Fated Family

The Incredible Story that Brought Them Together,
Lisa Fenn, Dartanyon Crockett, and Leroy Sutton

Lisa Fenn grew up on what people might say was the right side of the tracks in Cleveland, Ohio. She lived just eight miles from where Dartanyon Crockett and Leroy Sutton attended one of the worst inner-city public high schools, Lincoln-West. Fenn went on to become an Edward R. Murrow and six-time Emmy Award-winning feature producer during her 15-year career at ESPN. She interviewed every big name in sports, including, Michael Jordan, Tom Brady, and Derek Jeeter. But little did she know that God would bring her back to the other side of those tracks in 2009 for the biggest interview of her life.

“You have been sent here today by God you know,” said Torrance Robinson aka Coach Torry, the head wrestling coach at Lincoln-West High School. Robinson had a deep faith, and since Lincoln-West couldn’t provide wrestling uniforms, he had the wrestlers wear t-shirts that on the front read Mathew 18:20 “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” On the back, those t-shirts noted the Lincoln-West Wolverines’ Prayer: “We pray not for easier lives, but to be stronger men.”

Every day Robinson walked the track of the Lincoln-West gym and prayed for the wrestlers or “his boys” as he called them. That year he had prayed hard, specifically for Dartanyon Crockett and Leroy Sutton, “Because they good kids. Real good kids,” Robinson told Fenn. He went on to explain that after high school there wasn’t anything out there for them. He smiled slyly at Fenn, “And then ESPN walks in the door? That ain’t no coincidence . . .”

As Fenn proceeded to speak with Crockett and Sutton, disabled and impoverished varsity wresters, she realized that their walls would be harder to tear down than she had expected, especially Sutton’s. “I built walls around myself . . . inside those walls, I felt safe,” said Sutton who lost both his legs in a train accident at age eleven. Fenn, a strong woman of faith herself, “left the house each morning looking for glimpses of what God was doing in the world and the chance to be a part of it.” Inspired by God and the image of Crockett, blind since birth, carrying 170-pound Sutton up the stairs of Lincoln-West’s bleachers, Fenn decided to “carry on” with their developing kinship. This became the title of her memoir due out with Harper Collins August 16, 2016.

Though Sutton was unengaged in the one-sided conversations from Fenn, even putting in earbuds as she spoke, Fenn didn’t give up on him. After watching him slay demons and dragons from his video games in the dim lit basement of his grandmother’s home for four days straight, she told him she’d “rather be his friend than report his story.” Sutton finally broke his silence. “I got a new game, want to see it?” he asked. Over the next five months of filming Fenn realized those walls he built had less to do with his train accident and more to do with the perils of growing up in and out of trap houses that fed his mother’s addictions.

(l-r) Dartanyon Crockett, Lisa Fenn and Leroy Sutton

(l-r) Dartanyon Crockett, Lisa Fenn and Leroy Sutton

The same was true for Crockett when he was sent to live with his drug-dealer father after losing his mother at the tender age of eight to a brain aneurysm. “I started embracing silence. . . It was the only friend I had,” recalled Crockett. That was until he started wrestling and got to know Sutton. “When Leroy told me his story about the train accident, I laughed,” Crockett chuckled. Sutton added, “He laughed instead of pitying me. Laughter is a great ice breaker. I started laughing too and we were friends from there.”

“I had little reason to hope until my senior year when a series of small acts started to happen,” explained Sutton. “Dartanyon put me on his back and I started to trust him as a friend.” And those pieces of trust eventually led to the bigger picture in the puzzle God was putting together. Crockett and Sutton graduated high school where only forty percent of students graduated that year. On top of that, they were the first to graduate high school in their immediate families. Sutton didn’t just want to graduate; he wanted to walk across the stage wearing prosthetics. He accomplished his goal, with Crockett at his side, and Fenn in the audience cheering them on. “All this love has created an imbalance in the universe,” Crockett commented on their trio.

