Sunday, June 17, 2001

Out of chaos, UC star learns a lesson of success

Refuge and love saved Peek

By Paul Daugherty
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Antwan Peek at Cincinnati Zoo with his year-old son Jaquez.
(Jeff Swinger photo)
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        Three a.m. on a winter night 13 years ago: Antwan Peek, 8 years old, is huddled in the front passenger seat of his mother's Chevrolet, wrapped in a couple of shirts, shivering. His mother is on the driver's side, eyes closed, mouth open, head up against the window. Out cold.

        She's hurting, sore, exhausted. Her face is swollen again, from another beating at the hands of the man she and her son live with. A few minutes ago, maybe more, Antwan awoke to the sound of banging and thudding and angry voices.

        He was hitting her again. Before she could call for help, he'd ripped the phone from the wall. Now he was screaming at her to get out. She'd gathered up a few things -- purse, keys, shirts to keep her son warm -- and evacuated to the car. Again.

        That's where the cops found them. The police pounded the window. Antwan could see them clearly, their faces backlit by a street light above the parked car. He sees them to this day.

        “I screamed. The doors was locked. The police was knocking on the windows. I was in so much shock, I didn't open the door. I was just looking at my mom.”

Peek had two sacks against Miami last season.
(Ernest Coleman photo)
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        Today, Antwan is in Providence, R.I., receiving a national award from the Athletic Academic Advisors of America, one of five student-athletes in the country honored for overcoming obstacles to achieve in school and sports. Antwan is now a dean's list student at the University of Cincinnati, a junior carrying close to a 3.0 average and a Bearcats defensive lineman and preseason football all-conference pick.

        Antwan, the kid who had passed through so much fire, is now a forged man of 21 with a 1-year-old son of his own, preaching surviving and thriving skills to a group of people in Providence who hang on his every word.

        How do we get there?

        Antwan will tell us everything. He wants us to know it all. Because there is a lesson here. The most important lesson. He won't leave anything out.

"I'm coming to get you'

        Some kids can live a hundred lives before they've grown up. They see things kids shouldn't see. Antwan was walking to seventh grade one morning at the old CAPE High School when a 20-something man sprinted past. Bullets followed him.

        The guy ran behind a building. Antwan heard shots. The guy didn't come out. Antwan never ducked or ran. He barely flinched. “You're so immune to it,” he explained. He just kept walking to school.

        One early evening when he was in third grade, Antwan picked up the phone in the most recent apartment he shared with his mother and a boyfriend.

        “I'm hungry,” he told his aunt. “Nobody's home but me.”

        “Get your things. I'm coming to get you,” his aunt Carolyn Peek said, and she did.

        Later that night, Antwan's mother called Carolyn.

        “Let me take care of him,” Carolyn said.


        And that was that. Antwan Peek didn't see his mother again for seven years.

        And his father? The night Antwan called Carolyn, Michael Peek was in a federal prison, serving two years for a drug conviction. He got out and became a good man and a caring father. But that didn't help the hungry 8-year-old on the phone line.

        “I'm scared,” Antwan said to Carolyn.

        How do we get from that day ... to this one?

A place of refuge

        Carolyn Peek volunteered at the Mother of Christ Church near her home in Winton Terrace. Five days a week, sometimes six, never less than 40 hours. The church paid her in groceries donated by local supermarkets. One day it might be a box of cleaning supplies, the next a case of spaghetti.

        One Tuesday, she would bring home 52 boxes of Fruity Pebbles. “A day's pay,” she says.

        On Fridays, the church would allow Carolyn in early, to have the pick of the donated used clothing. By the time Antwan was 12 or 13, he and his cousin Reesie would be talking Carolyn into $100 pairs of Scottie Pippen Nike sneakers; until then, Carolyn got the pick of the hand-me-downs.

        And boy, did she need them. She had five kids of her own to raise, without the help of an alcohol-abusing ex-husband. She had another nephew, left by his crack-addicted mother; she had Antwan, the searching 8-year-old his mother couldn't care for; and two neighbor kids, who would come to breakfast every morning before school, because their mother was too high on crack to feed them.

        “My house was a refuge,” Carolyn says now.

