Dartanyon Crockett and Leroy Sutton are high school wrestling teammates and best buds. Dartanyon is legally blind and Leroy lost both legs in a train accident. I found their story of faith, friendship, trust and triumph profoundly moving and inspiring.
Perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave.
Rainer Maria Rilke
The video above and companion story below are courtesy of ESPN reporter Tom Rinaldi and producer Lisa Fenn.
“Leroy, touch your toes.”
Leroy reaches his arms out in front of him in mock effort, and says, “They’re at home.”
And then, the boys laugh.
He didn’t know they were gone.
Staring down at the sheets of his bed, the morphine starting to fade, Leroy Sutton was still numb, but he had a feeling something was wrong.
“It was when I tried to sit up,” Leroy said, remembering that day nearly eight years ago. “I pulled the covers up, and that’s when I figured everything out.”
It was Dec. 7, 2001, the day that shaped Leroy’s body, and his life.
He was 11 years old at the time, walking to school with his brother along the Wheeling and Lake Erie railroad tracks near his home in East Akron, Ohio. A freight train approached, and Leroy got too close. His backpack got caught on one of the passing cars, and he was pulled beneath the wheels.
“I didn’t even look down,” said Leroy, now 19, recalling the first moments afterward. “I was just staring at the sun the whole time. I wasn’t trying to look down because that’s when I would have panicked.”
The paramedics who arrived within minutes saved Leroy’s life, but the doctors could not save his entire body. At Children’s Hospital in Akron, his left leg was amputated below the knee, his right leg below the hip. He knew what had happened, but didn’t understand what he’d lost until a day later, when he lifted the sheets, and looked down.
As the memory came back to him, his voice dropped and his head dipped.
“The whole time I was in the hospital, I just asked, ‘Why? Why?'” he said. “Every night I could not go to sleep … because when I tried, I’d end up hearing the sound of a train.”
Leroy left the hospital a month and a half later. He endured long, difficult hours of rehabilitation. He accepted that a wheelchair would be part of his life but was determined to make it a small part.
“I did not want to be in my chair,” he said. “I had to build my arm muscles up so I could move around. … I move around on my arms a lot.”
That ability to move — to lift and flip and twist his body — led him to a place few expected, and into a friendship few could have foreseen.
“Leroy, don’t forget your shoes. …”
Others look down, duped. Leroy just smiles.
“You just can’t see them. …”
In January 2008, midway through his junior year in high school, Leroy transferred to Lincoln-West High in Cleveland. By the time he was a senior, he was a familiar sight (his wheelchair flying down the hallways) with a familiar refrain (his laughter booming off the lockers). When he decided to join the wrestling team, just as he’d done at his previous school, the coaches welcomed him. They knew his story and were eager to tap his strength.
“I told him, ‘You’ve been hit by a train. What else, what kid, what wrestler, what can stop you?'” said Lincoln-West coach Torrance Robinson.
At Leroy’s first practice, his first partner was the only other wrestler on the team powerful enough to handle him. Dartanyon Crockett was Lincoln’s best and strongest talent. He was 5-foot-10 with muscles bunched like walnuts, and already a winner in multiple weight classes. But when Leroy hopped off his chair and onto the wrestling mat, the competition was more than Dartanyon expected.
“He was a complete powerhouse,” Dartanyon said, recalling their first drills together. “I never wrestled anyone as strong as him. We pushed each other to our limits, and we didn’t let each other give up.”
Hour after hour, month after month, practices connected them in ways that went beyond the gym. They went everywhere together: between classes, on team bus rides, at each other’s houses — both dialed in to a wavelength few others could hear. They spontaneously broke into songs only they knew. They performed imaginary superhero moves they invented. They laughed at jokes and words only they understood.
Yet, their simplest connection was the one everyone saw and no one anticipated. Not even Leroy and Dartanyon know exactly when, or how, it first happened.
“One day I’m coming out of my office,” said Kyro Taylor, the school’s power lifting coach. “I look over to the corner of the gym where the mats were at, and right up the steps I see Dartanyon with something on his back, and the closer I get, I’m like, ‘Is that Leroy?’ And it was Leroy on his back. Dartanyon’s carrying him.”
