NEW PORT RICHEY
Five minutes into his first day at Gulf High School, Ladarious Jackson already felt lonely and depressed.He didn't know anybody. He felt different because he was black and almost everybody else was white.
So while other kids shot hoops and got to know each other, Ladarious did this:
He growled and barked at cars that sped by the campus.
Jay Fulmer, the school's head football coach, approached the 15-year-old freshman. Fulmer knew Ladarious because his older brother, Anthony Jackson, had been one of the school's best athletes — before the cops came for him.
"Why are you barking, son?'' Fulmer asked.
Ladarious pulled his shirt over his head.
Fulmer knew some of the boy's history: His mother had a lengthy criminal record, including a crack cocaine arrest when she was pregnant with him. Ladarious was one of 10 children by 10 different fathers. None took credit for him.
It didn't seem this boy would make it at Gulf High — or anywhere else.
But as long as he was enrolled, he at least had to stop barking at cars.
The coach asked him about sports. Ladarious didn't seem interested.
Fulmer walked him to the gym to meet Travis DeWalt, the wrestling coach who had just been given a new assignment: dropout prevention.
"I think I have your first candidate right here,'' Fulmer said.
Ladarious Jackson was born on Jan. 8, 1992, to Florida Department of Corrections inmate No. 757886.
Lawanda Jackson had plenty of experience with the justice system. As a young woman, she amassed a record in Pinellas County as a prolific shoplifter, mixing in a few arrests for assault. Cops had taken her to jail 11 times, but never for drugs.
Then, on May 10, 1991 — just shy of her 26th birthday and one month pregnant with her sixth child — Jackson met with a person identified in court records only as a "confidential informant.'' Detectives said a hidden wire captured her selling $40 worth of crack cocaine. A judge sent her to prison in North Florida.
Eight months later, she gave birth to Ladarious at a hospital in Ocala. She returned to the prison, and her niece, Lisa Gamble, picked up the baby and drove him to her home in Clearwater. Family members would care for Ladarious and his siblings.
"Doctors said he would have trouble,'' said Gamble, now a home health care nurse in New Port Richey. "He had traces of cocaine in his system.''
Lawanda Jackson, now living in Georgia, angrily denied that she abused cocaine: "Never! That's a damn lie.''
But as Ladarious grew, so did his rage. He remembers the hurt he felt when an angry uncle called him the worst thing possible:
• • •
Lawanda Jackson got out of prison and returned to Pinellas County. She reclaimed her children but managed to stay out of trouble for only three months.
In October 1994, Tarpon Springs police caught her shoplifting at a Dollar General store. This time they added a child abuse charge, saying she had coached another of her sons, a 12-year-old, to steal. Each time she went to jail, her kids went back to relatives.
Ladarious' earliest recollection of his mother: "I'm 7 and she's in the backseat of a sheriff's cruiser, cut and bloody and screaming to be let out.''
He recalls visiting her in the Pinellas County Jail on his 7th, 8th and 9th birthdays. "I sat on a steel chair at a steel table. It was cold.''
In school, psychiatrists labeled Ladarious EBD, which stands for Emotional Behavioral Disability. Social Security sent his mother — or whoever served as his guardian during her stints in jail — a check once a month.
Frank Roder taught Ladarious and nine other troubled sixth-grade boys at a school in New Port Richey. All had been unable to behave in a traditional classroom setting. Ladarious' angry outbursts had earned him at least 10 suspensions before he had landed at Marchman.
"His mother was a piece of work,'' Roder said. "If we had done our job, she always said, he wouldn't be in this position. She refused to acknowledge any responsibility. She called his Social Security money his 'crazy check.' ''
One day, suddenly, Ladarious was gone.
He had cracked a boy's head open with a toy Star Wars light saber and a judge had sent him to a juvenile center for 10 months.
"It was supposed to be for my own good,'' Ladarious said recently. "Maybe a place where I could get some counseling. But it was a scary place, man. Gangs, fights . . . bad stuff.''
Throughout his childhood, Ladarious escaped into one fantasy that would serve him well later.
He and brother Anthony would watch professional wrestling on TV and assume the stars' identities: the Rock, Stone Cold Steve Austin. They dove off coffee tables onto one another and rolled on the floor. They simulated piledrivers and other wrestling moves made famous by their heroes.
They even made a championship belt out of cardboard and paper.
• • •
In August 2007, Ladarious began ninth grade at Gulf High, where wrestling coach DeWalt was supposed to keep him from dropping out.
DeWalt didn't like this. He took his coaching duties, and most everything else, seriously.
"Compassion wasn't exactly my strong suit,'' he said.
He wanted wrestlers with the same attitude he brought to the mat in 1990 when he won a state title in the 112-pound class for Gulf High. He became a three-time All-American at Briar Cliff University in Sioux City, Iowa, and coached for 10 years before returning to his hometown.
Gulf High had become a laughingstock in local sporting venues, and DeWalt pledged to do something about that. He had promised to instill the pride he had felt as a Gulf High Buccaneer.
"The last thing I wanted,'' he said, "was a problem kid.''
He sized up Ladarious.
"Obviously,'' the coach recalled, "he was athletic.'' They stood together next to a 4-foot fence and Ladarious hopped over it without running.
DeWalt got him a physical and borrowed some sneakers for him. But the coach didn't figure the new kid would be around long. He knew Ladarious' brother Anthony, three years older and the county's top basketball scorer during the 2007 season, had been jailed for theft before he could graduate.
The other boys on the team didn't take him seriously, either. He referred to wrestling as "rasslin'.’' His cell phone blasted the theme music of Samoan pro wrestler Umaga.
