Leo Runners Overcome Adversity at Home, Excel in Track 2011

By Mike Helfgot Special to the Tribune

April 16, 2011

In a city full of broken homes, Denzel Howard’s burned to the ground.

Sitting in honors chemistry class at Leo 14 months ago last week, Howard received a text message from a cousin urging him to get home immediately.

The track-and-field standout saw smoke and flames throughout his three-block sprint home from the small Catholic school on the South Side. His biggest fear was not realized, but the damage was irreparable.

“I immediately broke into tears,” Howard said. “I thought my mom was inside.”
As it turned out, Mirtha Howard was working, which has served as a useful reminder that as bad as things got, they could have been worse.

Howard, a senior sprinter and member of the 400-meter relay team that finished second in the state in Class 1A last year, isn’t the only Leo runner to overcome adversity and get his life back on track.

None has dealt with more.

“Everything was gone,” Howard said. “We lost everything. We’ve been moving around. I lived with my auntie in Harvey, then with my sister in Dixmoor and now I’m on 83rd and Dorchester.

“My mom has two jobs, but it’s been real hard trying to pick up the pieces. It is getting better. The Leo community has helped us a great deal with clothes and food.”

Determined to stay off the streets and focus on his lifelong goal of attending college, Howard used track as an escape and learned to play the piano through the After School Matters program.

He leaned on his mother and Leo track coach and athletic director Edward Adams for support, refused to fall behind in school and gained acceptance to Computer Systems Institute, where he will attend after becoming the first member of his family to graduate high school.

“Sometimes I broke down and cried; sometimes I stay strong,” Howard said. “Everybody has those times where they let it all out.”

“When it happened, we were in school,” teammate and close friend Rueben Blackwell said. “We looked out the window and saw the smoke, and he literally ran out of school. A couple days after, we walked past his house and he broke down crying. I don’t think I’d be able to handle this as well as he has.”

‘A better future’

In a city full of broken homes, Rueben Blackwell’s is being mended.

When his mother died four years ago, Blackwell moved in with one of the five sisters he has from that side of his family.

He has two additional sisters through his father, though that side of his family was not a part of his life.

“At first when my mom passed away, he came around. Then we lost communication,” Blackwell said. “I hadn’t talked to him since freshman or sophomore year. Then last year he started coming around a lot. Now he’s back in my life.”

Blackwell recently moved from the South Side to Rogers Park to live with his father.

An honors student and state-championship contender in the hurdles, Blackwell is being recruited by several colleges and has narrowed his choices to Alcorn State and Mississippi Valley State.

“You have to find other ways to motivate yourself,” Blackwell said. “Some kids have their father to push them. When I met Mr. Adams, to me, he was my motivation. He and my sister kept me on the right path.

“There is always going to be that weird feeling of why, but I don’t fault him for it or anything. I put it in the past. Mistakes are going to be made. I let the past go and hope that it leads to a better future between me and him.”

A reconstructed home

In a city full of broken homes, Bruce Gray counts his blessings.

Gray and his three sisters grew up in a stable, loving environment.

Gray said his mother and father battled alcohol and substance abuse problems, and he and his sisters have lived with their grandmother since the senior was in first grade.

He said his parents’ absence — they live separately in Wisconsin — still bothers him. Adams was the only person he ever spoke to about his parents until being interviewed for this story.

“My mother is better now,” said Gray, a state-championship contender in the sprints who is being recruited by North Central, Benedictine and Miami (Ohio).

“She calls or texts every now and then and comes and stays with us every now and then. It was tough, but I got used to it. It could always be worse. I feel blessed.”

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