This love caused Fenn to raise the funds necessary for putting both gentlemen through college, to pay Sutton’s Paralympics training in powerlifting, and Crockett’s Paralympics training in judo. Sutton graduated college and took a job offer as a beta player for Electronic Arts, a video gaming company, and placed tenth in Malaysia’s 2010 Paralympics for powerlifting. Crockett is close to graduating college with a degree in social work and received the bronze medal in London’s 2012 Paralympics for judo. He also won first place at world championships which qualified him for the 2016 Paralympics to be held in Rio de Janeiro. Fenn sums it up best, “You change the world when you enter into someone else’s world.”

After Sutton and Crockett spoke at The Cambridge School in San Diego, Risen caught up with them one-on-one to learn more about their disabilities, sports, and this unique friendship.

Interviewed for Risen Magazine in San Diego California

Risen Magazine: Dartanyon, you were born with optic nueropathy, but do you remember how old you were when you became legally blind?

Dartanyon Crockett: I’ve been legally blind since birth. Some people with optic neuropathy go blind later in life, but my vision has always been severely nearsighted like this. I can see shadows and movement though. What I have is degenerative, so some people’s vision gets worse. I feel lucky mine hasn’t gotten worse all this time. I look at it like a challenge God has given me. He’s seeing how I’m going to react to this challenge and whether I’m going to let it make me into the person I am today, or let it break me.

RM: What was life like for you as a blind child growing up in the rough neighborhoods of inner-city Cleveland?

DC: I was a huge Mama’s boy. I loved my Mama. She was always singing. Everything she did made me happy. She was my rock, my cornerstone. Since I was only eight when she passed, I don’t remember many things she said to me. But I will always remember her actions and the kindness she showed towards me. I was the sixth of seven children, and shortly after giving birth to my youngest sister, my mother died. She died of a brain aneurysm. I’ll never forget the day, because it was the most blunt way you could ever hear about someone dying. My father was the one who had told me. It was after school and he said, “Come here and sit down, I have something to tell you. Your mother is dead.” I froze. My heart felt like it stopped. I didn’t feel any emotion in his voice, no compassion, not even a hint of sympathy. It’s not the way you should get news broken to you as an eight-year-old kid. I wanted to cry my eyes out, but I couldn’t, because I was numb. My life had become a spiraling nightmare I could not awake from.

Soon after, I went to live with my father. My siblings and I had different fathers, so we had to live in separate places. My father was an addict and his habits went from bad to worse. We moved six times in three years. We lived next to a crack house, and I found out my father was involved with that. I was even homeless at times. I missed coming home and feeling safe. Most of all, I missed my mom. I went from having warm meals every night to not eating for days. But my family knew a gas station owner. He’d give me food sometimes or sometimes I would do odd jobs for food. Life for me was quiet and lonely.

People had written us off. We didn’t like being judged for our circumstances. No one expected much of us, so we didn’t expect much of  ourselves.

RM: What drove you guys to stay on the straight path, to choose wrestling and education over other temptations or negative role models?

Leroy Sutton: Well, those sort of role models either ended up in jail or dead. You know, I don’t want to be in any one of those places. So, why not go the good route and get my life together? I volunteered for safety patrol that year I had the accident. I was actually on my way there when it happened. Later I found a sort of family through wrestling. I enjoyed the camaraderie.

DC: Yeah, pretty much what he said. I made my decisions based on what people around me did. I saw what their decisions led to. A lot of times it was kind of taking the easy way out to skip school or do drugs. I saw where their lives headed, and I didn’t want to go in that direction. I wanted something better than what I was given. I didn’t want to be a product of predestination just because of where I was born. I graduated high school with a B average, even though I was blind. My brother would always remind me about our mom. “She’s watching,” he’d say.

I didn’t see anything special in myself though until I realized I had a talent in sports. When I won my first wrestling match, I thought, I can not only win on the wrestling mat, but I can win at life. By my second year on the wrestling team, I became captain, and this was amazing for me. I was the guy everybody on the team looked up to. I didn’t play sports as a child, but I started powerlifting in high school to avoid going home after school. That’s how I met Coach Torry. He came in the weight room and asked, “Kid, you know how to wrestle?” “Uh, I don’t,” I answered. “Don’t matter. Come with me,” he said. I had never been approached like that growing up, so I said yes. Then sports changed my life.

