The little row house on the corner of East Capitol Street and 56th Place SE is long gone, replaced by a pair of stylish brick and wood townhomes. They tower over a block that once held the dreams of a young mother and her two sons in a land of fear and long odds. This small stretch of asphalt, not far from the Anacostia River and old RFK Stadium, home of the Redskins, was the center of Brenda Leftwich's world.
It is where she would catch the bus in the morning darkness at 6 to head to the first of the two jobs she juggled each day to make ends meet.
And it is where she kept her boys, Kevin and Byron, safe amid the violence and drugs that ravaged the perilous streets of Southeast D.C., the high-crime quadrant of the nation's capital that thrust the city to its dubious title of murder capital of the United States during the early 1990s.
She preached constantly to her boys about the dangers that lurked outside and lured unsuspecting children into harm's way, 5 miles yet light years from the marble tourist destinations of downtown Washington.
"They knew right from wrong because I taught them right from wrong," Brenda says with a broad smile her family and friends know well.
Her baby, Byron, was barely 3 when his father left home. He was six years younger than Kevin, who came to see himself as the family protector.
Their mother's persistent warnings stayed with the siblings as they progressed through elementary and middle school a block away, underscored by the staccato soundtrack of the street when night fell.
The three of them would sit inside their house and hear firecracker-like pops echoing nearby in the neighborhood shadows.
"All you would hear is gunfire," says Brenda, 58. "That was a seven-day-a-week thing. We were at home, and sometimes we would just crawl under the bed or get down behind the chair or something. It might not have been that close to us, but it sounded like it was."
Though their mother was often gone for more than 12 hours each day — overseeing the kitchen at Catholic University and helping at a nursing home — Kevin and Byron knew to come right home after school. They stayed inside, though they longed to play ball or hang out with their friends on the street.
"I always talked to my kids. I explained to them about the drugs and alcohol and all of it all the time," Brenda says. "They'd be, 'Oh, no, here she goes again.' But I just didn't want them to go down that road because I knew it was so easy for that to happen to kids.
"And I used to tell them, 'You can be whatever you want to be.' "
Even a quarterback in the National Football League.
• • •
Byron Leftwich is 29 now and easy to spot with his hulking 6-foot-5, 250-pound frame. But he also stands out for the traits he shares with his mother: the same big smile, the same easy laugh, the same optimistic outlook that has carried him through hardship and challenges.
It helped him get through a bitter breakup in 2007 with the Jaguars, who made him the seventh pick overall in the 2003 draft out of Marshall and their starting quarterback until injuries cost him the job in 2006. And it buoyed him when he became Atlanta's apparent starter seven weeks into the 2007 season only to see his hopes dashed by a serious ankle sprain.
Today — after regaining his health in 2008 as a backup with the Super Bowl champion Steelers — Leftwich brings his upbeat manner and experience to the mix in the battle for the Bucs' starting job with longtime understudy Luke McCown and rookie first-round pick Josh Freeman.
"I'm trying to work my butt off, and I'm going to help Josh because I was once in his shoes," Leftwich says. "I told him, 'I know you want to play.' Luke wants to play. The other Josh (Johnson) wants to play. We all want to play, and we just have to go out there and have a healthy competition, and the best quarterback will win."
But in one respect, Leftwich feels he has already won. He gets paid to play the sport he has loved since his childhood, when he would run up and down 56th Place SE in rough-and-tumble games of street football.
And he has survived — literally — while so many of his neighborhood friends were not as fortunate.
"I have friends who are lying in a box because they were shot or killed," he says. "And I have friends who just didn't make it, and I saw with my own eyes when they didn't make it. It wasn't a good sight."
But Leftwich did make it, and he knows who to thank: the woman he talks to on the phone three or four times every day.
"I'm so blessed to have my mother in my life and for her to see where life has taken me now," he says. "My part of D.C. was a bad place in the '80s and '90s, and I grew up in the middle of it.
"And I know the only reason I'm where I am now is because of her — the values she instilled in me as a little kid, the way she went about her life and set an example for me and my brother, the way she showed you how to carry yourself and act when situations got tough.
"The way she taught me to never give up."
• • •
Despite their tenuous environment, the brothers had plenty of fun. It usually involved football.
