

“Dartanyon tried,” Leroy said, “but he couldn’t see it.”
“So Leroy ran over,” Dartanyon said, “and read it to me.”

Afterward, they barreled down the halls together, their echoing laughter the brightest light in that dreary place. Dartanyon kept a hand on Leroy’s wheelchair, in part as a guide for himself but also as a protector, a brother, for Leroy.

Their cheerfulness stood out in a school marked by irreverent students and sunken teachers. Seas of black and Latino teens poured through the metal detectors each morning, many stopped for pat-downs. There was an arrest in the hallway after 10th period. Books were handed out and locked back up after each class. Less than 40 percent would ever graduate. Yet Dartanyon and Leroy moved throughout the chaos with grace, with a refusal to have their hope tainted. “Destined for Greatness,” Dartanyon scribbled on his pages throughout the day. They seemed oblivious to the damning limitations on their lives.

Producing my feature story, “Carry On,” challenged me in ways I previously had not experienced. Instead of telling the story of an individual accomplishment or remarkable moment, I needed to convey a friendship. And in order for the nuances of a friendship to unfold naturally on camera, I needed to become a part of it. Calling out, “Be funny on the count of three” or “Now convey warmth on this take” is artificial. This story required me to be in on the jokes and move fluidly with the characters.

This proved difficult for me at first, because I grew up on the other side of Cleveland. The white side, by parents who were the products of segregation. In my father’s mind especially, separate was still safer. I, on the other hand, reveled in the chance to show him that I had evolved from his racist beliefs. And yet when I spent time with Leroy and Dartanyon, when I tried to navigate their environments, I struggled. There was an elephant in every room, and that elephant was me. I was uncomfortable being the minority. I was uncomfortable sitting in abject poverty. Uncomfortable with the chaos of it all. Furthermore, I had been taught that hard work yields results and that with determination, anything was possible. And yet in these impoverished communities, it all felt hopeless, like nothing was possible.

But Dartanyon and Leroy eased me in graciously. As we filmed over the course of five months, I tagged along to their classes, to their practices and on team bus rides. They taught me their lingo and poked fun when I tried to use it. They opened up about their struggles — Dartanyon with great eagerness, as I think he had waited his entire life for someone to want to know him, to truly see him. Leroy’s revelations emerged more reluctantly. He had been emotionally abandoned too many times before. But as he began to talk, the words became like oxygen, breathing new life into old wounds. Over time, both boys began to believe that, perhaps, I genuinely cared.

I stayed because I would not be next on the list of people who walked out and over their trust.

After the wrestling season, Dartanyon and Leroy competed in power lifting. Leroy held the Ohio state record in bench press, Dartanyon in dead lift. Immediately following his conference power-lifting-championship win in April 2009, Dartanyon discovered that all of his belongings had been taken from the bleachers. Stolen along with them was his right to celebrate. Every victory in his life was ripped from him before he could even taste it.

Soon thereafter, I traveled to Akron to film Leroy’s childhood neighborhood. This required a police escort. “Welcome to Laird Street,” the officer said smugly. “We call it ‘Laird Country,’ because once they’re born onto Laird, they never leave. They just move from house to house, up and down, following those drugs.” Shadowy men loomed on the dilapidated porches of each home, while the streets were filled with children who should have been in school. “Your guy must have been real lucky to get out,” the officer remarked.

I stayed because my heart was too heavy for my legs to walk away. Dark clouds hung over every turn of Dartanyon’s and Leroy’s lives, and I found myself pleading with the heavens to end this madness.

That summer, I feverishly edited “Carry On,” praying that just one viewer would be moved to help these boys in meaningful ways. But instead, following its August airings, hundreds emerged. Letters from Africa to England, from Idaho to Ipswich flooded my inbox, every viewer offering money and sharing personal accounts of how this extraordinary friendship shook their souls awake.

In the month that followed, I harnessed donations, vetted opportunities, deciphered financial aid forms, coordinated college visits and ensured Dartanyon and Leroy were finally fed on a daily basis. Each time I shared exciting new developments with them, Dartanyon gushed with thank-yous and hugs, broad grins and relieved exhales. 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 you 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.”

He once told me that Christmas was his least favorite holiday because his mom wrapped up Bazooka bubble gum and toys from around the house, hoping he wouldn’t notice. Having never known pleasure, he had not developed the language to respond to it.

“But I am happy inside,” he added. “My dreams might come true.”

I stayed because I vowed right then to fill Leroy’s life with a thousand good things until he simply burst with joy.

In November 2009, Leroy moved to Arizona to study video game design. Dartanyon received his life-changing offer from the United States Olympic Committee to train full-time in the sport of the Paralympic sport of blind judo. And I thought I would get them off to their new lives and wave proudly from afar. But it quickly became apparent that the landmines between their dreams and their realities were too much for them to navigate alone.

