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He's gaining ground after off-field setbacks

Chris Langley's life has not been simple.

A few years ago, his mother nearly died. A few months ago, a cousin he was staying with was charged with first-degree murder. And a few weeks ago, the circumstances of his life made him temporarily ineligible to play with the Hernando High School football team.

But Chris Langley's life is changing.

His hardship appeal to the Florida High School Activities Association (FHSAA) was approved Friday, restoring his eligibility. And Langley is having to deal less and less with the problems he was dealt.

It may never be simple, but Langley's life is getting easier.

Having a place to call home helps. Langley can thank a schoolmate who is Hernando's volunteer team manager, Mike Steele, for that.

"It's been great," Langley said. "They're a nice family. It takes a lot of stuff off my mind. I don't have to worry about things."

Having two father figures at school helps, too. Langley can thank a pair of his Hernando High coaches, Rodney Byrd and Mike Imhoff, for that.

"Those two _ from the moment I got to this school _ they've treated me like a son," Langley said. "You could say those two, put together, are my father."

Having a goal to chase, though, helps perhaps more than anything. Langley can thank himself for that.

"I want to go to college," Langley said, "so I won't be one of the bunch that sits around not knowing anything and is always getting into trouble."

Said Imhoff, Hernando's head football coach: "He's just a fun-loving kid, and I think that's why Rodney and I jumped on him. He brings that out in people _ you want to help him. And, more importantly, he wants to help himself."

Because he did not continuously reside with the same individual at the same address for the past year, Langley was ruled ineligible for interscholastic sports during the first month of the current school year.

The sophomore running back and defensive back was told of the ruling before Hernando's preseason jamboree in late August. He could practice, but not play.

"I was real upset," said Langley, who reluctantly but eventually began to accept the decision. "I only think about it come game time. That's when it bothers me."

Langley spent Hernando's first four games helping on the sidelines and watching the senior tailback he would otherwise play behind, Jermaine Green, become the early North Suncoast rushing leader.

"It's real hard _ sitting down, watching when Jermaine's out and knowing I'm supposed to be his backup," said Langley, also a 100-meter sprinter with 10.76-second speed who qualified for last season's Class 3A state championship track meet. "I feel like I can do a little something _ give him a rest or something _ but I can't.

"Sometimes it makes me feel like I'm just a water boy on the sideline with a jersey on."

But after the FSHAA's executive committee members reviewed an appeal of Langley's status and considered the circumstances of his residency history, and further paperwork documenting the appeal was sent to Gainesville, a favorable ruling was made Friday afternoon and Langley was granted a rules suspension based on undue hardship.

Friday night in Brooksville, with just more than seven minutes left in the first half of Hernando's 17-16 victory over Crystal River, Langley took a handoff from quarterback Shad Reese about 5 yards behind the line of scrimmage, avoided a tackle for a loss, jitterbugged his way around left end and gained 18 yards on his first carry as a Leopard.

The circumstances leading to his ineligibility parallel the case history of a teenager who came to know the meaning of hardship.

"He's a good kid," Imhoff said, "but just kind of hasn't gotten a lot of help."

Langley, now 17, said his mother, Linda Fribley, nearly died when he was 15.

"From what I heard on the streets," he said, "it was drugs. Somebody put something in her drink.

"They gave her up to God, but she fought through. Couldn't walk, couldn't talk, but she pulled through."

Langley, whose last name is his mother's maiden name, said his natural father lives in Brooksville, but they do not live together.

With his mother in a Brooksville nursing home, Langley said he was bounced among various relatives, perhaps a dozen, rarely staying with any for an extended time period.

Eventually, he moved in with cousins of his mother, Betty and Willie Walker. Their son, Donald Langley, is about a year older than Chris.

"I was happiest when I was staying with my cousin," Chris said of Donald, who spent a short stint with the Central High track team. "He used to talk to me about staying in school, because he had been in and out."

But last June, Donald, then 17, was arrested after being accused of shooting to death Joe Morris, then 19, at Tanglewood Apartments in Brooksville.

Witnesses told police Donald Langley, wearing a $31 pair of sneakers he allegedly stole from Morris, chased the victim to the back of the apartment complex and gunned him down by a fence.

Chris Langley said he was sitting in the back seat of a car occupied by Donald prior to the shooting.

"I didn't believe it," Chris said. "It was scary."

Chris said he has maintained contact with his cousin since the shooting, visiting him in jail.

"It was like I lost my brother," Chris said, "because that's what he was to me."

After Donald's arrest, Chris moved out of his cousins' house. He said the decision was a mutual one between him and his mother's cousins.

"They told me it would put more pressure on them, with Donald gone and me there," Chris said. "They were afraid the same thing would happen to me."

Chris, though, said he would never allow that.

"I never thought about doing stuff like that," he said. "It never came through my mind. I mean, I don't mind fighting, but when it comes to pulling the trigger I'm just not with it."

Shortly after the shooting, Langley spent a few days living with a teammate, then moved in with the Steele family.

"They loved him to death right away," Leopards football manager Steele, a Hernando senior, said of his seven-member family. "They like everybody who comes over. It's just the way my family is.

"My mother, she loves him, loves him to death. He helps out around the house and totes his weight with family responsibilities."

Langley said he was initially skeptical, wondering whether it would be just another short-term place to stay.

"I was wondering if they really wanted me," he said, "or were just helping out because I was in a little trouble at the time."

But he's happy there now.

"I've basically been doing everything by myself," Langley said, "so it makes things a lot easier."

"Living with the Steeles," Hernando coach Imhoff said, "gives him a place where he feels he can go, and where he feels like he belongs."

That, combined with the watchful eye of his coaches, has made Langley's life a little less complicated.

"If we didn't help him out, he'd probably be in trouble," assistant football and head track coach Byrd said. "The only thing I've done is shown some interest in him. The kid's doing the rest. . . . He's going in a straight line now. But if he has a problem, he comes to one of us and we talk about it.

"He realizes what the consequences are if he messes up. He knows if he messes up he'll come back and won't be able to look you straight in the face."