It is 3 in the morning in July, and the kid they call “Lucky” steps off a Greyhound bus in Phoenix, carrying his life’s belongings in two duffel bags and wearing a broad smile.
No more couch surfing, no more going hungry for the 17-year-old senior running back.
Lakel (pronounced La-kell) Davis is embraced by mentor Derwin Page, finding a sense of stability in his return to Alhambra High School, rejoining teammates and coaches, who for a while in the middle of last season didn’t know what happened to him.
After rushing for 763 yards and 16 touchdowns in the Lions’ 5-0 start, Davis vanished, telling nobody where he was headed. Personal problems, he said, led him to hop on a bus to Longview, Wash., where he lived with his grandmother, enrolled into R.A. Long High, and led that team in rushing the rest of the football season.
For eight days, Alhambra coach Frank Lautt and his assistants searched for Davis, looking into homeless shelters, asking for help from police.
“He just disappeared out of nowhere,” said senior receiver/defensive back Jesus Velazquez, one of several teammates who lent a couch for Davis to sleep on last year. “We were all worried about him.”
Davis was finally found on Facebook.
“I was kind of embarrassed, but I didn’t want everybody to know what I was going through,” Davis said. “I feel like I let the team down. We could have made the playoffs, if I hadn’t left.”
Alhambra lost its last three games and just missed the state playoffs.
Bumpy roads are found everywhere in the county, kids trying to find a break in life, trying to rise above difficulties out of their control.
They aren’t all happy endings like in “The Blind Side,” a kid plucked from an impoverished upbringing by a well-to-do family and eventually becoming a first-round NFL draft pick.
But for kids like Davis, there is a chance when a community rallies around him.
Alhambra is among 10 Phoenix Union High School District schools. Alexis Torrence-Clermont, developer of PUHSD’s Homeless Student Services, said that between 500 to 1,000 students a year are served by the district’s Homeless Education Program, also known as Students In Transition, established in 2001 from the No Child Left Behind Act, or McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Act that is a federal law, ensuring immediate enrollment and educational stability for homeless children.
Torrence-Clermont said that because the PUHSD is a Title I district, it has access to federal dollars to support the programs and students with services that include free meals, transportation, paying class fees, school supplies, personal hygiene and connecting into a sport or club.
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Each campus, Torrence said, has access to resources within its community. There are partnerships with St. Mary’s Food Bank, United Way, Tumbleweeds, Safe Place, Arizona Department of Economic Security and the City of Phoenix.
The McKinney-Vento Act defines homeless children as “individuals who lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence,” Torrence-Clermont said.
“It is a community raising a child,” she said.
But once in awhile, a kid will get lost, like Davis, who was too embarrassed to let people in last year.
“We do everything we can to support them,” PUHSD athletic director Zach Munoz said. “Lakel, in particular, he has overcome a lot of things. That’s a success story in itself.”
Top high school football story lines: Big game for Lakel Davis, Alhambra
‘A better life’
Davis was greeted with open arms in his return to Alhambra.
Page, a former truck driver who works security at Alhambra and helps coach the football team, picked Davis up from the bus station in July and opened his home to him, making sure he had clothes for school, food on the table and a bed to lay his head each night.
“He was on the streets, so I’m here,” Page said. “I said, ‘You need a place?’ He said, ‘Yes, sir.’ I said, ‘My house is your house.’ He said he wanted to come back to Alhambra.”
Lautt didn’t hesitate to let the 5-foot-10, 170-pound Davis come back. Lautt believes Davis has Division I college football talent and a classroom work ethic that tells him that he wants to make it beyond high school. He made good marks in Lautt’s class last year.
“He was doing good in school,” Lautt said. “All of the coaches are the same, we have a lot of compassion for the kids. We care about him. He knows that.”
Page said he was happy that his grandmother was there, while he was gone.
“Being away, a 16-year-old, not knowing what to do, he did what he felt he had to do,” Page said. “He contacted his grandmother. We were happy he was there with his grandmother and not in a shelter. We missed him, just as a person. He is amazing on the field. He’s amazing off the field. To keep himself going in life, it’s very amazing.”
Davis said he originally came to Phoenix from Memphis, Tenn., with his aunt two years ago when she needed to get away from things happening at home.
After she decided to return, Davis stayed, finding Alhambra teammates welcoming him into their homes.
“After my dad got incarcerated, my mom wasn’t doing so well,” he said. “I wanted a better life.”
But Davis would keep to himself, not open up to teammates, too proud to even ask for food. Sometimes, he said he would go three days without food.
Alhambra fullback Josue Batson, another teammate Davis sometimes stayed with, said Davis was respectful but quiet.
“He never really said anything,” Batson said. “He’s a very good kid. Everybody was looking for him, especially his coach.”
‘All too common’
Tempe football coach Brian Walker said within days before the start of this season a family took in a player after it was discovered he was having trouble at home.
“Sad to say, but this is all too common in inner-city schools,” Walker said. “I make sure all of my athletes are safe. As broad as that may seem, focus for me is on the things that can easily be taken for granted, such as a student-athlete needing a ride home, food to eat because there’s none at home, or, worse case, they don’t have a home.”
Last season, Tempe went undefeated in the regular season, its running game bolstered by a kid who was on the streets, Devonte Dorsey, before Tempe High alum Rob Davis took him in. Dorsey led Tempe in rushing with 976 yards and 10 touchdowns.
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“I would train with him, and he’d do two more laps around the track, be dog tired, but he’d do it,” Davis said. “He’s got some pride. Once he told me his situation, I was like, ‘Where does it come from?’ I’ve seen other kids on the team, and he had that passion. He wanted to make it out to be successful.”
Dorsey, who has been working since he was 16, said with transitioning help from Child Protective Services, he moved into an Arizona State dorm with a burning desire to make the Sun Devils’ football team. He sent his highlight tape to ASU offensive coordinator Mike Norvell on Twitter and said he plans to walk onto the football team in the spring.
“You try to balance your dreams with playing ball and the reality of paying bills that were forced upon you way before you were 18,” Dorsey said.
Walker said he has been part of teams where the “family” mantra was only lip service.
“Myself, like other coaches around the nation, really stress the team being a family structure,” he said. “I strive daily to impress upon our student-athletes that the greatest gift to receive is the gift of giving.”
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Davis has carried the ball just 11 times in the first two games, both blowouts, but he is averaging 25 yards a carry with four TDs.
He said he wants to make up for abandoning his Alhambra teammates last season.
He said his grandma told him to go back if he felt it was right, as long as he had a stable place to stay.
There have been no issues this school year, Page said. He stays on top of his studies. He cooks meals for himself. He does his laundry, makes his bed and makes plays on Friday nights.
Davis comes into Friday’s Division III home showdown against Laveen Cesar Chavez as the leader teammates rally around.
“It was hard to find myself,” he said. “Sometimes, I would starve myself. But I would get through it.
“Football gives me a home. Being in the weight room, working out, it gives me a place to go. I’m happy. I feel stable. This where I want to be.”
Reach Obert at firstname.lastname@example.org or 602-460-1710. Follow him at twitter.com/azc_obert. Listen to the Which Wich High School Football Preview Show every Friday from 6-7 p.m., on NBC Sports Radio AM 1060 with Dan Manucci and Richard Obert.