On his last night in his boarded-up Dade City neighborhood, Mike Larry didn't want to go to sleep.
He had just graduated high school at James Irvin Education Center, and he'd had parties to visit and friends to see and energy to burn in his last hours at home, maybe for good.
He was leaving the town where he was raised and where his stepfather murdered his mother. Where he played football under the lights at Pasco High and where he redeemed himself in the red classrooms at Irvin. Where his dad and grandfather and brothers were jailed; and where, three months earlier, he was, too.
As the clock crept past 5 a.m., Larry had to stay awake. He couldn't risk sleeping through the knock on the door from a teacher ready to drive him to the airport for the first flight of his life.
College was waiting.
After Larry signed with North Dakota State College of Science in February, support from the community poured into Irvin, an alternative school in Dade City for students with attendance or discipline problems.
The Tampa Bay Times ran a front-page story on Larry's rise from an absent family and a 1.7 grade point average to a spot on the Pirates' Class 5A state semifinal team and a shot at his family's first college degree. Strangers donated about $500 to him through the school. An NFL player offered to mentor the 18-year-old receiver/defensive back.
"All of it was appreciated," Larry said Thursday during a phone call from campus in North Dakota.
As the school year wore on, not all the words he heard were positive. Some classmates sneered at his red junior college T-shirt or the 19 he scored on the ACT.
Why did Larry get to leave for college when some of them have never even left the county?
"There's a certain amount of jealousy," said his guidance counselor, Cynthia Ryalls-Clephane.
That jealousy, Larry thinks, could have been part of what sparked an incident that threatens to pull him back to the run-down neighborhood he wants to leave.
In March, Larry was arrested after a fight with his then ex-girlfriend. Police said he reached into a parked car, pulled one girl out and punched the ex-girlfriend. He was charged with a felony count of auto burglary and two misdemeanor counts of simple battery.
"I thought, 'This is going to get him so down,' " Ryalls-Clephane said of Larry's first arrest. "But it didn't."
The next school day, Larry walked into Ryalls-Clephane's office and told her what happened. She asked him what he was going to do next.
Whatever it takes, he told her. "I'm not a quitter."
His GPA rose, from 2.38 in February to 2.89 in June after a third consecutive semester of straight A's.
The air smells different in Wahpeton, N.D., a 7,800-person town an hour south of Fargo. The grass is lighter. The trees are bushier. Even the scorching July heat feels different.
"It's better than I expected," Larry said.
Larry graduated high school on June 1. The next day, he moved into his dorm at the school of 3,100 students in North Dakota to get ready for summer school and his automotive technology major.
He takes a weightlifting class at 7 a.m. and algebra at 10. He already has finished a speech course and thinks he earned a B. He started a part-time job at Burger King on Thursday and spends his free time playing basketball and waiting for football to start next month.
"I'm just ready to get everything done," Larry said. "I'm ready to graduate."
Scholarships, Pell grants and Stafford loans are paying for classes. Ryalls-Clephane plans to ship him a winter coat during her visit to Maine.
Larry doesn't have the money to turn on a cellphone, so he relies on a friend's iPod and an online phone service to stay in touch with people back home — something he doesn't do often.
"Honestly I don't see a need to," Larry said.
And that, Irvin teacher Tony Lister said, is a good thing. Lister, also a Pasco assistant coach, has seen players head to school far away, only to get homesick and return to their old friends and rough streets without a degree.
"I hope he stays gone and starts a new life somewhere else," Lister said. "The less we hear from him, the more successful I think he'll be."
Larry faces challenges bigger than homesickness. His legal charges still linger.
His attorney, public defender Tom Hanlon, has requested a pretrial intervention, which would keep Larry's record clean if he pays a fine and completes community service. If the court doesn't grant it, Larry could have to return to Dade City for trial.
"I hope everybody in the whole country wants to see him succeed," Hanlon said.
When their star student prepared to sign his scholarship papers this past winter, Irvin's staff said it took a village to raise Larry. Last month, they helped him move onto the next one.
Donations paid for him to ship a couple of cardboard boxes to North Dakota. They covered the cost of his flight out of Orlando, too. And as Larry stirred that early morning, one of his teachers was up to drive him to the airport.
Larry's heart thumped as the plane left the ground, but he fell asleep shortly after takeoff. When he woke up in his seat, he couldn't see the ground. He was terrified.
His college coach would be waiting at the airport soon, ready to take him to a campus 1,700 miles away from home. In the air, all Larry could think about was touching down.
Matt Baker can be reached at [email protected]