Philly embraces young heroes

Updated: November 22, 2006, 7:10 PM ET
By Joseph Santoliquito | Special to ESPN.com

PHILADELPHIA -- Markeyse Carter sits on his living room sofa, watching TV with his mother, enjoying a little break from football practice, when his cell phone chimes. This one has to go on speaker phone, he thinks. On the line is the gravelly voice of Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, taking a few minutes the day after defeating Lynn Swann to ask how Carter is doing and to assure him he would follow up on his pledge to help raise money for a new football field.

Heroes get on the governor's agenda.

Rescue
Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty ImagesMarkeyse Carter, Calem Bridgette and Yusuf Bangura are the toast of Philadelphia after rescuing an elderly woman from a burning house in the Overbrook section of the city.
Two months ago, Rendell didn't know Carter, nor Yusuf Bangura and Calem Bridgette. No one did. They were just three West Philadelphia teenagers, good kids who navigated the occasionally harsh terrain of the Overbrook section of Philly unscathed. Three kids not much different from many inner-city kids across the country. Three kids not really accustomed to people going out of the way for them.

But one courageous, life-threatening act changed all of that, and now these three Overbrook High School students and football players are the toast of Philadelphia, hailed and recognized by politicians and professional athletes for doing a good deed. They'll tell you their lives have been changed forever. They'll also tell you their act of selflessness hasn't been universally believed or lauded, especially by some of their high school peers.

The three never really knew each other before this football season. They had no way of knowing football would forever bring them together.

It all started Sept. 12. While walking home in West Philadelphia from practice early that Tuesday evening, they smelled smoke and saw a house on fire. They heard someone inside screaming "Help me! Help me!" A handful of people gathered in front of the house, but no one acted. The cries continued.

That's when Bangura, 16, ran in to the burning house, followed by Carter and Bridgette. Bangura climbed the stairs through heavy black smoke on the second floor, following the shrieks to find a woman curled up in a back room, gasping for air. Bridgette and Carter stayed in the living room, ready to back up their buddy and climb the steps when they heard Bangura come back down with the woman in his arms, nestled like a newborn. He was running her to safety, surviving his own serious asthma attack in the process.

Rosa Lewis, 87, survived the fire thanks to the three boys. Though originally appreciative of what the boys did, Lewis apparently doesn't remember much. She suffers from Alzheimer's. But she's doing OK after the fire, and living with relatives.

Since rescuing Lewis, the lives of Bangura, Carter and Bridgette have taken a dramatic turn. Maybe forever.

They attended their first Eagles game, meeting quarterback Donovan McNabb. They each received personalized Eagles, Flyers and Sixers authentic jerseys. The real threads the pros wear. Bangura keeps his under plastic and is framing his Flyers jersey. Sixers general manager Billy King, who introduced them to Allen Iverson and Chris Webber, gave them a personal tour of the Wachovia Center. They were honored by the Flyers and Phillies at home games. They got to meet and hug National League MVP Ryan Howard at a Sixers game -- where they were honored as "Hometown Heroes." The three had never attended a pro baseball or hockey game before.

All that changed because of what authorities say was one very brave act.

They've received limo rides with police escorts. They're recognized almost everywhere they go now. They each received $5,000 college scholarships. Iverson and Webber told each of them that they were proud of what they did. Iverson and Webber were once a world away, mythical gods they saw only on TV. Now they've shaken hands.

Calem Bridgette
Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty ImagesMarkeyse Carter, Calem Bridgette and Yusuf Bangura with Philadelphia 76ers player Chris Webber.
"I heard about what they did and told them they were the heroes," Webber said after the Sixers' home opener against Atlanta. "I told them that I admire them for their courage to face death like that. The courage they showed is real bravery. I play a game. I play in the NBA and kids like that look up to the players in this game. They each told me it was an honor to meet me, but what I found was that it was a real honor to meet them."

AT HOME IN OVERBROOK As you travel slowly down the narrow Philadelphia street looking for Bangura's home, a neighbor points to the end of the block, asking "You want to find the hero's house?" Bangura lives on a dimly lit street with nice, porch-front homes dotted by abandoned, boarded-up houses. Meritorious citations and shiny, shellacked wooden plaques sit on a round table in the corner of Bangura's living room.

It's here where the three young men talked with ESPN.com about their experiences, before and after. Before, they were anonymous. After, they're noticed. What you learn is what should have been known all along, heroes or not.

"It has changed our lives," said Carter, a 5-foot-11, 155-pound sophomore and Overbrook's starting quarterback. "I went to my second Sixers game and I've never been to a Flyers, Phillies or Eagles game before. Everyone is calling us heroes, but I never thought we'd get this amount of attention for what we did. It makes you feel good."

"I'm proud of what I did," said Bangura, a 5-11, 160-pound sophomore wide receiver who made a winning touchdown catch the first game of the season. "It just goes to show that not every black kid from the 'hood is doing drugs or bad stuff. I'll admit, we do live in a dangerous environment. But because of that, it doesn't mean all things bad come out of here. There is some good."