It was not a one-time ride.
Dartanyon lifted Leroy onto his back and carried him to and from every match, on and off every bus, into and out of every gym, all season long. At more than 170 pounds, Leroy was not a light load. Dartanyon never cared, and the carrying never stopped.
“Most of the time we wouldn’t get a wheelchair lift, so I would have to carry him on the bus, take his wheelchair apart, put it on the bus, then carry him off the bus,” he said. “And then, into the building and up the stairs.”
Dartanyon lifted Leroy onto his back for the playing of every national anthem, and carried him down the bleachers before each match. Yet as inseparable as they were, a team unto themselves in a way, they also shared something greater than their sport.
That’s because the teammate who carried Leroy on his back all season long knows about challenges himself.
Dartanyon Crockett knows, because he’s legally blind.
“I can see clearly now, the rain is gone.”
Leroy listens, then corrects him: “But you can’t see.”
“So? I can still sing.”
And they pick up the song together, twice as loud.
Born with Leber’s disease, a condition that causes acute visual loss, Dartanyon, 18, has been severely nearsighted his entire life. He can barely make out the facial features of a person sitting 5 feet away.
“I’m basically blind compared to someone with 20/20 vision,” he said.
As a boy, his father watched him bump into the same table corners and fumble for the same objects over and over again, uncertain what was wrong. He received the diagnosis just after his son started elementary school.
“I wanted to grab him and help him, but I wasn’t allowed to do that, because the world isn’t like that,” Arthur Harris said. “I never let him feel sorry for himself.”
“I did feel like something was wrong with me because I was completely different from everyone,” Dartanyon said. “Like I was … some type of freak.”
Yet as he grew older, he not only accepted the condition but also adjusted so well to his inability to see that those around him often were unaware of anything until he told them.
“I asked him, ‘Are you serious?'” said Lincoln-West teacher and assistant wrestling coach Justin Hons. “Nothing about him ever gives you the hint that he has a disability. The way he carries himself, he doesn’t ask for anything.”
Still, there are signs. At times, his eyes dart back and forth as if ricocheting between objects. Boarding the city bus for the ride to school, he asks the driver to tell him when his stop is near, unwilling to trust his glimpses of the passing landscape. In class, often he places text just inches from his face to read. On the wrestling mat, although his moves are quick and bold, he sees little more than rough shapes lunging toward him.
Yet his own view of his limits remains focused and clear.
“I’m just seeing it as a challenge God has given me and how I’m going to react to this challenge,” he said. “Let it make me the person I am, or let it break me.”
Other trials in his life could have broken him long ago.
After his mother died when he was 8, he moved in with his father, Harris, who struggled to take care of himself in the midst of an addiction to drugs and alcohol. There were times when Dartanyon scavenged the house for food, but found none. For most of his time in high school, he had no steady place to call home.
“I let him down,” Harris said. “It was terrible for him.”
Through it all — being evicted from their apartment in Lakewood, the nights Dartanyon covered his father with a blanket after he’d passed out — Dartanyon stayed in school, stayed on the mat and supported his dad’s effort to stay clean. Harris now has been sober, while working two full-time jobs, for more than a year.
That Dartanyon would pick someone else up was no surprise. He learned to carry a father before he ever carried a friend.
“He made a lot of mistakes in the past, and he’s learned from them,” Dartanyon said. “It’s made our bond stronger than I could fathom. He’s a great father.”
When the words were related to Harris, he dropped his head and began to cry.
“Above all, I’m glad the love never left,” he said. “I’m glad that stayed.”
Dartanyon and Leroy move down the hallway after class.
“I am Darth Cripple,” Leroy says.
“I am Blind Vader,” Dartanyon replies, and they turn a corner; their laughter is all that’s left behind.
Friends joke. They jab. They can be the least flattering of critics and the loudest of supporters. So it is with Dartanyon and Leroy. They mock each other and themselves, every chance they get, in ways others never would dare.
There’s a sure sign of a pending joke. The pace of speech slows, and the tone becomes a notch too earnest. Leroy, in particular, has mastered the pattern.