Their days – their years — were marked by constant failure, because minor challenges can feel like major threats to individuals who live in the toxic stress of poverty. Their upbringings taught them how to endure problems, but nothing taught them how to solve problems. I worked with them daily, teaching them how to navigate class work, tutoring, banking, customer service calls, budgeting, and disability services. I prayed at every turn; our bonds grew deeper. Our conversations naturally turned to vital topics like relationships, the atrocities of their childhoods and the affects that those traumas had on coping mechanisms. Slowly they began to take forward steps. I held tightly to the smallest victories, and with each accomplishment, I lavished them with praise, because I came to see that though being born a Sutton or being born a Crockett may look like life sentence to an outsider, it is not. It is simply a pattern. And committed love can break that cycle.

This was evidenced at one point a few years ago, when Leroy texted me a video of a rain storm in Phoenix, a rarity in the dessert. His accompanying text read: “All of this love has created an imbalance in the universe.” This was a boy who had largely and understandably given up on humanity, and those were the words of a heart beginning to heal.

Today Leroy is the first in his family to graduate from high school, and now a college degree. Dartanyon and I sat in the front row as Leroy received his diploma, listening as the sound of this cycle of poverty shatters.

Dartanyon worked his fingers into calluses and his heart into that of a champion. In a blur, he swiped a spot on the 2012 Paralympic team to London. Leroy and I crossed the pond and celebrated in the front row as the bronze medal was draped around Dartanyon’s neck. Once forgotten by the world, Dartanyon stood on top of it.

“Things like this don’t happen to kids like us,” he cried on that unimaginable night, his face beaming bronze, his tears soaking into my shoulder.

And he is right. Blind and legless kids from the ghettos don’t get college educations and shiny accolades. But they should. And that is why I stayed. Because all kids deserve love and rejoicing and redemption, and God calls us, people from the “other side,” to take hope to these hard places.

That’s what our cross is all about, isn’t it? It’s the place where God entered our pain in a big way, with a plan to save us and restore intimacy with Him and others. It’s where he took history’s lowest point and transformed it into a turning point. In film, we call it the “All is lost moment.” It’s the moment where you think your protagonist may not make it through and the cause will be lost. But of course that never happens in movies, and it doesn’t happen in God’s narrative either. Jesus showed up in humanity’s “All Is Lost” moment. And in doing so, He showed us how to live — how to come alongside another, how to travel down the long, slow road of redemption, how to take the broken pieces and make something beautiful out of them.

When Dartanyon applied to college, I received a call from an administrator, notifying me that he listed me as his emergency contact. “That is fine,” I said. “Thank you for letting me know.”

“No, that’s not all I am calling to tell you,” she said, her voice somewhat undone. “Next to your name on the form is a space that says ‘Relationship to Student.’ Dartanyon wrote ‘Guardian Angel.’ I don’t know who you are, but I thought you should know.”

I stayed because we can change the world only when we enter into another’s world.

I stayed because we get only one life, and we don’t truly live it until we give it away.

I stayed because I love you.

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A three-time winner of the Edward R. Murrow Award and a six-time Emmy Award–winning feature producer with ESPN for thirteen years, Lisa Fenn interviewed every big name in sports. Today she is a sought-after public presenter, speaking on leadership, poverty, and transracial adoption, in addition to her Christian faith and its relevance in both her media career and her daily life. Lisa received her BA in communications from Cornell University. Her work has been featured on ESPN, Good Morning America, and World News Tonight. Lisa resides in Boston with her husband and two young children.


Dartanyon
lives in Colorado Springs where he trains full-time as a U.S. Paralympian in the sport of blind judo. (He won a bronze medal at the 2012 London Paralympics and is the 2014 IBSA Judo World Champion.) Dartanyon is also pursuing a degree in social work, aspiring to work with children from underserved communities. He serves as an athlete ambassador for UNICEF, the Challenged Athletes Foundation and the U.S. State Department. He travels frequently to speak to school and professional groups.

Leroy grew up in Ohio neighborhoods rife with drugs and violence. In 2001, at the age of 11 he was struck by a train, which led to the amputation of both his legs. Instead of giving up, Leroy demonstrated an astounding ability to get up and carry on, an attribute that would continue to push him into his adult life. Sutton excelled in high school wrestling in multiple weight classes – finishing his senior season with nine wins. He went on to compete at the 2010 Paralympic Powerlifting World Championships in Malaysia where he finished 10th. Leroy was the first in his family to graduate from high school and now holds a college degree in video game production. He is employed at Electronic Arts.



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Comments

  1. Awe inspiring story. God can work miracles, sometimes He needs our beautiful feet! Thanks sooooo much!

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