Falcons rookie chooses compassion over hate for his brother's killer

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"For some reason, you thought it was right to go and gun down my brother that morning of Oct. 14. You had that choice. My brother, at gunpoint, didn't have a choice to live. It wasn't up to him. He lost the two greatest things God gives us as people: He lost his ability to choose, and he lost his life. Now here I am, and I have this choice to hate you or not. I choose not to. I don't hate you, Denzel. I hate what you did, most certainly. But I still think your life is just as precious as the next person's. No life means more than another's. None of us are perfect."

This is an excerpt from a letter Qadree Ollison wrote Aug. 1, 2018, the night before 22-year-old Denzel Lewis was sentenced for the murder of Lerowne "Rome" Harris, Ollison's 35-year-old brother. The 800-word letter was read in court by Wayne Ollison, Qadree's father, just before Lewis received a 25-year sentence for first-degree manslaughter.

Wayne, who initially questioned Qadree for not hating his brother's murderer, read his own letter, which called for the maximum punishment for the man who killed his son in "cold blood."

Meanwhile, Qadree, a fifth-round draft pick of the Atlanta Falcons out of Pittsburgh, figured he couldn't proceed in life or football without getting some closure after his brother's 2017 murder. The native of Niagara Falls, New York, also realized, because of his faith in God, there was no reason to be spiteful toward Lewis, whom he attended middle school with and once considered a friend.

“I believe you can’t live with hate in your heart,” Qadree said. “You can’t move on from something with hate in your heart.”

Qadree could have expressed outrage over a senseless act of violence. Instead, his words showed compassion toward Lewis, who shot Harris to death in broad daylight. Qadree’s strength in a time of grieving helped bring an already tight-knit family closer.

"It just shows that he's a special guy," Wayne said of his son. "I'm telling you as a father, I didn't have that forgiveness in my heart. Qadree understood that and said, 'Well, Dad, one day you will get there.' It takes a special person to lose their older brother, their idol, and still be able to put your head down and move forward."

'Everybody was just devastated'

That October day, at 10:20 a.m., Harris was shot three times -- twice in the back -- following a gas-station encounter with Lewis. According to police reports, Harris ran across the parking lot after being shot, then was put into a nearby vehicle and driven to Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center, where he died.

Qadree had a noon game at Pitt against NC State, and his family didn't inform him of his brother's death until after the 35-17 loss to the Wolfpack.

"My immediate reaction was that I was devastated," Qadree said. "Everybody was just devastated. It's not something that you can prepare for."

Lewis is incarcerated at Attica Correctional Facility and eligible for parole in March 2039. He could have been charged with second-degree murder and faced life in prison had the Ollisons taken the case to trial. But after a meeting with prosecutors, an agreement was reached, and Lewis pleaded guilty to a lesser charge.

"In my line of work, you get two ends of the spectrum: You get families that show compassion, and you get those that want to exact revenge, and this was definitely a family that showed compassion," said Doreen Hoffman, assistant district attorney for Niagara County.

When asked if his relationship with Lewis from middle school influenced his decision to forgive his brother's killer, Qadree's answer was an emphatic "no."

"We were cool in middle school, but that was like nine years before I last saw him," Qadree said. "It wasn't about somebody that I knew. I try to have compassion for anybody, whether I know them or not."

Wayne said he tried to look Lewis in the eyes during every court proceeding to let him know the family wasn't scared, but Lewis kept looking forward with a blank stare. Prosecutors said Lewis never offered an apology and, in fact, acted "cocky" in court.

If Qadree were to talk to Lewis today, he would advise him to try to find peace.

"I really would tell him to try and get rid of whatever demons he has inside of him, try to find God," Qadree said. "If you don't want to believe in God, you want to believe in something. Try to find whatever it is that would bring peace to him and help him. It's a lot deeper. If the point of prison is to rehabilitate, then let it do that. Come out 20, 25 years from now and be a different person if you get another chance."

Brotherly love

Not until after Harris' death did Qadree have the chance to appreciate his older brother's football talent. A family friend made a film of Harris' youth-league highlights as a memorial.

"My older brother, as any older brother, he was a role model for me," said Qadree, who was 14 years younger than Harris. "He was somebody I looked up to, somebody I tried to be like, especially on the football field. He was the one who kind of got me started. ... He used to always say he was the one who put the football in my hands first."

Harris never evolved beyond a youth-league star after being consumed by street life. He dropped out of high school before 11th grade. But, for Qadree, football was a way out of the rugged Jordan Gardens housing projects of Niagara Falls. He and his siblings grew up there with single mother, Vicki Harris, who still works as a local bartender. Although his parents were no longer together, Qadree said his father, a plant supervisor who lived five minutes away, was there to coach football and make sure he had food and clothes.

Scan through a police blotter on Jordan Gardens from the past couple of months and you'll find crimes ranging from a man assaulting police officers after giving them a fake identity to a 9-year-old girl getting forced at gunpoint from a stolen vehicle.

"I grew up in a rough neighborhood, like any type of projects where drugs, and gangs, and violence are evident," Qadree said. "Really, just to be blunt, my brother got caught up in that lifestyle."

