Thursday, June 12, 2008
Updated: June 13, 12:53 PM ET
By Tom Friend
ESPN The Magazine
There's where your dad used to live, right above the strip club. There's the 7-Eleven where he used to steal doughnuts. Those are the bushes where he used to have sex. That's the street corner where he robbed a stinking drunk. That's the jail where his mom was locked up.
What, you're scared of this place? You don't even know this place. Your dad went to bed hungry here. His only meal of the day was a school lunch (unless they served brussels sprouts). Having electricity on a Tuesday didn't guarantee he'd have it on a Wednesday. He was evicted 23 times. He got a new pair of sneakers once every three years. He got a girl pregnant at 14. Your mom.
You guys like your life, right? You've got a computer and an iPod and an Xbox. Your dad didn't even have a mailbox. You live in a 14,000-square-foot mansion. It's not in the 'burbs, it's beyond the 'burbs. It's on a mountain. It's got nine showers for the humans and one for the dog. It's got a pool table and a pool. It's got a theater downstairs and a lighthouse upstairs. It's got a maid's quarters, even though there's no maid, and a wine cellar, even though there's no wine. It's got an arcade room, a steam room, a workout room and rooms to be named later. It's got a Super Bowl ring.
How old are you three kids now -- 15, 12 and nine? It's time you realize your dad wasn't always a filthy rich football player. He used to be nothing, used to get spit on, shot at, trash-talked.
He used to clean his sneakers with a toothbrush, used to heat his apartment by sticking a lit match in a mayonnaise jar. But you guys? You've got flat-screen TVs in your rooms, two dozen pairs of sneakers in your closets, a gazebo in your backyard. You've gotten kind of soft, kind of complacent, kind of
So your dad's decided to drive you down your mountain today, decided to take you straight past the hookers and the houses that are boarded up. He's decided to drop you off in the hood, right in front of a ratty Boys & Girls Club. He's just going to drop you and drive off. For your own good.
See you in three hours.
It isn't by the book, but, the Dolphins' 30-year-old safety Tebucky Jones could be NFL Father of the Year for this.
One year ago, he took three well-mannered, well-dressed, well-fed kids and sent them, argyles and all, back to his own cruel childhood. It wasn't entirely necessary and it wasn't entirely safe, but he couldn't rely on "MTV Cribs" to toughen them up. He had to do it himself.
They just weren't taking his cues. They'd see him turning off light switches behind them or spending entire days with his rottweiler, and they wouldn't think to ask why. They didn't know that, growing up in the New Britain, Conn., slums, he found a puppy pit bull. That he hid the pit bull in his closet for days, knowing his mother, Maryann, didn't need another mouth to feed. That his mother heard barking in Tebucky's room one day and that Tebucky tried saying, "That's me barking." That it broke his 9-year-old heart to send that puppy back to the streets.
They didn't know that one of his apartments burned to a crisp, that he was homeless in junior high for weeks, that he stole $500 from a drunk because it was either that or sleep on a sewer cap.
They didn't know that he used to cut a hole in his jacket, stroll into a 7-Eleven and stuff candy into the hole. Or that he led a search party for his mother one night, not realizing she'd been thrown in the slammer on drug charges. Or that he'd seek refuge at the New Britain Boys Club, even though there were hookers across the street and gang members outside firing guns.
So he told them everything. He told them about his one pair of sneakers, how he had to wear the same size 8's from fifth to seventh grades even though, by the end, they were four sizes too small for him. How the sneakers were cheap red and black Sprints. How he put a piece of tape over the insignia so they'd look like Air Jordans. How, in school one day, his cousin tore the piece of tape off, and how he could barely face the world after that. He told them that a classmate named Jenny felt compassion for him. That she'd bring him food from Burger King late at night. That Tebucky's mom didn't want Jenny around and that Jenny's middle-class parents didn't want Tebucky around. That Tebucky used to throw pebbles at her bedroom window to get her to sneak out. That they'd go fool around in the bushes.
He told them that when he was 14, he got Jenny pregnant. That his family and friends told him to dump her. That they told him to choose football over a ball and chain. That he chose football for a while, until he met his baby girl, 4-week-old Letesha. That the minute Letesha threw up all over him, he was hooked. He decided he wasn't giving up anything. Not the football and not the ball and chain.
Jenny told them how rare it was for a teenage dad to stick by his girl and his kid. Or kids. When Tebucky was 16, Jenny got pregnant with Tebucky Jr., and when he was 19, she got pregnant with Malique. Jenny told them that when she was living at home and he was up at Syracuse playing football, he proposed to her in the middle of a long-distance phone call. That he brought them all up to campus even though he had no money in his wallet. That they had no car and had to take buses in subzero weather. That they were so poor, he stole a Christmas tree for them one December.