“People look up to me sometimes,” he said from his wheelchair. He waits, then says, “Well, usually, they look down to me.” His laughter comes first, and easiest.
“They constantly make fun of each other’s situation, each other’s disability,” Hons said. “But they do it publicly, because they’re not afraid of their disabilities.”
The one place they don’t laugh is in competition. Entering gyms all season, one atop the other, each cared as much about the other’s match as his own, with as much invested in the other’s outcome. Every time Dartanyon wrestled, Leroy sat on the edge of the mat, serving as unofficial coach and chief encourager.
“It’s like having my brother there,” Dartanyon said.
There was plenty to watch. Competing at 189 pounds in Ohio, one of the most wrestling-rich states in the country, Dartanyon relied more on strength than technique, preferring to overwhelm foes than to outpoint them. Nearly always the aggressor, he rarely waited for another’s move, for a simple reason. He might never see it. So he struck first, and usually, firmest.
He went 26-3 in his senior season, securing the league championship in his weight class.
“It’s amazing,” Robinson said. “As phenomenal as he is, and he can’t see. How does that happen?”
As for Leroy, who’s unable to generate the leverage essential in wrestling, leverage gained by using the lower body that he doesn’t possess, the matches were tougher, and the wins more difficult. He expected nothing less than 100 percent from his opponents, and if he sensed any pity, he reacted with anger.
“Pity?!” He spits the word. “It’s more than likely that I’ll punch you in the face than sit here and cry.”
Leroy would bounce on his hands and often flip his way onto the mat before matches. Then he would scream out. Then he would slap his hands down as hard as he could, making a thunderous echo, his smile dead, his arms wired. If some stared when Leroy entered the gym atop Dartanyon, even more stared as he competed.
Wrestling in multiple weight classes this season, Leroy won nine matches, the majority by pinning his opponents. But in every match, regardless of the outcome, he left a message. He never said it, but his coaches understood.
“Watching him wrestle,” Robinson said, “has taught me how to stand in areas of my life that I wouldn’t have wanted to.”
Dartanyon and Leroy walked across the stage and received diplomas at graduation. Dartanyon is enrolled at Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland for the fall. Leroy plans to attend Collins College in Tempe, Ariz., to pursue a career in video game design.
“Did you guys do the homework?” the teacher asks.
“Dartanyon tried,” says Leroy, “but he couldn’t see it.”
“So Leroy ran over,” says Dartanyon, “and read it to me.”
It was the final night of the school year, graduation night. The people inside the theater building of Cuyahoga Community College were there for a celebration more than a ceremony, to pay tribute to an accomplishment that meant more here than in most schools in America.
The majority of students at Lincoln-West High School never earn a diploma. This year, the school had a graduation rate of roughly 40 percent.
On that early June night, the graduates gathered on a stage, their gowns flowing and their tassels poised to swing, each ready to mark a point in a journey.
Leroy had dreamed of this night for a long time.
“My goal,” he said in May, “is to actually walk across the stage.”
No one on the stage that night understood that goal more than Dartanyon. That’s why, when Leroy’s name was called, Dartanyon stood, too, right beside him.
What would you do for a friend, one you carried on your back all year long?
You’d put him down, and walk beside him, which was exactly what Dartanyon did.
He helped Leroy stand — upon new prosthetic legs he was fitted for just weeks earlier — then moved alongside him as Leroy crossed the stage, step for step, eye to eye.
When Leroy stopped, put out his hand and grasped his diploma, the audience rose and delivered a standing ovation.
After the photos were taken, and the music stopped, and the tears dried, the two sat in the theater, side by side.
“As long as I can remember,” Dartanyon said, “I’ve been carrying him from point A to B to C. Graduation was the first time I finally got to walk beside him.” He paused. “It was a privilege. It was an honor.”
Leroy’s eyes moistened, and he looked up.
“It meant so much to me,” he said, “to know I have a friend who was there to catch me if I stumbled.”
There was no stumble.
There was no pun or punch line, no joke or jab. There were just two friends, sharing one moment, and there they lingered, smiling, in silence.
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