Sunday, August 31, 2003

UC back had no breaks, but he was never broken

By Colleen Kane
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Bearcat captain Tedric Harwell.
(Tony Jones photo)
| ZOOM |
A picture of Tedric Harwell as an all-state football player hangs in Elkhart Central High School.

"Behind every picture is a story," says former Elkhart football coach Tom Kurth.

Some photos represent nothing more than a kid who didn't make it out of the tough Indiana city. Tedric's photo, he uses as inspiration.

Three hundred miles and a lifetime away, a grown, 22-year-old Harwell sits in the University of Cincinnati athletic offices on a summer afternoon and tells his tale.

It's a story that won him a national achievement award from the Association of Academic Advisors for Athletics in June. A story that he hopes one day will benefit others. With nervous laughter, he begins.

"I didn't let nobody break me," Tedric says.

The T 'n' T connection

The University of Cincinnati opens its football season Monday at home against East Carolina.

But to begin Tedric's story, we must go back 16 years to Somerville, Tenn. Tedric and his younger cousin Terrance would walk down the country road near their grandparents' house and talk about their parents' problems. Tedric says Terrance's dad was an alcoholic. Tedric says his mother used drugs and his father trafficked them. And so, he and Terrance spent half their young lives with their grandparents.

They would talk about their plans for the future, about football - Tedric was to be the running back, Terrance the receiver.

The two were inseparable, the "T 'n' T connection" because they were "just like dynamite," their grandfather used to say.

"You always knew we were up to something," Tedric says. "I loved those days."

At one time, 12 kids could be living in his grandparents' house and playing sports on their farmland.

It was a loving place, but it didn't allow much opportunity to excel.

"We had family members there that grew up to be nothing and do nothing," Tedric's brother, Stanley Davis, says.

Tedric's father, Stanley, knew that best of all. One day when Tedric was 7, he heard a commotion in the front yard, ran to the porch and saw his dad wrestling with a group of police officers. He began crying. He says his father stopped fighting and was taken to jail.

When Stanley Harwell got out a few weeks later, he moved the family to Indiana. It was a new start for him, but it also meant Tedric's time with his best friend had to end.

New home, new troubles

Tedric spent his years after Tennessee in his birthplace, Elkhart, Ind., a town he said they called "Little Chicago," more because of its homicide rate than its resemblance to the Windy City.

It was a tough neighborhood, a place where Tedric was surrounded by older kids who dealt drugs, got arrested and got shot. It was also a place where his mother rediscovered old acquaintances.

Tedric would ride his bike with his friends, and they would point to a street corner. "Hey, is that your mom?" He says he'd try to fight off the people around her, to stop them from selling her drugs.

"She went from good to straight bad," Tedric says. "I was really mad at her. Everybody else could go home and talk to their mom and ask for anything ... I didn't have anybody to talk to."

One day, Tedric scored four touchdowns in a football game and ran all the way home to tell her. He remembers how tired he was as he opened the door to the bathroom. He says she lay in front of him with a needle in her arm, too high to notice him there.

It was the only time Tedric saw his mom using drugs. He says she would try to "trick" him, but most of the time he could tell when she was high. He would hear his parents fighting in the night about the drug money she stole. And when he was in the fifth grade, his parents divorced.

Tedric lost most contact with his mother. His father had straightened out but was quiet and worked hard at his factory job. Tedric called Terrance often, but it wasn't the same.

"He was so young, but you could tell by the way he started lashing out - he couldn't trust nobody," Stanley Davis says.

Tedric fell into the bad habits of his friends. He skipped school, partied, got suspended and spent some nights in jail.

"I didn't have a lot to do, and that's what got me in trouble," Tedric says

Then, he had a conversation.

During Tedric's sophomore year of high school, an adviser told him that some of the people he looked up to at his junior high didn't think he would graduate high school.

"At the time I blew it off, but it always stayed in the back of my mind that no one thinks I'm going to make it," Tedric wrote in his letter to the awards committee.

After a 1.1 GPA, Tedric made the honor roll his next three semesters. He became "one of the best we ever had" on the football field, Kurth said, and began breaking 19 school records.

He had become the star running back, and back in Tennessee, Terrance was a star receiver.

For a short time, they were right where they had said they would be.

'If I make it, we both make it'

It is one of the only times while telling his story that Tedric's nervous laughter disappears. He stares at the wall in front of him and recites a date that haunts him still: May 2, 1999.

Tedric was sitting on a porch across the street when his father bellowed his name. He figured he was in trouble. He had just talked to Terrance a few days earlier, joking about the good-looking girl he was taking to the dance that weekend and planning for his June trip to Indiana.

So all Tedric could think was that his father was joking when he said that Terrance was driving too fast and lost control of his car. That he had jumped out to avoid a head-on collision but was hit by another car. That the passengers survived.

"I felt like it didn't happen, it couldn't be for real," Tedric says. "(We were always) going to come out from where we were in our shells and announce T 'n'T was here. Part of me just died."

He wanted to quit everything. His grades dropped. He almost didn't join football. He fell into old habits.

But there were always voices in his head - those of Stanley Harwell and Tom Kurth - telling him to get it together. Then there was the loudest voice, which he still hears every day.

"(Terrance) talks to me in my own way," Tedric says. "It took me some time just to snap out of it, but I prayed every day, and I got through it."

It came to him:

"If I make it, we both make it."

A new story

Tedric almost didn't make it to college, but his father decided to take out a loan for his first year at Cincinnati. He had to sit out a year of football as a partial qualifier, and he hated it - and let it be known.

"I really did not like the kid at all," says Julie McLaughlin, Tedric's adviser at UC who nominated him for the achievement award. "I'd shake my head and think, 'What am I doing?' It was always, 'Man, Julie, why are you always picking on me? Everybody's always picking on me.' "

But Tedric's attitude quickly turned when another change came into his life. On Sept. 3, 2001, his daughter, Tierra Danis, was born. After debate about whether to join Tierra and her mother in Indianapolis or finish his degree, he decided to stay at Cincinnati.

"It was hard, and I talked to my adviser and she was like, 'How is (leaving school) gonna help you?' " Tedric says.

Tedric doesn't have a car and rarely has bus money to visit Tierra. He is driven by the hope that his accomplishments at UC will provide a better life for her.

He's getting closer.

Tedric is one year from being the first person in his family to earn a college degree. He majored in criminal justice and plans to get his master's degree in psychology during his fifth year of eligibility at Cincinnati, so he can counsel troubled children, a job he experienced in a summer internship.

He was named a captain of the football team this year by his teammates. He has overcome shoulder surgery to compete for a starting spot and has NFL dreams.

"It was very tough, but that's why I'm so proud of him," Kurth says. "He could have hit rock bottom, but he didn't. I use him as an example."

It's a role Tedric gladly accepts to teach the lesson of his story to other kids in trouble:

"Be patient with life, don't give up with it," Tedric says. "You've got to go through something to have something. I just kept living, kept moving with the grace of the Lord."

A smile Kurth describes as "infectious" comes over Tedric's face as he ends his story with one more thing he'd like to accomplish - a trip with his daughter back to Tennessee so she can meet her cousin, Terrance's daughter.

So they can be friends and dream of their own futures, their own stories.

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