Antonio Dawkins: From homeless to college grad and beyond

first_img (Christian Simpson/Sporting News) (Karisa Maxwell/Sporting News) Antonio Dawkins outside the home his mother used to rent when he was in high school (Karisa Maxwell/Sporting News).With that support, Dawkins was able to perform better in the classroom. His stops at previous schools (Fort Mill was the sixth high school he attended) still affected his overall GPA, but by all accounts he became an excellent student.And football player.When Dawkins first arrived at Fort Mill, he was mistaken for a sophomore because of his size — “He was a little guy,” Susi said — but one-and-a-half years and 30 pounds of muscle later, he’d become one of Fort Mill’s best playmakers. Three times he earned defensive player of the week honors as a senior, putting up four interceptions and eight passes defensed.Those efforts didn’t go unnoticed.—Dawkins remembers how, at first, he refused to get his hopes up he could attend college. He also remembers the moment that fantasy became tangible. He came home one day, well after he’d played his final snap at Fort Mill, to see a large package from Chowan University on his doorstep. He and best friend Tee Muhammad took it inside and saw for themselves: A scholarship offer.They cried tears of joy. And when Freeman found out, she cried too.“It was as if we had won the lottery,” Freeman said.The offers started rolling in: from Limestone College, Ave Maria University, Newberry College, Mercer and Campbell, among others. Football, which was once a distraction for Dawkins, was now a means of escape. But he had another milestone to accomplish first.“For me, graduating high school, for my family I was happy,” Dawkins said. “As far as for me, what was going through my head was, ‘I was supposed to do that. This is a part of the journey.’”The next step saw Dawkins attend Division III Bethany College, a small liberal arts school in West Virginia, to start his collegiate football career in 2014. Two years later, feeling he’d accomplished all he could there, he transferred to Division I N.C. Central. But the setting in Durham, N.C., was too familiar and offered too many distractions and chances to get in trouble. Through a coach’s recommendation, he transferred to play for NAIA school Bluefield College. In the rural setting of Bluefield, W.Va., Dawkins was able to maintain focus on school.While there, he lived in an on-campus, three-bedroom apartment — a far cry from the locker room where he once laid his head. He made the Dean’s List every semester (something he’d accomplished at Bethany and N.C. Central, too). Dawkins, who at one point wondered where his next meal might come from, could choose when and what he wanted to eat (because he hopes to play professionally, it was and still is usually a medley of salmon, sweet potatoes, brown rice and spinach). There was no ride. Most of the time, there was no home. When everyone left, Dawkins would walk to the outdoor entrance of the locker room. He’d enter, close the door behind him, and settle in for the night.SN VIDEOS: Antonio Dawkins — Sink or SwimDawkins hid the fact he was homeless from coaches and teammates at Fort Mill (S.C.) High School — that he had been, on and off, since he was a freshman. He felt comfortable enough around, but not enough to reveal the struggles he faced once the school day ended.“It’s easy to say that I could have gotten help,” Dawkins told Sporting News. “Sixteen, 17, 18, years old, that’s one of the most embarrassing things, to come to somebody and say, ‘Hey, me and my family are homeless, can you take me in?’”When Dawkins first arrived as a junior at Fort Mill in December 2012, his mother, Brandy Freeman, worked a contract job that allowed herself, Dawkins and his young sister to stay in a hotel near the school. When she lost work, she stayed with family in North Carolina — too far away for Dawkins to find reliable transportation. So he’d stay with friends, if possible. It wasn’t always.For a weeklong stretch, he sneaked into the locker room at night so he’d have a place to sleep.“If I can, I’m going to try to go to one of my friend’s houses,” Dawkins recounted. “If not, then I have got to do my normal procedure.”Dawkins no longer has to hide the circumstances of his home life: He’s no longer homeless after leaving Bluefield College (W.Va.), where he played football and in December 2018 graduated with degrees in interdisciplinary studies and mass communications.Dawkins acknowledges he wouldn’t be where he is today if he hadn’t opened up to his Fort Mill coaches and teammates. And, he said, he wouldn’t be here without football. (Karisa Maxwell/Sporting News) Antonio Dawkins had his “procedure” down to a science.He always made sure to shower after football practice. He’d walk outside with teammates before doubling back, saying he forgot something in the boys’ PE locker room. On his way out, he’d prop the door open. Then he’d wait outside, fending off occasional questions by saying he was waiting for his ride home. “I know I’m going to have to work 10 times harder than anybody,” Dawkins said. “That’s all I have ever had to do in my life.”Editor’s note: This story has been updated from a previous version.SN’s Jacob Janower contributed to this report. Antonio Dawkins on the field for Bluefield (Christian Simpson/Sporting News).On the football field, the same tenacity Dawkins showed at Fort Mill helped him become a standout for the Rams, who boasted one of the NAIA’s best pass defenses in 2017 with him in the secondary. In two seasons, he compiled 55 tackles, 17 passes defensed, two interceptions (one returned for touchdown), three fumble recoveries and two forced fumbles.His magnetic personality, competitive nature and hard work drew people to him. But, much like at Fort Mill, he kept the circumstances of his upbringing a secret.