On an overcast Tuesday morning, Randall Drayton pulled a blue graduation gown over his thick torso. • Anger, the seemingly interminable accessory he had worn on his sleeve for so many years, was absent. • On this day, the brawny Hawks three-sport athlete would participate in the commencement ceremony of the eighth and final school he had attended since sixth grade. Before finding square meals on a daily basis, Drayton was a vagabond, accompanied only by hostility.
As his massive body filled out, so did the legend of his rage. A teacher's sternness, or even an accidental bump in a school hallway, could set him off.
"I would get mad just like that," he said. "If you did anything to get me mad, your best bet was to just get out of my way."
On Tuesday, they converged on him instead: his mom and grandmother, the advocate who led him to the right track and the maternal mentor who helped keep him on it.
Smiles replaced scowls. Tussles were supplanted by a tassel.
Sixteen months after being handed a new lease on life, 19-year-old Randall Ra'shad Drayton was handed a diploma.
"We all saw a difference," Armwood football coach Sean Callahan said.
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Of the 16 graduating Armwood seniors who will play football in college, Drayton once seemed the least likely. Physically, he was a mountain (6-4, 290 pounds). Emotionally, he was Mount St. Helens.
"If he didn't know you or have a rapport with you and you really pushed his buttons," Callahan said, "you were going to see a side of a kid that was really rough."
His record, which included two assault-related arrests, reflected that reality.
It hadn't always been that way.
As a sixth-grader, Drayton moved from Brunswick, Ga., with his mother, younger brother and stepfather and enrolled at Liberty Middle School in Tampa Palms. When the family moved and he transferred to Buchanan Middle School in north Tampa, a pattern of violence and turmoil commenced.
"It wasn't really good," said Drayton, whose biological father never has figured prominently in his life. "I was hanging with the wrong people. We started like, our own little crew in school, getting in big fights for no reason."
The tipping point occurred when he wrote Die All on a progress report, which he says was a lame attempt at being funny. When a teacher found it, he was expelled and sent to North Tampa Alternative School.
With that, Drayton's perilous odyssey — mischief and malevolence, skirmishes and school hopping — was in full flight. He says that when he approached a teacher in a threatening manner at North Tampa Alternative School, he was moved to Meacham Alternative School.
By the end of ninth grade, he had attended three middle schools, three alternative schools and one high school. Meanwhile, his mother, Rashetta Davis, was growing more entangled in legal and financial woes, forcing the family to go from one bleak living arrangement to another.
Shoddy trailer parks, seedy apartments, hotel rooms — Drayton says he experienced them all. While living in Suitcase City, a historically crime-heavy community on the fringe of USF, he and some buddies heard gunshots whiz by while loitering in the streets. The very next day, Drayton says, he and those same friends scaled cars and ran atop the hoods for kicks.
"You'd think the (flying bullets) would be a key to just stop," he said, "but the next day I'm back outside."
He reached Armwood for his sophomore year after being dismissed from Blake High for shoving a teacher.
With his mom embroiled in legal troubles and his brother staying with relatives in Georgia, Drayton lived with the family of a friend in a mobile home about 10 minutes from Armwood.
His first year and a half at Armwood, he estimates he was suspended 10 times. Callahan corroborates that number.
"I had, like, a whole bunch of built-up anger, and the only way I could get it out, in my mind, was just fight all the time," he said. "It's sad to say it, but I had so much fun just doing it. Whenever I fought I had like, a weight lifted up off my shoulders."
The middle of his junior year, that weight was supplanted by an angel of sorts.
A social worker had referred Drayton to Vicki Sokolik, founder of a nonprofit group that helps homeless and "unaccompanied" youth graduate and assimilate into society.
A mother of two and wife of a neuro-radiologist, Sokolik experienced an epiphany more than a decade ago while her daughter was in a Houston hospital being treated for frontal-lobe epilepsy.
"It was a teaching hospital, so it was pretty much poverty," said Sokolik, who had spent 15 years in the advertising business. "All of a sudden, it was like, 'Oh, my god.' I had kind of forgotten, living in my bubble in Tampa Palms, that there was poverty."
What began as a quest to provide cheerful Christmases to five homeless families evolved into Starting Right, Now. A 5-year-old program, SRN has four employees working out of a 900-square-foot office in Tampa Palms.
Kids are accepted only by referral through the Hillsborough County School District. Upon acceptance, they're paired with a volunteer adult mentor. Homelessness is a prerequisite, as is the intangible Sokolik calls "the spark."
Drayton, whose intellectual potential seemed as high as his temper was short, possessed it.
"There was something about Randall, and you know, it's interesting because everyone told us — everyone — that he had anger issues," said Sokolik, who has about 100 kids in her program.
"I didn't see that in Randall. I saw this really gentle soul that just didn't know where he was going."
Direction was provided by Sokolik and volunteer mentor Sandra Davis, an Army wife, mother of three and grandmother of one. The pair set him up in a dorm-style apartment near USF, arranged for him to receive food stamps, badgered him to shape up scholastically, and urged him to set goals.
"It was like, all of a sudden he had a reason to get up in the morning to go to school," Sokolik said. "And even though he would get so mad at Sandra and me ... I think in the back of his head he knew, 'I want to do this.' "
• • •
If Drayton embarked on the SRN program begrudgingly, he ended it splendidly.
As a senior, he received no out-of-school suspensions and competed in three sports, logging time as a defensive lineman on the 15-0 football team. He scored a 19 on the ACT. Callahan said that when fights erupted in the cafeteria, the onetime pugilist was the peacemaker.
He also flourished in Dale Carnegie Training, an eight-week program that teaches leadership, public speaking and interpersonal skills. Meanwhile, he reconnected with his mom, who had re-discovered a stability of her own.
"There's been several transformations," Davis said. "The one that readily jumps out at me is just willingness, I guess, to be on his own. He was very apprehensive initially in realizing that being on his own, he would be able to make wise choices. … I don't believe Randall missed a day of school."
Davis is counting on him not to miss a day of college either. With Callahan's help, Drayton was accepted into Coastal Carolina University in Conway, S.C., where he'll join the football team as a walk-on. SRN helped arrange student loans and other financial aid.
Now it's up to the young man. The pushing, pestering and prodding are over. Sokolik and her peers have done their nurturing. Time to set Randall free and see if he can fly upward.
Beats spiraling downward.
"We got a kid that was really a troubled kid that's leaving here with people skills, is intelligent, is obviously a better football player, but this is much more than being a better football player," Callahan said. "He gets it. He actually understands how he's going to be held accountable."
Joey Knight can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.