In the summer of 2009, ESPN’s SportsCenter aired a piece about Dartanyon Crockett and Leroy Sutton, two high schoolers in inner city Cleveland fighting together to overcome poverty and disability as they triumphed athletically. Crockett and Sutton were teammates on Lincoln West High School’s wrestling team, even though Crockett is legally blind and Sutton lost his legs when he was hit by a train as a child.
This weekend, ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi revisited the story to tell an even more remarkable one. After producing the original piece, former ESPN producer Lisa Fenn remained a part of Crockett and Sutton’s lives, “removing obstacles from the paths of their dreams, providing for their needs, reprogramming poorly learned habits, exposing new horizons and piling on the encouragement they need to rise above.” Thanks to Fenn’s help and donations from around the world, Crockett became a bronze medalist in judo at the Paralympic Games in London last year; Sutton will become the first member of his family to graduate from college in August.
Fenn, originally from the other side of Cleveland, explained why she stayed in their lives in a piece for ESPN.com this week:
“Things like this don’t happen to kids like us,” [Crockett] 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 hope and love and rejoicing 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.
It isn’t hard to imagine where Crockett and Sutton might be had ESPN never showed up to do the original story or had Fenn not felt so strongly for the two boys that she stayed behind even after it aired. Crockett had been living in a Cleveland crack house. Sutton was left largely alone to care for a younger sister. Their school, as Fenn details, was mostly minority, mostly poor, a place where students entered through metal detectors and couldn’t take their books home with them. Most students there wouldn’t graduate, much less go on to college or the Paralympic Games.
The United States has one of the highest child poverty rates in the developed world, according to a recent UNICEF report, and the lingering effects of the Great Recession and the sluggish economic recovery have only made it worse. Across the nation, there are families going without food and shelter, children suffering from malnutrition and neglect. There are kids like Sutton, raising younger siblings because they have to while their parents work second and third jobs. They attend schools that are crumbling and unsafe, unfit environments for learning. Even those who graduate, like Sutton and Crockett, often can’t afford to move on to college.
Much of America’s political discourse has fed the belief that poverty is a choice, a cycle that can be escaped through sheer force of will. Dream the American Dream hard enough, and it will become reality. Want it bad enough, and any poor kid can go to college, to the boardroom of a Fortune 500 company, to the NBA. And so at a time when unemployment and poverty rates remain sky-high, politicians have focused on cutting safety net programs, in the name of reducing a culture of dependency, that keep millions out of poverty every year by putting food on tables, roofs over heads, and clothes on backs.
After ESPN’s original story aired, viewers flooded Fenn’s inbox with messages asking how they could help Crockett and Sutton, who both wanted to attend college but couldn’t afford it, reach their goal. Fenn did the rest, helping the two children manage their finances, gather college transcripts, and escape. “In short, she did everything,” Rinaldi said in the most recent piece. Had ESPN never visited Cleveland, though, where would Leroy Sutton and Dartanyon Crockett be? And how many kids like them, kids who could become scientists, doctors, athletes, or regular, middle class members of society, do we lose every day to the pernicious effects of poverty? Fenn’s story is a great one, but the lesson of how Crockett and Sutton escaped poverty should be about how many more could do the same if our country and our government did a better job of giving them the chance.