McKEES ROCKS, Pa. -- It was late in the evening, and Dontez Ford was walking up to his home when he saw police in his front yard. A few years ago, it might not have been a surprise to see officers at his house but Ford has since turned his life around.
Confused, Ford approached the officers to see what was going on. He was shocked at what he heard.
"There was a fight in my front yard right outside my house," Ford said. "The police were at my house looking for a knife on the ground."
The culprits, Ford would later find out, were a couple of middle school-aged girls.
"Just more of a reason to get out," Ford said.
What can Brown do for you?
Dontez Ford is the perfect role model and representative for Sto-Rox High School. He is a star on the football field, basketball court and track, as well as senior class president. He is enrolled in a number of honors-level courses and in the summer he accepted a scholarship to play football at Syracuse.
What stands out most about Ford, though, is the way he carries himself. He is polite and well-mannered, accommodating and well-spoken. He has an infectious smile, and his peers, coaches and teachers can't help but flash a grin of their own when talking about him.
"A lot of people give me compliments on how well-mannered he is," Nadine Ford, Dontez's mother, said. "I always get compliments whenever I'm out or picking him up from school."
The adulation from school secretaries and administrators is maybe the most surprising, not because Ford was a troublemaker in school but because school was an extraneous detail in Ford's life for a long time.
"Middle school, I just slacked off a lot. I was hanging out with the wrong crowd. I'd get into fights and always getting involved in something I shouldn't be involved with," Ford said. "And I didn't have anyone there to motivate me."
Insert Amy Brown, Ford's seventh-grade math teacher. He called Brown "a second mother," and it's clear that is no hyperbole. Along with his mother, Ford considers Brown one of the biggest influences in his life.
"I had him in middle school and he was very unmotivated," Brown said. "He would lay down on his desk and sleep. I tried to work with him but he didn't respond too much."
Ford was a C student in her class even though he would often get A's on tests. Brown tried to get the administration to move Ford up a grade, but poor grades kept Ford from qualifying for the test to determine whether he could move.
So Ford remained in Brown's class and nothing changed. Well, there was one difference in Ford.
"I did get him to sit up, because that's something I don't tolerate," Brown said.
Other than that, Brown saw nothing in Ford that would have had her believe he would have made a complete 180-degree turn.
"He had small improvements, but he still seemed withdrawn," she said. "He was a sad kid."
However, Brown was unaware of the impact she had on him. Even when it didn't appear as if Ford was heeding her message, Brown was slowly getting through to him.
She would find out just how much of an impact she had on Ford during a faculty meeting after they both moved on to Sto-Rox High School. Ford was asked by the superintendent what motivated him and he mentioned Brown.
"It was quite emotional," Brown said. "Where we teach at -- and teaching in general -- is sometimes a thankless job."
As Ford began turning his academics around, he realized he needed to start turning the rest of his life around, beginning with his relationship with his mother.
Put out on the street
A smile returns to Ford's face as he prepares to discuss the breaking point in he and his mother's relationship a few years ago. Ford can laugh and smile about it now as he reflects on the moment he went from know-it-all teen to mature young adult.
Ford and a friend were sitting on his couch when Ford's mother asked him for a favor around the house. Ford said he would do it, only to remain on the couch and continue with his video game. Furious at her son, Nadine began yelling at him, prompting Ford to make a decision.
"I got up and said, 'All right, I'm leaving,'" Ford said.
So Ford went to his friend's house, and when he returned home he found his mother had a gift waiting for him.
"I come back and there's a suitcase full of my clothes," he said. "I asked my friend to help me carry everything down the street and I stayed at one of my friend's house for a week."
Nadine Ford called it a tough week but knew she had to get the message across to her youngest son somehow.
"I guess he was starting to become a little more independent -- or so he thought," said Nadine, a single mother who was on the way to her second job during a telephone interview. "It was the regular teenage age where you think you're grown and you think you know everything. He thought he didn't have to listen so I said, 'OK, you want to be grown? I'll see you later,' and I put him out."
Ford is thankful his mother sent him packing for that week. She even held out all seven days, refusing to contact her son the entire week.
However, Nadine never believed she had much of an impact on Ford -- until a few weeks ago.
"I told him I owe a lot to your coaches and their wives and your true friends because they really got you where you're at," Nadine said. "But he said, 'No, Mom. You did a lot, too.'"
Ford is appreciative of all of the help, advice and love given to him by everyone around him, but none more so than his mother.
"She taught me to grow up and make something of myself," Ford said, "or I'll end up on the streets."
Breaking away from "The Rocks"
Athletic director Bill Minear said Ford is one of the most likeable students in the entire school; Brown said Ford is part of the "cool crowd" at Sto-Rox. When he ran for student council, everyone voted for him, she said.
Ford disagrees, though. As is often the case in rough neighborhoods, success breeds jealousy. It's hard for people to ever fully escape their environment when former friends and peers hate to see someone make it out.
"It was pretty tough. I lost of a lot friends; a lot of people started to dislike me," Ford said.
"But the people who followed me are the ones I hang out with now. We all grew up in the same neighborhood, right down the street from each other. Since we were little kids all of us hung out with those crowds and we all said at the same time let's break away and make something of ourselves and go to college."
Athletics provided an easy escape for Ford. It kept him busy before and after school and on the weekends. A three-sport athlete and a grocery store employee, Ford is busy from sun up to sun down, January to December.
"If you don't stay away from what's going on around here, then you're probably going to get stuck right in the middle of it," Ford said. "Even if you try to stay away from it, there's bound to be something that's going to happen that you're going to be stuck in the middle of."
McKees Rocks is a place where it is easy to get drawn to the streets. Brown and Minear both said Ford's previous situation of an unhappy home life and disinterest in school is a microcosm of the issues they deal with on a daily basis.
"We have kids who don't have homes to go or there's drugs at the home or the parents aren't around," Brown said, adding it's something she can't help but think about every night.
"Sometimes teaching is kind of secondary. ... I might be the only person to make them smile all day."
Minear said it isn't uncommon for he or football coach Ron Butschle to have some of the student-athletes over for dinner with their families.
"Sometimes we're the ones who put clothes on their back or food on their table," Minear said.
Knowing it would be hard to ever fully escape the lifestyle McKees Rocks breeds if he stayed, Ford came to the decision that he would leave the area for college. In July, Ford committed to Syracuse.
"I like the location of the school," he said. "It's far enough for me to get away from the elements of Pittsburgh and McKees Rocks but still close enough to come back whenever I have to."
On to better things
Starting next fall, Ford will be playing receiver for Syracuse while beginning work toward a degree in environmental engineering. The Marcellus Shale issue in Pennsylvania has caused a rift among citizens and politicians, and Ford is hoping in a few years he will be the one to come up with an environmentally-safe solution.
"I want to be one of the people to help find different ways of energy sources without destroying the environment or hurting other people," Ford said.
He no longer resembles the unmotivated, lackadaisical teenager he was a few years ago. In fact, Ford was even considering a number of Ivy League schools before deciding on Syracuse.
"It's amazing how he's such a role model for the kids," Brown said. "He does things totally different now. It's awesome to see him find his full potential."
Jared Shanker covers Midwest recruiting. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.