"He played it religiously,'' DeWalt said. "Loud drums and yelling. The kids either wanted to steal his phone or break it.''
Ladarious liked the attention.
"Coach said, 'You have potential.' Nobody ever told me that. I liked him. I liked the wrestling.''
Muscular, cat-quick and aggressive, Ladarious won 47 of 51 matches as a 145-pound freshman. He kept in constant contact with DeWalt, especially when he felt anxious or sad or lost in class. "I called him 56 times one day.''
DeWalt found a patience he didn't know he had.
"I don't know what it was,'' he said. "I just knew this kid needed help. He needed somebody to look after him.''
For the first time in his life, Ladarious actually tried in a classroom.
At home, life was more difficult. He had moved into a small house in New Port Richey with his mother and some siblings. "It was bad,'' he said. "Boyfriends. Violence. Screaming all the time.''
One night after a wrestling match, a teammate's parents drove Ladarious home. He had argued with his mother that morning.
"I got home and she was gone,'' he said. "The place was empty. All my stuff, clothes and everything, were in the trash can. She took off to Clearwater.''
Ladarious went home with his teammate and crashed on the couch.
He would crash on a lot of couches.
• • •
Each spring, Pasco County schools honor students with something called the Turnaround Achievement Award. Teachers cry as they tell stories of incredible transformations. In May 2008, Travis DeWalt couldn't wait to brag on the young man who would represent Gulf High.
"It's not the salary that keeps us here,'' DeWalt said at the banquet as Ladarious stood by. "This is what it's all about.''
Wrestling had given Ladarious an outlet. It had introduced him to a coach who made him feel special and painted a future that included college. Nobody else in his family had ever made it to college.
Ladarious made a promise to his coach. He would finish school. He would graduate. He would go to college.
"I'm not my brother,'' he said.
Ladarious' disability meant he got extra time and tutoring for tests. He worked hard in class and made progress. And on the wrestling mat, "he was explosive,'' DeWalt said. "He didn't grind for six minutes, he was relentless in 30-second bursts.''
He posted a 55-8 record as a sophomore. In the off season, he practiced daily and lifted weights. In his junior season, Ladarious breezed through his competition with a 58-1 record and won both individual and team state championships. At 18, he was finally able to receive the $674 Social Security disability check that had always gone to guardians. He rented a small room near the school.
"It only had a mattress,'' recalled Kathryn Starkey, a School Board member who had been impressed by Ladarious at the Turnaround Awards banquet. "He didn't have anything, and some folks gathered up things like a sponge, towel, pan, knife, fork — things like that.''
He rode a bike to school until somebody stole it.
Ladarious walked and bummed rides. The student who once wanted no part of Gulf High now wouldn't leave. He joined Navy JROTC. He hung out in DeWalt's office. He continued his dominance as a senior, posting a 51-0 record in the 170-pound weight class and earning another state title and selection to every all-star team.
• • •
Last month, Ladarious strolled the halls of his high school in a black suit and lavender tie.
Teachers, librarians, secretaries and fellow students gave him high fives and hugs. He entered a small classroom with a handful of adults, including School Board member Joanne Hurley. She was there to help judge senior projects.
Ladarious flashed a broad smile and briefly introduced himself as a champion wrestler. He used PowerPoint to demonstrate some elements of a law enforcement career. After college, he said, "I plan to be a police officer.''
The judges gave him high marks.
Although Ladarious has trouble passing standardized tests, he achieved a B average. He has learned to manage his disability without medication. Major colleges contacted him about wrestling scholarships, but his mentor guided him toward smaller schools. Last week, Ladarious said he was preparing to sign a letter of intent to wrestle at Indiana Tech University.
DeWalt is proud that Ladarious came within 13 positions of being in the top half of the 310 graduates at Gulf High. "It just speaks to his determination,'' the coach said, "but also to the power of athletics. Without wrestling, he wouldn't be here. Sports is the greatest dropout prevention program we have in school.''
A visitor asked DeWalt which of them is the better wrestler.
DeWalt injured his back in a car accident three years ago, "or I'd be on you like a snake,'' he said to Ladarious, squinting his eyes. "There's nothing like experience. It would be like Yoda. Invite the cheerleaders.''
"We'll see, coach, we'll see,'' Ladarious said. "How's that back again?''
On prom night, Ladarious came to DeWalt's house in Hudson. The coach had arranged for a tuxedo. He helped adjust Ladarious' tie while 7-year-old Robert DeWalt admired his favorite wrestler. The coach even bought a Publix sandwich tray so Ladarious wouldn't have to attend the pre-prom party empty-handed. As he left the house, DeWalt's wife, Diane, hugged the young man as tears filled her eyes.
• • •
On May 27, Ladarious Jackson donned a green robe and mortarboard and marched into the Calvary Chapel Worship Center with the rest of the Gulf High senior class. He listened to the speeches. He watched a slide show that featured hundreds of seniors next to baby pictures their parents had supplied.
No Ladarious. No matter. When the announcer called his name, he walked across the stage to cheers and applause, flashed that huge grin and accepted bear hugs. DeWalt watched from the floor, his chest pushed forward. When the ceremony ended, Ladarious made a beeline to his coach. They hugged for several minutes.
"I was trying to hold it together,'' Ladarious said. "I didn't want to break down in front of everybody. But it just meant so much to me to finally graduate. A lot of people said I'd never get here, and if not for Coach DeWalt, that would have been true.''
Staff photographer Brendan Fitterer contributed to this report. Bill Stevens is the Times North Suncoast editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6250.