Devon Beitzel thankful for family ties

Her nerves frayed and her stomach flip-flopping, Michellene Lenz approached the front door to Joan Louth's home on Christmas morning.

For years, Lenz had been too embarrassed and ashamed to knock. The house had been her son's refuge, a shelter from a raging storm of a life he didn't create.

And Louth? She'd been the mother Lenz couldn't be to Devon Beitzel.

It was Louth who made Beitzel his breakfast and served him dinner; she checked his homework and doled out the discipline; she listened to his worries and celebrated his accomplishments.

For all of that, Lenz was so grateful.

But she also knew it was because of her own failings that her son needed a place to retreat in the first place.

"It's hard to pick up your face sometimes," Lenz said, pausing and reaching for the right words. "It takes a lot of healing. But this Christmas, oh my gosh, it was phenomenal. I felt so welcome, such a part of everything, and I realized, my gosh, that's his family. They're going to be his family forever. I want to be a part of it, and now I can. I don't have to be embarrassed. My son loves me."

Together and separately, Lenz and Louth have raised themselves quite a man.

Dealt a life predestined for hardship, Beitzel instead carved a path to success. He is the leading scorer (18.6 ppg) for a Northern Colorado team that stands atop the Big Sky standings, undefeated in the league at 7-0.

An Academic All-American who carries a 3.7 GPA in business finance, he already has a job lined up at Ernst & Young and will start there after his graduation.

He's also, as of Wednesday, one of 10 finalists for the Lowe's Senior CLASS Award, given to student-athletes for their achievements in sports and in their community. It's considered one of the most prestigious honors a college athlete can receive.

And those aren't even his most impressive accomplishments.

No, the most important thing Devon Beitzel has done in his 22 years is take control of his own life, and in the process, inspire his mother to do the same.

"You've got to keep moving forward," Beitzel said. "People make mistakes. People have their problems. But the biggest thing, when you make a mistake you've got to recognize it and make it right. You have to take care of yourself and do what you can to make sure your life is the way you want it to be. It's really on you."

Devon Beitzel was sitting at Joan Louth's kitchen counter like he'd done countless times.

Best friends with Tyler Louth since the two were toddlers running their coaches ragged on the courts and the fields at the local rec club in Lafayette, Colo., Beitzel had passed more than a few mornings, afternoons and evenings at that kitchen counter.

The year had been an especially tough one in a life full of terrible times for Beitzel.

When his parents weren't battling one another in a stormy relationship that begat a nasty divorce, they were battling their demons. David Beitzel has been in and out of jail for more than 20 years, his arrest record a laundry list of small crimes, most of them drug-related. (He is currently in jail for violating probation. A hearing is scheduled for next month.)

Michellene Lenz never went to jail, but admits that, she, too, struggled with drugs and especially alcohol, once taking Antabuse, an FDA-approved medicine for alcoholics that makes people sick if they drink.

She left one bad relationship with David Beitzel for another equally disastrous one, putting herself into financial ruin to support both the men in her life and her habits.

"Those kids experienced so much crap, girl," Lenz said of Beitzel and his younger brother, Dustin. "It's just horrible to think about. They were tossed around. There was the divorce, the drugs, the alcohol, all of it. I'd pray to God, 'Please don't punish them for their mother and father's mistakes."

Despite the chaos around them, the Beitzel boys were good kids. Respectful to their teachers, they made good grades, stayed out of trouble and took care of one another.

But Lafayette is a city with a small-town vibe, and most everyone knew about the Beitzel family's hardships.

In this case, that was a good thing, not just more fodder for the gossip mill. Beitzel was buoyed by his community, finding support and help when his parents -- who wanted to do right by their sons but were too overcome by their own demons -- couldn't.

"I'd see him at football practice and it would be freezing cold, and he'd be in a T-shirt and I'd just ask 'What's going on?"' said Bob Olds, a longtime rec league coach and referee who served as a mentor and coach to Beitzel. "I remember one night at the gym, he was sitting in the waiting area at the front of the school and I asked him if he had a ride and he said, 'Well, no,' and I just said, 'OK, let's go."

When Beitzel was in the eighth grade, his father, whom he had been living with, moved to Broomfield, a town about 10 miles from Lafayette.

Lenz by then was "a mess." She'd lost her house and was stuck in an abusive relationship.

So Beitzel went with his dad to Broomfield for the year, but every weekend he came back to Lafayette where his friends were.

Nearly every weekend he ended up on Joan Louth's sofa.

And it was at the end of one of those weekends when Beitzel, sitting at the kitchen counter, turned to Louth.

It was May. Junior high was almost over, and high school was staring him in the face.
"I remember he was getting ready to go someplace with Tyler and he said, 'Can I ask you something?'" Joan Louth remembered. "And I said, 'You can ask me anything.' And he just said, 'Can I come live with you?"

Joan Louth knows a thing or two about raising boys.

She has three of her own -- 25-year-old Zach, 23-year-old Tyler and 20-year-old Brent -- and has taken in another, 19-year-old Carlos.

In fact, the woman has spent so much time surrounded by men, she went out and bought herself a female dog to bring down the testosterone level.

Though she was going through her own tough patch when Beitzel asked to move in -- she would divorce not long after -- Louth didn't hesitate when he asked.

She said yes, but with two conditions: He'd live by her rules, and he'd have to get his parents' OK.

As difficult as it was, they agreed.