Department of corrections records show Rome Harris spent time between 2014 and 2016 in Wyoming Correctional Facility on weapons and criminal contempt charges. Qadree didn’t approve of his brother’s criminal lifestyle but said he understood it.

"When you're trying to provide for your family and trying to help out our mom because we didn't have a whole lot -- and we still don't have a lot," Qadree said.

"He wasn't doing it just trying to be cool. He was trying to take care of his family, and take care of his [four] kids."

Despite Harris' criminal behavior, he kept Qadree off the streets, refusing to let him follow the same treacherous path.

"That's what I mean when I say he was a role model for me; not because of what he was doing, but because how he looked after me and made sure I never turned left," Qadree said. "He always kept me away from it."

Harris' life choices prevented him from seeing much of Qadree's high school or collegiate football career. However, Harris was present for the opening game of the 2017 college season, when Pitt defeated Youngstown State 28-21 in overtime. Qadree scored a pair of touchdowns and rushed for 91 yards on 22 carries.

Wayne remembered the joy Harris got from seeing his brother succeed.

"When Rome had a chance to see Qadree play, he was excited about it," Wayne said. "We tailgated the morning of and had some fun.

"To be able to see his brother run out of the tunnel. ... Qadree was a leader of the team, a focal point of the team. Rome wasn't shocked about what was going on, but he was like, 'Wow, my brother is really popular here at this university, and all these fans are cheering for my brother.' It was an emotional time. Rome broke down and cried a couple times. It was just good that God set it up so that Rome could at least get a chance to see Qadree play before God called him up to heaven to do work for him."

Keeping the faith

Qadree was able to get through losing his brother, in part, because of his strong faith. As a kid, he believed in God but wasn't a churchgoer. He became more spiritual in college thanks to his close friend and former Pitt teammate Kellen McAlone, a walk-on receiver who earned a scholarship as a senior.

"He kept nagging me like, 'Come to this Bible study,' and I was like, 'I don't go to Bible studies. That's not for me,'" Qadree said. "Then I went to this Bible study at Pitt that was just for student-athletes. It was something I really enjoyed. I think that's where it all started."

Qadree began reading one Bible verse every day and praying every night before going to sleep. It all became part of his routine.

His faith helped him through tough football challenges such as rushing for 1,000 yards in 2015 only to lose his starting role when current Pittsburgh Steelers star James Conner returned from injury. But nothing put Qadree's faith to the test more than losing his older brother.

"I stayed at Pittsburgh and practiced really the whole week," Qadree said. "I went home for the funeral and was grieving. Then the very next day, I flew out to North Carolina to play Duke [Oct. 21]. That was my approach to it: I don't want to sit out a game. I wanted to be there for the team. And I think practicing and playing helped me cope with it, in a way."

His "Pittsburgh family" admired the composure Qadree showed. Panthers running backs coach Andre Powell marveled at how Qadree continued to be a vocal leader.

"You really could never tell anything happened because he came to work just like he normally did, energetic and focused," Powell said. "We understood. We were conscientious of it. But he came to work every day like nothing ever happened."

"You can't move on from something with hate in your heart." Falcons RB Qadree Ollison

Qadree wore No. 30, his brother's youth football number, during his senior season as a tribute. He finished his final season as a Panther with 1,213 yards and 11 touchdowns on 194 carries and was named second-team All-ACC. On Senior Day, he wore a T-shirt bearing his late brother's image. Qadree rushed for 235 yards and three touchdowns during a 52-22 victory over Virginia Tech.

When he got the call from the Falcons during the draft, Qadree shed tears with his mother and father and thanked the community for supporting him. Although he still has to make the roster with Devonta Freeman and Ito Smith as the top two backs, his size -- 6-foot-2 and 225 pounds -- should give Qadree a strong chance to be the team's power back.

Wayne is just as proud of his son for earning two degrees from Pittsburgh: one in communications, the other in physical education. The father knows what type of mindset Qadree will carry into the first day of practice with the Falcons, starting with rookie minicamp this weekend.

"He's the kind of kid that's not satisfied with just being drafted," Wayne said. "He said in his interview that 'just because he get drafted doesn't mean you've arrived.' He still has to go and compete and make the team."

Qadree, who already agreed to a four-year rookie contract, plans to buy his mother a new home outside of Jordan Gardens. He also wants to get his brother a headstone and burial site; Harris' ashes currently sit on a television stand inside his father's home.

As for the No. 30 jersey, it's currently worn by Falcons fullback Ricky Ortiz, who isn't guaranteed a roster spot. That jersey could be Qadree's when all is said and done, whether Ortiz is on the team or not.

"To make it, it definitely would give me the platform where I can inspire other people," Qadree said. "That's all I really want to do. Our city is so small, and only a couple of people have actually made it out, whether it's sports or anything. I just want to be an inspiration."

He hopes to inspire while keeping memories of Rome alive. Qadree concluded the letter read in court with a simple yet heartfelt message to his late brother:

To you, Rome, we miss you, and we love you. It hurt so bad to say goodbye, but it's going to be so much better to say hello again one day.