DADE CITY — It’s the biggest day of Mike Larry’s life, and his family is not here.
His mother is dead, beaten to death by his stepdad. His father, grandfather and older brother are all in jail. So is his younger brother, accused of murder. The only relative still around is Grandmama, but she’s too frail to watch her grandson sign with North Dakota State College of Science.
So Larry fidgets, alone on a black couch, a spotted red tie hanging from his red shirt to his black slacks.
Then a teacher comes up to hug him. A coach shakes his hand. James Irvin Education Center’s star child is signing to play college football, and the ones who raised him up are here to celebrate.
“We,” guidance counselor Cynthia Ryalls-Clephane said, “are his village.”
• • •
Larry doesn’t remember his mom.
He was 5 when his mother and her husband got into a fight over drugs. Police found two of her teeth next to her dead body on the filthy floor of a Dade City flophouse. His stepfather is in jail for life.
“I’d be sitting there, and I’d just start crying, thinking about her,” Larry said.
His father left next, sentenced to 15 years for robbery when Larry was 7. Larry doesn’t remember him, either.
Larry moved in with his grandparents, into a neighborhood of no trespassing signs and boarded-up windows. His grandpa signed him up for football at age 10. Larry caught the winning touchdown in the Turkey Bowl and bought a Steelers jersey.
Then, one by one, the rest of his family went away, too. His grandpa and older brother shuttled in and out of jail for burglary or battery or drugs or guns. In 2010, his 14-year-old baby brother was arrested on suspicion of shooting a man to death during a $4 robbery.
That left Larry with his Grandmama, Lessie Bradberry, who hasn’t moved the left side of her body since a stroke three years ago.
“Baby, he can take care of himself,” Bradberry said. “He’s not no dummy, and he knows right from wrong.”
Larry was 16. This was his village.
• • •
Things grew worse when his little brother went to jail. Larry had skipped class in the past, but he missed 123 out of 180 school days that year. His grade-point average sank to 1.7. He was academically ineligible for football at Wesley Chapel High.
“I guess my mama being murdered and all that, my daddy being locked up…” said Larry, who has never been arrested. “It’s just been hard, even now.”
The district sent him to James Irvin, an alternative school with 10-person classes in small, red buildings, a place for students who fall behind or have discipline problems. Eighty-five percent are on free or reduced lunch.
Teachers thought he’d never say a word, but they saw promise behind his stone face. He was bright, proud, sweet. He didn’t want to fail, to end up on the streets, or in jail, or worse.
“He had a spark…” science teacher Angela Ingrassia said. “He also had a wall.”
One day history teacher and Pasco High assistant Tony Lister began talking with the 6-foot-1 Larry about football. Lister saw the wall crack.
He told Larry that if he got his grades up, he could play football in the fall for Pasco, which he was zoned for after the district drew new boundaries. Maybe he could even land a college scholarship.
“That’s when the turning point hit,” said Larry, now 18.
He began talking in class. He asked questions. He took extra courses online.
And he opened up to teachers. When they found out his electricity had been off for months, they helped turn it back on. When they realized the gym bag he carried around contained most of his belongings, they did his laundry.
By last summer, Larry had a 2.05 GPA — eligible for athletics by 0.05 points. In the fall he lined up for his new team at eight positions, from receiver to defensive tackle. He scored two touchdowns, including a 74-yard fumble return against rival Zephyrhills, for the Class 5A state semifinalists.
“Mike was in a hole,” Lister said. “All we did here was throw him a rope. He climbed himself out.”
• • •
The media center is filled Thursday morning for Larry’s big day.
One teacher’s daughter baked a jersey-shaped cake. The school resource officer bought doughnuts. Someone else brought balloons and made construction-paper centerpieces in red and black — colors of Pasco High and his North Dakota junior college.
Most high school students in the district take six credits. Larry takes seven, plus two more online. His GPA has risen to 2.38. He’s a student representative for the school’s advisory council and a finalist for a speech competition.
“He’s one that has warmed all of our hearts,” principal Nancy Guss said.
That’s why Guss leads Larry down a hallway Thursday, to a small TV studio. A white sign reading “Congratulations Michael Larry” hangs behind them. A small video camera sits in front.
The school airs Larry’s signing live in every classroom.
“So what’s important, students,” Guss tells the camera, “believe you can do it, and achieve, and succeed. And that’s what Michael has done.”
Larry signs his name, with Guss to his right and Ingrassia to his left. Lister, the assistant, slips a black Wildcats cap on Larry’s head.
Pasco football coach Tom McHugh cracks a smile in back.
They walk back to the media center, past red and black streamers. The rest of the faculty bursts into applause. Most of them wear red and black, too.
“Isn’t that something?” McHugh said.
Lister hands Larry a football signed by the staff. The superintendent gives him a pin later. Larry tells them he wants to be a role model.
Then one by one, the adults leave, too.
The teachers have classes to teach and other students to help. A counselor runs to break up a fight. The party is over.
Larry’s journey doesn’t end with his signature. School lets out in four months, but he doesn’t move to North Dakota until August. That leaves a few unstructured months in a boarded-up neighborhood.
The school is already working on what happens next. A summer job. Sunday dinners with teachers. Skype chats from North Dakota. Whatever it takes, they said, until Larry is ready to leave this village on his own.
Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Matt Baker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.