"He's a freshman, for crying out loud, having to make a man decision," said Lenz, who always gave her boys whatever money she could spare and made sure to keep up with their health insurance. "But I had to let him go. I live with that every day. Those are years you'll never get back, but you know what? If I had to do it over again, I'd do the exact same thing."

Beitzel's motivations were both simple and complex.

Sure, he wanted to live near his buddies and go to high school in his comfort zone.

It was also about more than that. Much more.

Teenagers might think that a life without rules and nagging adults would be the equivalent of nirvana, but Beitzel knew otherwise.

He recognized that he needed something that his parents couldn't provide. He needed structure and full-time guidance.
"I know a lot of friends I have, they don't realize the opportunities they have, the blessings they have," Beitzel said. "They don't realize what people would give to have what they have."

When Louth told him what his curfew was, he was thrilled. He'd never had a curfew before.

When she gave him and her own boys their first cell phone, reminding them that the reason they had it was to call with updates of their whereabouts, Beitzel was so conscientious that his brothers (Zach, Tyler, Devon and Brent refer to each other as brothers) ridiculed him for being a brownnoser.

And over time, Beitzel found more than just rules and regulations in Joan Louth's house.

He found a home.
"At first it was so hard for him," Louth said. "I remember one time when his father was in jail, he talked to Zach, and Zach told me how much he was struggling. I asked him, 'Why didn't you tell me?' And he said, 'I didn't want to let you down.'

"He was so worried that people would see bad and think he was bad. I told him that adults make decisions and those are their decisions. Over time, he felt more and more at ease. He realized this wasn't going to end, that there was an undeniable commitment."

He drank on the weekends. Not a lot, but enough to feel it. Every now and again he'd smoke a little marijuana, too. It was nothing over the top -- nothing more than what plenty of teenagers do as they experiment on their way to adulthood.

Except when Devon Beitzel looked hard into the mirror, he didn't see the face of an innocent high school sophomore taking a harmless stab at rebellion.

He saw the first step on a path he didn't want to take.

Scared straight? Maybe not entirely.

Now 22, Beitzel admits he's "no angel." He has his share of college fun. But he is of age and the fun is measured and smart, stemming from that critical crossroads he found himself at in back in high school.

"I wasn't a bad kid; I just wasn't worried about other aspects of my life as I should have been," he said. "I realized if I wanted to go to college, I was either going to have to find a way to pay for it or get a scholarship, so I started getting into a routine. After school, I'd go to the gym for two hours."

Basketball was always a release for Beitzel. When his parents argued, he'd grab a ball and go find a quiet place to shoot some hoops. It was a place for him to be alone with his own thoughts, to enjoy the silence and deal with his frustrations.

Now it was different. He realized that he was pretty good and that maybe he could use basketball as a means to an end. After earning all-state honors as a senior, Tad Boyle offered him a scholarship to Northern Colorado. Beitzel redshirted as a freshman and has since steadily improved his numbers -- from 5.3 ppg in his first season to 11.8 as a sophomore to 14.3 as a junior to a scorching 18.6 this year.

He has made the transition for new coach B.J. Hill (who took over after Boyle jumped to Colorado) almost seamless, with the Bears rolling through Big Sky competition by an average of 13 points per game. Over the weekend, Northern Colorado stomped preseason favorite Weber State by 19.

"He had an inner desire to be successful," Olds said. "He was talented and he had toughness, but it's quite a tribute to that kid that he made it."

The toughest choices are often the most critical.

When Lenz agreed to allow her son to live elsewhere, more or less admitting she couldn't care for him, she spiraled even further downward.

Somewhere in the abyss, she found the way out.

Maybe it was because there was no place further to fall or maybe it was because in her sons (Dustin is now in the Navy aboard the USS Enterprise), she found the thing she'd been missing: the ability to take up for yourself.

"They've both just persevered," Lenz said. "I always told them 'Don't do the things I did.' How could anybody want the kind of life I had? I told them to take charge of your life. I finally did the same thing."

In 2005, Lenz moved in with her mother. She lived like a hermit, keeping to herself and worrying finally about herself.

She went to church each week, found herself a job as an account manager at a supply company and started chipping away at the mountain of debt she had accrued over the years.

She even quit smoking.

When her mother got sick with cancer, Lenz cared for her, watching yet another person fight and claw against a crummy hand she'd been dealt but didn't ask for.

What kept her going, what still keeps her going, is Beitzel.

Handed a million excuses and a million reasons to be bitter or angry, he instead chose to be grateful. He never concentrated on what his parents couldn't provide but rather on what they did offer.

"My parents have always done everything they can for me," he said. "If it wasn't for the way they brought me up, I wouldn't be able to do what I do. They always let me be my own person and trusted me to make my own decisions. I know a lot of times it was hard for them to support my choices, but they did because they knew it was the best for me. That's what parents are supposed to do."

Lenz is a regular now at Northern Colorado games, and Beitzel often visits her for lunch or dinner.

Home is still at the Louths', but that front door has been swung wide open, and the threshold to a new version of family has been crossed.

"People always ask me why I didn't adopt Devon," Louth said. "He has parents that he loves and that love him. We can be his family even if it's not a traditionally speaking one with a mom, a dad and a couple of kids. Family is what you make it, and we're a family."

If you Google "Devon Beitzel" and go to his bio page at the Northern Colorado website you'll find this:

Son of Michellene Lenz, David Beitzel and Joan Louth … he has five brothers.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.