        So it was for Antwan, who finally had a place. “I never came home that she wasn't there,” he says.

        Little kids don't need much, except to know someone will be there for them. That when they come home from school, someone will be waiting. That when they go to sleep at night, someone will be there in the morning. That there is a stable person in their lives who loves them. That's all.

        Carolyn Peek loved her nephew Antwan. Loved 'em all. Loved 'em so much she made eggs and biscuits for breakfast and made sure they were in at night, when the trouble started. Taught them respect and not to lie.

        On winter mornings, the last thing Carolyn would do before sending her seven kids to school was throw their clothes into the dryer. After the eggs and biscuits, they'd have warm shirts and pants to climb into for the walk to school.

        “All kids really want is some structure,” she says. “We lived around kids who were allowed to do whatever. But not at my house. Respect was mandatory. For yourself and each other.”

        Thanks to Carolyn, Antwan could overcome the gunplay on the way to school. He could survive the notion that his mother wasn't there for him and his father was dealing with his own problems. He could, with a wisdom uncommon for a little boy, understand that somehow, things would be better for him.

        Then Reesie died.

Reesie's promise

        We've all had a friend like Urban Maurice Jackson Jr. The person we couldn't wait to see every summer day as kids. The person we hung with and trusted more than anyone. The person who meant we'd never be alone.

        Reesie was Carolyn's baby boy, just a couple months separated in age from Antwan, and Antwan's best friend. They dressed alike, talked alike, skipped school alike. They were cousins by blood and brothers by circumstance. They were inseparable, and long after Reesie was gone, Carolyn held tightly to Antwan, because in Antwan she saw the light of her son.

        “Reesie was a little spoiled,” Antwan recalls. “My aunt would give us each $70 for gym shoes. I'd tell Reesie, "Go see if you can get us more.'” More often than not, they'd walk out of Deveroe's with a shoe upgrade.

        Reesie could eat. And drink. Carolyn recalls Reesie sitting down with a gallon of milk and a straw. After awhile, the only sound you heard was Reesie, sucking down the last of the milk. Partly because of his appetite, one of Carolyn's hard and fast house rules was, if you wanted something to eat or drink, you had to ask.

        At age 13, Reesie was 6-foot-3 and had size-15 1/2 feet. He weighed 275 pounds. Maybe that's why he didn't feel as much pain as he should have when his appendix burst.

        Carolyn says he was sick for five days, barely left the couch in the living room. When she called the doctors, they labeled it an intestinal virus. They told her to give him crackers and let him rest. They phoned in a prescription.

        On the fifth day, Reesie asked to go to the hospital. Thirty minutes after he arrived, he had a heart attack. Then, he had another. His appendix had ruptured and the poison had swum in his body for five days. He told Carolyn he loved her and closed his eyes forever.

        Antwan was at his best friend's bedside at the end. “I saw his last heartbeat. I put my hand on his arm and a tear came out his right eye,” Antwan recalls.

        He is haunted by memories: His mother's abusive boyfriends, his dad's fleeting presence ... Reesie's gaze that first night after he had died, as Antwan squirmed in his bed.

        “I felt his eyes on me. I went from the top bunk to the bottom,“ he says. He finally slept on the floor.

        “I didn't know what to do. I was mad. I didn't understand. He was a person close to me,” Antwan said.

        Abandoned again. “After he died, it was like I was on an island.”

        But the funny thing about Urban Maurice Jackson Jr.: He stuck around.

        He and Antwan had wasted a seventh grade year -- “clowning,” as Carolyn put it -- and part of another. They'd flunked. Only now, in the last summer of his life, just before his death six days before his 14th birthday, Reesie had promised his mother that he and Antwan would graduate high school.

        The promise motivated Antwan, who made all As and Bs that following year. Then, he went to live with his father, as Carolyn struggled with Reesie's death.

        Carolyn's part of the work was done. Antwan's “stay” with her was over. It was Michael Peek's turn.

Return of the father

        There are any number of moments that conspire to make us who we are. They can be neon-signed events: Graduation. Victory. Sickness. Death. Or they can be as simple as someone knocking on our door.