The kids didn't recall any of it. What they do remember is draft day 1998, when Bill Belichick and the Patriots made Tebucky a surprise first-round pick. And when their dad's signing bonus arrived in the mail, all $2.65 million of it. And when they moved into their first house, in Wrentham, Mass. And when they saw the neighborhood children arriving at school in BMWs and Jaguars.
What they remember is the Patriots winning the Super Bowl after the 2001 season. And their dad becoming a free agent, and being named the Patriots' franchise player. And him eventually being traded to the Saints, who gave him a new contract worth $29.2 million, including a $6 million signing bonus. They remember Mom and Dad buying an offseason home in Connecticut for $2.96 million. A home just down the street from 50 Cent. A home only 10 minutes from the hood where their dad grew up.
They remember the rottweiler their dad bought to make up for the pit bull he couldn't keep. And the 400 pairs of sneakers he bought to make up for his one pair of phony Air Jordans. They remember him cleaning all 400 pairs with a toothbrush. And him buying Christmas trees and turning every holiday into a free-for-all. "I've gotten 'em two Xboxes, Sony PlayStation, Dreamcast," Tebucky says. "Every time something came out, they got it."
But they also remember their dad getting frustrated with them. Letesha would sit quietly in her room and wouldn't play sports. Malique, the youngest, wanted to play hockey, of all things. And young Tebucky, perhaps the best athlete of them all, was getting pushed around in basketball.
It's not that the kid wasn't strong. He was a young Adonis, already 5-foot-9 in the fifth grade. But he was almost too sweet of a kid. He dressed in sweater-vests, was called Prep at school and wanted to play college basketball at Duke. His dad would go to his grammar school basketball games and be horrified. The competition was mediocre, and when the team finally played against an ornery city team from East Hartford, the boy crawled into a shell. The inner-city kids talked trash and young Tebucky bit his lip. He stopped going to the basket. He wasn't fighting for rebounds. He'd overpass. He had morphed into a stereotypical player from the 'burbs.
"He'd call me soft every day," young Tebucky says.
"Not every day," Jenny says. "Stop exaggerating."
"Well, we were getting a little bit soft," Malique says.
To his dad, there was nothing worse. His kids were book smart; he was street smart. His roots were in the slums; their roots were at Abercrombie & Fitch. He asked around the NFL and realized that this is what sometimes happens to the kids of pro athletes. It's not their fault, it's money's fault. Tebucky started getting more impatient with them. He'd tell them to stop lying on the couch, to open the living room shades. He'd call them Pudding Pops, his code for softy. If they wouldn't eat, he'd say, "I'd be 6-6 instead of 6-2 if I'd had the food y'all have." He began making them run suicide sprints in their indoor gym. They'd ask him for cash to go to the mall, and he'd say, "What do I look like, Bank of America?"
"I was getting fed up," Tebucky says. "I wanted them to know how lucky they were, that when I told them stories about my life, it wasn't bull. A lot of kids are snobs and look down on people. But I wanted 'em to know we're all human. I wanted 'em to see both sides of life."
By the spring of 2004, he decided there was only one option. He piled his three kids into his Mercedes and drove them 10 minutes down the hill to his old Boys & Girls Club in New Britain. At the curb, he simply opened the car door and said, "Bye." And all the inner-city kids inside saw it. They saw three pampered kids duck out of a Mercedes and walk smack into their world.
Here comes the raw meat.
The first day was all about money. The club kids wanted to know how much they had. And how many Mercedes they owned. And how many sneakers. And how big a house. And how much spare change they had in their pockets.
"Can I borrow 75 cents?" a young boy asked Malique.
Malique, the most outgoing of the children, said, "What do I look like, Bank of America?"
Before dropping them off, Tebucky had wagged a finger in their faces, telling them, "There are gonna be kids swearing in there and kids begging in there. And if they see you're soft, they're going to take your money. So don't be soft." He'd also told them, "You guys have to stick together.
"You have to have each other's backs. It's the way it works in the hood. Someone messes with one of you, you three better mess with him. Or you have to deal with me."
They heeded every word. After Malique's "Bank of America" comment, young Tebucky and Letesha shadowed their little brother while he played video games. And while he shot hoops. And while he hung out. When their dad picked them up three hours later, they told him nobody messed with them. Good, he said. Because they were going back next week.
