Buckle your seat belt and grab a tissue (box). What follows is the amazing story of a former ESPN producer, Lisa Fenn, and two boys from Akron, Ohio: Dartanyon Crockett and Leroy Sutton. You might have read/seen the a clip a few years ago on ESPN entitled, “Carry On.” Originally aired in 2009, the story highlighted a unique and extremely loyal friendship between two high school wrestlers–as Leroy described it, these guys shared a bond that was “damn-near unbreakable.” Here’s the footage from ’09, ht AKC & BR:

“Carry On” was produced by Lisa Fenn, who, it turns out, has played a vital role in both Dartanyon and Leroy’s lives ever since that clip aired. Gripped by their stories–their disabilities, their lack of family and stability, their undeniable athletic prowess–Fenn took it upon herself to help “the one with no legs, being carried by the one who could not see” get to college and accomplish their dreams. She opened a trust fund with very modest aims, but the story met with such overwhelming enthusiasm from readers that the money raised ultimately paid for both Dartanyon and Leroy’s undergraduate education in full. No doubt about it, where they are today–Dartanyon a bronze medalist in the Paraolympics and Leroy on his way to completing his degree in August–is incredible and is well worth celebrating. And while Fenn freely admits that the experience has been tremendously meaningful and formative to her as well, still, what sticks out here is the sheer ‘one-way love’, or grace, on display. Here’s some of the highlights from Fenn’s piece which appeared on espn.com earlier this week:

“Why did you stay?”

He asked me, unprompted, as we waited quietly for the light to turn green. My heart revved. I always thought he knew.

“I love you,” I answered.

“That’s what I thought you’d say,” he replied. “But … why … why did you stick around and do everything you did?”

The answer to Dartanyon Crockett’s second question was not as tidy as the first. Because life can be a knotted mess, and, sometimes, love is not enough.

Crocket and SuttonDartanyon and Leroy Sutton grubbed their way into my heart four years ago. As an ESPN television features producer at the time, I was always on the hunt for unique athlete pieces. For 10 years, I traveled the country, chronicling human-interest stories against the backdrop of sports. I covered Derek Jeter and Michael Jordan all the way down to disabled amateurs and terminally ill little leaguers who imprinted a special brand of heroics onto this world. What a privilege to be invited into their private pains and sacred celebrations.

Producing the 2009 story, “Carry On,” challenged me in ways I previously had not experienced. Instead of telling the story of an individual accomplishment or remarkable moment, this conveyed a friendship. And in order for the nuances of a friendship to unfold naturally on camera, I needed to become a part of it. Calling out “Be funny on the count of three,” or “Now convey warmth on this take,” is artificial. This story required me to be in on the jokes and move fluidly with the characters.

I found this difficult at first, because I grew up on the other side of Cleveland. The white side. Though I was raised just eight miles west of Lincoln, my parents scrounged up the money for private school to protect me from the public schools and “those people.” Through all of their summer yard sales and side jobs, I silently wondered what was so bad about the people “over there” to prompt their determination. Now I realized their internal discomfort was probably akin to the visible uneasiness I wore standing in Lincoln’s halls. Small, shy, blond and studious, I would not have survived a week.

But Dartanyon and Leroy eased me in graciously. As we filmed over the course of five months, I tagged along to their classes, their practices and on team bus rides. They taught me their lingo and poked fun when I tried to use it. They opened up about their struggles — Dartanyon with great eagerness, as I think he had waited his entire life for someone to want to know him, to truly see him. Leroy’s revelations emerged more reluctantly. He had been emotionally abandoned too many times before. But sharing his past began a type of therapy for him. Both began to believe that, perhaps, I genuinely cared.

I stayed because I would not be next on the list of people who walked out and over their trust.

Leroy opened up about his “trust issues,” about how reluctant he was toward Fenn when she initially tried to engage him in 2009. Dartanyon’s loyalty to Leroy profoundly changed him, for he was “truly see(n).” The same otherworldly commitment that Dartanyon showed Leroy was exactly what Fenn embodied.

leroy29cut-01That summer, I feverishly edited “Carry On,” praying that just one viewer would be moved to help these boys in meaningful ways. But instead, following its August airings, hundreds emerged! Emails from Africa to England, from Idaho to Ipswich flooded my inbox, every viewer offering money and sharing personal accounts of how this extraordinary friendship shook their souls awake. Dartanyon and Leroy were no longer invisible. Their plights mattered to a world inspired. I curled up on my kitchen floor and wept.

In the month that followed, I personally responded to nearly 1,000 emails, not wanting to miss out on a blessing. Round the clock I harnessed donations, vetted speaking invitations, deciphered financial aid forms, coordinated college visits and ensured Dartanyon and Leroy were finally fed on a daily basis. Each time I shared exciting new developments with them, Dartanyon gushed with thank yous and hugs, broad grins and relieved exhales. But Leroy’s stoic posture never budged. “Leroy, if at any point you don’t want this, you need to speak up,” I said. “The last thing I want is to inflict my desires on you.”

“No, it’s all good,” he said.

“But usually, when it’s ‘all good,’ people smile or say something,” I said. “Each time I call you with good news, you are so quiet. I’m not even sure you’re on the line.”

No one’s ever called me with good news before,” he said. “I don’t know what I’m supposed to say.”

He once told me that Christmas was his least favorite holiday because his mom wrapped up Bazooka bubble gum and toys from around the house, hoping he wouldn’t notice. Having never known pleasure, he had not developed the language to respond to it. “But I am happy inside,” he added. “My dreams might come true.”

I stayed because I vowed right then to fill Leroy’s life with a thousand good things until he simply burst with joy.

 

Wow! It’s worth mentioning that Fenn didn’t commit herself to being a drill sergeant, giving the boys a step ladder to climb in order to reach their goals and dreams, and she didn’t make them her project, at least not consciously. Make no mistake about it, their obstacles and their accomplishments are their own. But it was Fenn’s persistence and love–“truly see(ing)” them, and “genuinely car(ing)”–that trampled their defenses and put gas in their tanks along the way.

Things like this don’t happen to kids like us,” he cried on that unimaginable night, his face beaming bronze, his tears soaking into my shoulder.

And he is right. Blind and legless kids from the ghettos don’t get college educations and shiny accolades, but they should. And that is why I stayed. Because hope and love and rejoicing and redemption can happen to kids like them

Those who know the story behind this story heap a lot of credit onto me for dedicating my last four years to improving Dartanyon’s and Leroy’s lives. Indeed, I have spent thousands of hours removing obstacles from the paths of their dreams, providing for their needs, reprogramming poorly learned habits, exposing new horizons and piling on the encouragement they need to rise above. I drove Dartanyon to the dentist to drill the first of 15 cavities. I taught Leroy how to pay a bill. I sat with Dartanyon at the social security office to apply for disability benefits, something he could have received all his life had anyone submitted the forms for him. I soothed the burn of Leroy’s broken heart and phantom limbs. And through it all, we grew into an eclectic family of our own. We carried on.

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When he made a visit to the eye doctor in 2009, I asked Dartanyon to include me on the consent form so I could access his records if need be. Later that day, I received a call from the office administrator. “I just thought you should know what Dartanyon wrote on his consent form today,” she said, somewhat undone. “Next to your name, on the release, is a space that says ‘Relationship to Patient.’ Dartanyon wrote ‘Guardian Angel.'”

I stayed because we only get one life, and we don’t truly live it until we give it away.

I stayed because we can change the world only when we enter into another’s world.

I stayed because I love you.

You can read Lisa Fenn’s entire article here.