But I was [originally] held back by my own anger. When I was younger I was so focused on my own resentment and anger, the resentment that I held toward my father for being an addict. I was mad at the hand that I was dealt. I was mad that my mother was taken from me. I was mad at God for letting me suffer as long as I did. It wasn’t until [then] I realized I had to make a conscious decision to forgive everyone and everything that I felt had wronged me. Being able to forgive really freed me to see all the opportunities that were coming in for me, all the love and support that was coming my way. Like the love coming from Lisa and Leroy, it was because of them I felt like anything was possible. With Lisa and Leroy in my corner, I felt like I could conquer the world.

RM: You mentioned the guys you competed against for the judo Paralympics had been training since they were in grade school, but you started at age 18. How did you handle the pressure of training?

DC: Yeah there was a lot of pressure, because I came out with no experience of the sport. The first few months I was getting my butt kicked every day. Then six months into it I broke my ankle and was out for eight months, so that put me back a lot. But it took many nights of me reminding myself that [in the past] I went a couple days without eating. I know how to survive if I need to. I’ve been homeless for certain periods of my life. Walking into a [training room] and getting thrown around is easy [laughter]. So I looked at where I’ve come from and what I’m doing now, how incredibly lucky and happy I am to even be in this situation, to pursue a goal like this, to even entertain the idea of having dreams likes this. So it became easier and easier as I was able to have conversations with myself and say, “You’ve fallen harder. You’ve gotten up from worse. You’ve struggled for longer. You’ve been through worse pain. This is easy.”

RM: How is judo training for Rio Paralympics going?

DC: Besides a couple concussions, it’s going good [laughter]. Things are really starting to pick up. Monday through Friday I lift from 8 to 10 a.m. and train from 4 to 7 p.m. On weekends I do my cardio sessions. My social life comes and goes during training. I can sneak a hang out here and there. My roommates are my good friends. I compete against judo wrestlers of all different visual impairments for training, so some guys see better than me. But the best guy, Rafael Silva, is fully blind. He is Brazilian and has won four championships. Outside of the Paralympics, I also compete against guys who aren’t disabled. Basically, the only difference between para judo and regular judo is we start out touching hands. And I plan to qualify for the regular judo Olympics in 2020!

LS: [laughter] You better qualify, because I want to go to Japan [more laughter].

Risen Magazine: Leroy, what was life like before your train accident and how did it change after you lost your legs?

LS: My dad left when I was three. My favorite uncle died when I was nine. My mom was an addict, and she frequently chose to buy drugs over paying the rent or bills. I went to ten different schools in twelve years. Because we moved from house to house, friends weren’t common for me. I never had a sense of belonging or felt settled. When my mom was sober enough to deal with me, I was a bother. We lived in a trap house, a house where drugs were sold. I was not a stranger to gang activity.

After the accident, I was a trifecta; disabled, black, and poor. People had written us off. We didn’t like being judged for our circumstances. No one expected much of us, so we didn’t expect much of ourselves. My brother was with me when the accident happened. He is four years older, and he still gets shook up about it, even though it doesn’t bother me anymore. After talking to me, people forget I have a wheelchair. My friends don’t even notice it [smiles]. My mom began disappearing for longer stretches of time. She wasn’t equipped for the care I needed at that time. So I ended up living with my grandma.

People marveled and called me an inspiration, but I felt more like a conversation piece. At school I wore a smile. I didn’t want to be a bother to anybody, but it was really a mask so people didn’t really see how destroyed I was. I didn’t want pity. I didn’t want to depend on anyone or put that on my older brother either. After a couple weeks being home from rehab, I taught myself to climb the counters and get bowls down from the highest shelves. I found refuge in video games, like Donkey Kong and Mario. Those were people I’d become for awhile, just to escape my own world, because I understood theirs. Now I’ve decided I’d much rather change this world than walk on it.