Outside on weekends, or when their mother gave the okay, they played a sport on the street out front called "Contact," a version of touch football except the touches featured full-body slams into parked cars and pavement to stop the ballcarrier cold.
"You didn't tackle, but you could hit," Leftwich says. "You could hit or blindside someone as hard as you wanted, but you just couldn't take him to the ground. That's how I learned to play. And I have to give credit to Kevin."
His brother let him play in the games with the big boys but cut him no slack. He'd body slam Byron, then order him to shake it off.
"Since our dad wasn't around, I wanted to make him tough so nobody would bother him," Kevin says. "Nobody ever did."
Byron never broke any bones.
"But I did get a cut once on top of my eye sliding into the bumper of a car," he says, laughing.
Football wasn't contained to the street.
"They broke up just about everything I had in the house," Brenda says. "I'd come home from work, and they'd done broke the lamp, something on the table. So I had to say, 'No more ball in the house!' "
Soon, playing basketball became another passion. When his mom moved the family a few miles away, over the Maryland line — hoping to get her sons into a safer area — Byron insisted on attending Evans Junior High, across from his old house on East Capitol. He wanted to stay with his friends and play on the basketball team. So Brenda arranged for him to go to Evans, where he excelled in sports and math.
When it came time for high school, he again decided to stay in D.C., attending H.D. Woodson, and football once again became his focus. He started out as a so-so receiver, but one day, coach Bob Headen saw him pick up a ball and hurl it down the field.
"What happened was, JV practiced at one end, and varsity practiced on the other end. And I just happened to look down and see the JV," says Headen, now retired. "I saw this tall kid throw the ball and said, 'Wow, who was that?' I told them to throw it back to him and have him throw it to a running back. When I saw that next throw, I said, 'Come here, kid. I want to talk to you. I want to bring you up to the varsity.' "
Leftwich became Woodson's starting quarterback that season. In no time he was a local prep sensation.
"Byron was a smart kid and a real student of the game. He wanted to learn everything," Headen recalls.
He wound up at Marshall, earning a degree in management information systems off the field and succeeding future first-round pick Chad Pennington on it. He passed for nearly 12,000 yards and 90 touchdowns and etched himself in Thundering Herd lore on Nov. 2, 2002, at Akron.
After taking a hard shot to his left shin in the first half, Leftwich was rushed to the hospital for X-rays, which revealed a stress facture in his tibia. But with Marshall down 27-10, the senior hobbled onto the field in the third quarter, like the kid who always got up off the unforgiving asphalt of 56th Place. The crowd responded with a huge ovation for his show of courage and grit.
Leftwich promptly hit a 41-yard pass but couldn't walk on his own. So in a display that earned an ESPY nomination for "Best Moment," two of his linemen picked him up and carried him downfield for the next play, then several others. The drive ended with a touchdown, but his team fell short 34-20.
In the crowd, Brenda Leftwich was there, as always, tears in her eyes and soaring with pride.
• • •
The mean streets are no longer part of her life.
When Byron joined the Jags, his first move was to tell her to buy a big new house wherever she wanted. She settled on a spacious, modern home in a quiet, tree-lined subdivision in Accokeek, Md., an hour's drive from her old life.
"Even when I was 5 or 6, I would say, 'Mom, I'm going to buy you a house one day,' " Leftwich says. "I didn't know how I'd do it. I just watched TV and saw all these nice, big places. So the first thing I did when I signed, I bought her that house. 'Cause I saw my mother work two jobs and bust her tail, and I saw it every day. I would see her be tired, but she'd get up and catch that bus so she could take care of her two knucklehead sons.
"That's why getting her that house is the best I've ever felt about anything my whole life."
Kevin, who works in home improvement, visits often from Laurel, Md. But Brenda is frequently on the move, attending many of Byron's NFL games. And though she doesn't need to work anymore, she chooses to.
"I'm driving a school bus," she saye says. "I love it. I'm around kids, and it gets me out of the house."
On a recent afternoon, Brenda got out of the house to visit her old D.C. neighborhood with a reporter. She surveyed the block, which has had a face-lift like other parts of Southeast D.C. Two curious young girls approached, and she told them she once lived right in that very spot, that her son played on the same street. And he grew up to be an NFL quarterback.
Dave Scheiber can be reached at scheiber @sptimes.com.