The second day was all about clothes. The Boys Club kids wore oversize pants, oversize shirts and undersize undershirts, while Tebucky's kids wore snug-fitting outfits from Gap. Young Tebucky remembers feeling self-conscious, remembers thinking, "I'm not comfortable. I'm not used to being around people from the projects." There'd been some ridicule that day -- the name Prep came up again as he hung out -- and when the kids got home that night, they decided there would not be ridicule again.
The third day was all about fitting in. Young Tebucky and Malique had always watched hip-hop videos -- "I liked the clothes they wore," young Tebucky says -- but were never motivated to wear XXXLs until that week. And when big Tebucky took them to the Boys Club, he couldn't believe his eyes. "Their pants were hanging down and their underwear was showing," he remembers. "They had little earrings, little chains. They walked out of the car like they were Puff Daddy."
The fourth day was all about sports, particularly for young Tebucky. He was the shiest of the three kids, the one his mom was worried sick about. "I thought, oh my God. We're putting them in with ghetto kids and haters," she says. "And I was especially worried for young Tebucky. He talks very proper. Even though he started dressing a little gangsta style, you could tell this boy's from the suburbs; he's not from the hood."
The minute he started playing at the Boys Club, young Tebucky knew it was a different game. Elbows were flying. If someone made a sweet spin move or blocked a shot, the players would ooh and ah. Young Tebucky never saw that in the 'burbs. At the Boys Club, everybody on the court got a nickname. It'd be Melon Head or Peanut Head or Something Head. Always something with the head.
This is what young Tebucky was learning at the Boys Club: the fine art of talking trash. Big Tebucky says he didn't want to turn any of his kids into "thugs," and he could tell they still knew right from wrong. But he wanted them to speak up, particularly young Tebucky.
By the end of that spring, big Tebucky ended the Boys Club experiment. None of the kids had been bullied and none of them had become the Bank of America. Letesha, the oldest, soon signed up for the school volleyball and softball teams. Malique signed up for Pee Wee football, and began wearing do-rags and sucking all day on lollipops. He was still a smart, polite kid under the getup, but he couldn't help it now: he had to wear black every day.
But young Tebucky remained somewhat of an introvert, so late that same spring, his dad made him try out for New Britain's inner-city AAU team. The team was run by big Tebucky's high school coach, Stan Glowiak, but young Tebucky was convinced he wouldn't make the team. "You think I was gonna cut him and deal with his old man?" Glowiak says. "No way."
They played a doubleheader one morning, and during the first game young Tebucky pulled up lame with a blister on his foot. His new sneakers were the cause, and it looked like he was done for the day. But just when his dad was about to come out of the stands to call his son a Pudding Pop, young Tebucky borrowed Glowiak's kicks -- beat-up running shoes -- and suited up for the second game. Scored 36 points, too. Got hammered into a padded wall and hammered the guy back. Big Tebucky pumped a fist. "If it weren't for the Boys Club, I'd have sat that game out," young Tebucky says. "The Boys Club woke me up."
That August, big Tebucky went back to New Orleans for the season, leaving his family behind in Connecticut. Other than during the bye week, he barely saw them. He threatened to put a surveillance camera in the mansion and watch them via the Internet, but it was all talk. So when the season ended -- with him about to go to Miami as a free agent -- he had no idea what he was coming home to: sheltered kids or independent kids.
Letesha was fine. Some girls at school had begun calling her "rich bitch," but she didn't back down. The rift was mostly over a boy, and, in the end, she got the boy. And invitations to the mall.
Malique was fine too. He had the confidence, as a fourth-grader, to crash a seventh-grade dance at a community center. And in his do-rag, he won the dance contest.
As for young Tebucky, he was in size 12 sneakers now, same as his dad. As a 5-10 12-year-old, he could grab the rim now, same as his dad. He cleaned his sneakers with a toothbrush now, same as his dad. He played pickup ball against 20-year-olds now, same as his dad.
Right after the season, the two Tebuckys played a game of one-on-one, and big Tebucky realized there'd be no need for the Boys Club anymore. Not only did young Tebucky foul his father hard on the neck and elbow him hard in the chest, he had a name for the old man:
It's always something with the head.
Tom Friend has been a senior writer at ESPN the Magazine since its inception in 1998. He has also authored two books -- "Educating Dexter" and "Jack of All Trades." His work has been reprinted in "Best American Sports Writing," and he was named one of America's top 20 sportswriters by Men's Journal. He is a graduate of the University of Missouri and lives in Southern California with his wife and two children.