“I did not know about his upbringing until an article came out this past summer on him and I could not believe what he had been through because you would not have known that now,” Bluefield coach Dewey Lusk told SN. “Not that he doesn’t want you to know, but he’s not going around wearing that on his sleeve either.”—With Dawkins’ story now out in the open, he hopes to serve as an inspiration for kids going through similarly difficult circumstances, to show “you don’t have to become what you’re seeing or your environment.”That’s the decision Dawkins faced back at Fort Mill: “Sink or swim.” He now openly admits he nearly made the wrong choice.“I really didn’t see a future in too much of nothing,” Dawkins said. “I felt like everything was failing.”FACES OF 2019SN’s young stars to watch in tomorrow’s headlinesSix-plus years later, Dawkins is no longer homeless. He’s engaged. He’s a college graduate. He eventually wants use his education to start a marketing firm, appropriately enough, to create exposure for small businesses.Regardless of what his future holds, those who know him best have nothing but confidence in him. How could they not, after seeing what he has overcome?“He is going to do well. No matter what he gets into, he is going to be fine,” Susi said. “I hate to say having all that adversity made him what he is today, but he made the right decisions. You can’t say that about a lot of guys that would be in his situation.”Said Freeman: “He has such a drive, such a desire to succeed, that I don’t see him failing. … He is going to be great either way.”Dawkins has options going forward. He aspires to play football professionally — it’s gotten him this far — and he knows the inherent difficulty in attempting that feat.In August 2019, Dawkins told SN he’d signed with the China Arena Football League for a season as a player for the Beijing Lions. He contacted SN in January 2020 to say he’d signed with the Osos of the Liga de Fútbol Americano Profesional. The LFA has entered into a non-binding letter of intent to partner with the Canadian Football League, where Dawkins intends to play after the 2020 LFA season.But then, he has faced tougher obstacles. This is merely the next one. Off the field, Dawkins kept quiet, at least about his home life. On it, there was no one louder. He loved the feeling of belonging that Fort Mill’s football team provided him. He loved lining up at cornerback, jawing with the receivers against whom he faced off every day in practice.Those few hours after school were a precious distraction. During the day, Dawkins worried about how he’d get home after school, or where he’d stay for the night. He worried about finding something to eat, or maintaining secrecy about his homelessness.Those problems disappeared on the practice field. But not always, and never entirely.“There were a lot of times I thought about what was going to happen once I got out of practice, where I was going to go and stuff like that,” Dawkins said. “The moments that I started thinking about that during practice, I would have a bad practice.”It was in one such moment that former Fort Mill defensive coordinator Bill Geiler pulled Dawkins to the side.“Coach Geiler told me, ‘Sink or swim,’ and it’s stuck with me since,” Dawkins said. “He just told me, ‘It’s either you sink or swim.’ You be successful or you become like everybody else that you have seen. I don’t have too many options. It’s either I be different, I go to college, I do my thing, or I become a failure.“I told him, ‘I want to swim.’”SPORTING NEWS BEST OF 2018Read our favorite stories from the year in sportsIt was one day after practice that coaches finally got the sense of Dawkins’ struggle. They asked players whether any leaders wanted to address the team. Dawkins stood up in front of teammates to speak, but found he couldn’t. His body was seizing up, betraying the secret he’d tried to keep.Not long after, Dawkins sat down with Geiler and Fort Mill coach Ed Susi to explain his situation.“We were like, ‘What do we got to do to help this kid,’ because he was very proud,” said Susi, now offensive coordinator at Lancaster (S.C.) High School. “That’s a very tough thing for any high school kid to do — to say, ‘Hey coach, I haven’t eaten, I haven’t taken a shower, I haven’t done this or that.’”Coaches made sure to load Dawkins down with protein bars during breakfast and lunch. Before Freeman lost her job, he’d get rides from coaches, or they’d give gas money to teammates so they could drive him home.In the spring semester of Dawkins’ senior year at Fort Mill, Freeman was able to find work again. That allowed her to rent a house just across the street from the school. They sometimes went without power, or water, or heat. It didn’t matter: Together, they called it home.“I was like, ‘Antonio, we got a house,’” Freeman told SN. “He was like, ‘I don’t care what it looks like, yes, yes, we got a house, and it’s right across the street.’“‘I won’t be late for school no more.’”The house was an immediate relief for Freeman and her family, she said, but she can’t discount the role Fort Mill High School played in helping support her son.“I believe his coaches were able to see that we were trying to make it work and they were willing to assist him in every possible way they could. Fort Mill was so great,” Freeman said. “They were a great school. I think that was part of the journey that was supposed to be. It didn’t happen by chance. It was ordained for us to be there.”last_img

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