Dartanyon Crockett and Leroy Sutton take part in CAF (Challenged Athletes Foundation.)

Dartanyon Crockett and Leroy Sutton take part in CAF (Challenged Athletes Foundation.)

RM: How is your new gaming job going?

LS: I’m a gaming beta player. I look for bugs or glitches. I can get inside the walls and beat the bugs. The first time I played Mario, I saved the princess in 45 minutes [laughter]. I thought I’d grow up and work at Wal-Mart or Game Stop. I thought that those were my only options. [Now] I get paid to play video games [for a living]. Dartanyon and I have such busy schedules now, so we talk through Play Station.

DC: I’m like, “Hey, how are things? Good. Okay, bye.” [laughter.]

RM: Why did you decide not to use a wheelchair for a period of time?

LS: When I finally built my arm muscles up, I did not want to be in my wheelchair. That’s why I’d move around on my arms. I noticed my arms getting so strong, but then I got fat [laughter]. That’s when I needed my wheel chair [more laughter]. But there were no ramps at home. I flipped the wheelchair over my head, over the stairs. I still had to use my arms to get around.

RM: So why did you start wrestling and how did that impact you?

LS:  I actually got tricked into doing it by my friend Bob. He had a car and was like, “I’ll drive you to every practice.” But as soon as I started, he quit. He was just trying to get me to take his spot. Yeah, and I didn’t want to end up like the people around me growing up. Plus I had always played sports before the accident. [Now] I trusted Dartanyon as a friend. I had Coach Torry to pray for us. He had a hard life himself. Prayer was all he had, and he devoted it to us. Coach Honsy [Justin Hons, Lincoln-West assistant coach] helped us with our school work, so we would stay eligible for the team. Even beyond the wrestling season he stayed and helped us with all of our work. I trusted that he would stick around through our success. And Lisa [Fenn] stuck around for four days in silence with me, just to prove that she wanted to be a friend.

For the longest time I didn’t know I had a story until I watched it [on ESPN]. I felt like my past was a wasteland marked with pain and misfortune. I didn’t see what Lisa saw. I wanted to succeed, but I was insecure. Both my mind and my body had been hurt too many times, too many people had walked out on me. I learned that fractures of the mind and the heart hurt more than a hundred broken bones. Lisa took a huge chance on me and believed in me. She loved me unconditionally for really no reason at all, and she continues to talk to us almost every day. Let’s just give her a ‘round of applause [laughter].

DC: [laughter] Every time she calls, it’s with good news. It’s like having Christmas every other week.

He could help me see. I could help him get around the wrestling mats easier than a wheelchair could. It went on from there.

RM: When did Dartanyon start to carry you?

LS: I met Dartanyon when I moved to Lincoln-West High School my junior year. We would say “wussup” in the halls, but that’s about it. During wrestling my senior year is when he started to carry me.

DC: We didn’t have a wheelchair bus for the first wrestling tournament, so I carried him. There was no big dramatic scene like in Bambi where the dad steps up and says, “I’ll take the boy,” [laughter all around] No, it was subtle and quick. I got him on the bus and we went to his first wrestling meet. He could help me see. I could help him get around the wrestling mats easier than a wheelchair could. It went on from there.

RM: And Dartanyon says you were the only one strong enough to wrestle him?

LS: No. He was the only one strong enough to wrestle me [laughter].

RM: I hear you call each other brothers. Do you ever fight like brothers sometimes do?

LS: We actually don’t fight, not at all. We only had one disagreement.

DC: Yeah, it wasn’t even an argument or anything. I ended up being right though [laughter]. But it was on a topic he doesn’t really like to talk about, so it doesn’t count.

LS: [smiles] It takes a lot more energy to be angry at someone, than to crush that squabble. Instead of me being angry all the time and taking it out on other people, I just forgive them for my sake. Instead of weighing in on that negative energy, which starts to eat you alive, it’s better to get rid of those squabbles [rather] than let them consume you.

DC: It’s easy to love; just [takes] a few kind words. Make sure you tell someone they’re special and that you love them.

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