        “Is Antwan ready?” Chris Cash said.

        Antwan was almost always ready. Chris Cash was his football coach. Remember how we said all kids really need is someone to be there for them?

        Mr. Cash started picking Antwan up at Carolyn's house when Antwan was 8. He did it every year for the next six years. He made the 8-mile trip from his home in Westwood three times a week, every week, every fall, for the simplest of reasons:

        “If I didn't do it, he wasn't going to get to play ball.”

        Occasionally, he'd beg Carolyn to release her nephew, who had been punished for some minor transgression. Once, she let him go but said he couldn't play in the game. Mr. Cash agreed and took Antwan in street clothes to the game, where he promptly suited him up in a spare uniform.

        Mr. Cash hit the same points Carolyn did. He wouldn't allow Antwan to practice until he'd finished his homework. “Achieve in school, work hard, good things will happen to you,” Mr. Cash told him.

        Now, seven years since his last game with the Western A.A. Warriors, Antwan still has Chris Cash's name on his pass list for UC football games.

        Meantime, Michael Peek brought his son home to stay with him. He'd gotten his GED in prison, he had a steady job and a longtime girlfriend. “I go to work, come home and take care of my children. 'Wan always knew I was there for him,” Michael says.

        On a recent day, Michael Peek is making breakfast for his son, at his home in Madisonville. “Pops' waffles are the best,” Antwan says. “I could come home after the roughest week, he talks sense to me. I know he'll tell me the way it is, even if I don't like it.”

        Antwan stays at his own apartment now, but he still comes to his father's house when he needs some waffles and truth. As Carolyn says, “A woman can't teach a boy to be a man.”

A shooting star

        There have been bad moments, instances when all the extended love wasn't enough. When all the years of surviving and striving nearly lost the game to anger and bad decisions.

        Like the time four years ago. On a chance visit to his mother's apartment, she answered the door with a knot on her head. Another punch from another man. As Antwan was leaving, the man showed up. Antwan busted him up, crushed the bone above one of his eyes. Years of anger came home in a brutal five minutes. Before charges were dropped, Antwan spent the weekend in jail.

        “It was all the frustrations when I was younger. They just came out. I felt bad afterwards,” says Antwan. “But at the time, it was like a relief.”

        “He doesn't have the relationship with his mom he'd like,” says Julie McLaughlin. She is Antwan's academic adviser at UC, the person who urged him to apply for the award and helped him draft the required letter of introduction. “He's very protective, but he's starting to understand he can't protect her. No matter how many times he throws the boyfriends out, they come back.”

        (Antwan Peek's mother could not be reached for this story. Antwan did not have a recent phone number for her.)

        School hasn't always been smooth. For nearly two years, Antwan partied as much as studied. Even then, he always went to class. “He always comes through,” says UC professor Susan Bourke. “His little boy might be sick, he practices every afternoon and he's got a paper due the next day. But he always gets it done.”

        What changed him was the birth of his son Jan. 3, 2000. “He has made me work harder and want to be a better person,” Antwan says.

        He still works and plays for Reesie, too. There is a picture of Antwan at his Woodward High graduation, thrusting his arm skyward as he's getting his diploma, living up to Reesie's promise for both of them.

        A few years ago, after an argument with his girlfriend, Antwan went for a walk. “Reesie, what should I do?” he asked. He saw a shooting star. As he walked back into the house to make things right with his girlfriend, Antwan said, “I love you, Reesie. I wish you were here.” He swears he saw another star, a bright and piercing memory of his cousin, sliding by.

        Reesie would like how things are going for his best friend now. Antwan is on track to graduate in the fall of 2002. He has two years of football eligibility left, and the carrot of a pro career to chase.

        He has a son, Jacquez Maurice, named for Reesie, and an extended family from here to there that loves him and strengthens him. Someone will always be there to pull him to good.

        And the lesson? Remember the lesson, the reason Antwan Peek has opened his life to public view?

        “I've been through so much, but I always had family that loved me. Stay together. No matter what,” he says.

        Carolyn would appreciate that. Now get along. She still has mouths to feed. And spirits. Spirits need feeding, too.

Antwan Peek is striving to make a difference in his community

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