The attention hasn't really changed them. Friends and family say they were polite before they saved the woman's life. But what surprised them was the reaction from some of their classmates upon hearing the news that they had risked their lives to save someone else's.

The day after the rescue, they returned to Overbrook, best known as the high school Wilt Chamberlain attended. Their act was announced on the school loudspeaker as they were in morning home room, cringing a little out of embarrassment. But kids who never noticed them before shook their hands.

Others?

"Couldn't believe we did it," said Bridgette, a 5-5, 135-pound speedy senior defensive back. "Kids kept coming up and asking us if we were the ones who saved the woman and I'd say there was about half who didn't believe us. I don't know why. They just didn't."

Bangura was openly agitated, saying emphatically, "They definitely didn't believe us, and I think it's because of where we live. No one is going to believe anyone from this area can do any good. 'No black kid is going to run in to a burning building and save someone.' And this is from other black kids, kids I go to school with. Kids like me. Two weeks after we did it, other kids started getting tired of hearing about it. Hearing about us."

Call it another byproduct of a negative environment.

Yusuf Bangura
Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty ImagesYusuf Bangura, Calem Bridgette and Markeyse Carter receive the Hometown Hero award from NBA legend World B. Free on Tuesday.
Overbrook principal Ethelyn Payne-Young shakes her head. She's seen more than her share of tragedy in four years as the head of the West Philly school. But mention Bangura, Carter and Bridgette and it brings a glow to her face.

The climate of Philadelphia, Payne-Young notes, makes it difficult for school administrators. They would like to hold dances, pep rallies, sponsor the fun things teenagers are supposed to do. But an underlying concern that something might break loose thwarts those ideas. It's why Payne-Young trumpets the acts of Bangura, Carter and Bridgette.

"They're wonderful young people," Payne-Young said. "The culture and dynamics that exist in our community, especially in the urban setting among our young people is that if you do good there is a stigma to it. It's almost like they're ashamed to do good, or let someone do something wonderful. Those three boys have gone one way, while some of the kids they went to grade school with have gone another. I see it every day. I live it every day. How do you convey to all young people that it's OK to be bright and talented? It's OK to run into a burning building and have compassion for another person. These kids need to know it's OK to be a great kid."

REMAINING HUMBLE

Markeyse Carter
Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty ImagesOverbrook football players Markeyse Carter (left), Yusuf Bangura (second from right) and Calem Bridgette (far right) meet Phillies star Ryan Howard at a Sixers game.
Despite the attention, the heroes have stayed steady.

"I think these guys have handled the attention and adulation well," said Bernard Lambert, 34, Bangura's older brother. "What's going on in Philadelphia, especially here with all of the gun violence and teenagers on the corners selling drugs, what these guys did should be an example. But it is a shame that there have been some negative things.

"That's more a reflection of the people around them -- not these guys themselves. I know I can speak for Yusuf. He hasn't changed at all. He was never a bad kid. He's a teenager who does teenaged things. It's just that some people are stuck. Still stuck on black kids doing bad things. And regrettably, much of that comes from their own community."

Smiles crease their faces when they think back about that late summer evening when they were filled with anxiety, fear and bravery. When they defied a stereotype. And a mind-set. And acted.

"What they did will last a lifetime," Payne-Young said. "They did something for their spirit and outlook. They never expected all of this. Our young people have too many negatives day in and day out. We lost a lot of compassion. Our young people don't see enough of what they did."

Because of that, their worlds have expanded tenfold. Bridgette is now thinking more seriously about college. Now there's a chance he can go, thanks to the generosity and appreciation of others. He'd like to one day become a history teacher. Two months ago, it was the farthest thing from his mind.

Bangura and Carter still have two more years at Overbrook. They deal with the pettiness. And some collateral positives.

"Girls that didn't pay me no mind before are all of a sudden on me," Bangura said, laughing. And they're meeting people they never imagined meeting, like Rendell, Iverson, McNabb and Howard.

Philly Students
Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty ImagesMarkeyse Carter, Yusuf Bangura and Calem Bridgette meet Philadelphia 76ers guard Allen Iverson before a game earlier this month.
Yet there's still the reality of their environment. Almost two months after their heroic deed, one of their teammates was jumped and beaten so severely he had to be hospitalized. The Overbrook football team was told not to come to school on Monday, Nov. 6, in an effort to defuse the situation and prevent any retaliation against the alleged attackers. The Overbrook football team, along with Bangura, Carter and Bridgette -- good kids who performed an amazing act -- couldn't practice for a week.

It didn't discourage them, though. Nothing has.

"We can make a change," Carter said. "What we did can make a difference. I never realized I had so many people on my side before this had happened to us. We all still have to keep our guard up."

Then Carter stopped, and the boys looked at each other with a knowing nod. They have an army of important people on their side. And the governor on the phone. That's what heroes get.

Joseph Santoliquito is the Managing Editor of RING Magazine and a frequent contributor to ESPN.com. He can be contacted at JSantoliquito@yahoo.com.