From the streets to the field, Chicago teen beats the odds

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by ASHLEY GOUDEAU / KVUE News, Photojournalist DEREK RASOR and editor ROB DIAZ

Bio | Email | Follow: @AshleyG_KVUE

kvue.com

Posted on November 8, 2013 at 11:36 PM

Updated Saturday, Nov 9 at 4:38 PM

AUSTIN -- The movie "The Blind Side" captured the story of NFL player Michael Oher, who escaped a life of violence and poverty to one of safety and privilege.

That same scenario played out at Westlake High School in Austin.

At 6'4" and 320 pounds, it's hard to miss Stefan Beard. On Friday nights, you can spot him on the sidelines at Westlake football games as number 78. You won't see him playing on the field, but not because he lacks skill.

"I think he has the ability to be a good player," said Westlake High School head football coach Darren Allman.

Beard doesn't play because of a decision he made six months ago to leave a life of violence behind for peace in Austin.

"The lifestyle there is like, if you make it past 30, you're blessed," Beard said. "I didn't really have that much to think about.

Beard is the youngest of four children. His dad died when he was three years old, and when he was nine, his mom lost her job after being diagnosed with cancer, leaving his family struggling.

"Money, food, housing, like, stuff that you really need," said Beard, who was raised on the west side of Chicago, a city with one of the highest murder rates in the country.

"Everybody was pretty much in a gang," Beard said.

Schools weren't exempt from violence.

"Riding a bus wasn't actually safe for you, because the bus that you ride has to go through another neighborhood and it stops. And people can be waiting at the bus stop and stuff can happen," Beard said.

Even the classrooms were dangerous.

"Every day someone's fighting in the classrooms," Beard said. "Someone could start fighting, and the next thing you know, the teacher is just, like, throwing her hands up. Like, 'I can't even teach.'"

By the eighth grade, Beard followed in his brother's footsteps by joining a gang.

"I carried a gun, of course," Beard said. "It was basic to use. It's like, this is what we've got to do, really, if we want to go back home. Leaving school, we were going home one day and someone pulled up and just started shooting."

Beard was walking with his best friend, who was killed.

"I really don't want to talk about it," Beard said.

Beard's freshman year, he found solace on the football field with players from rival neighborhoods.

"The people were like, we don't care what neighborhood we're from, we're just going to try to win some football games."

Football became his escape.

"I see opportunity of me just going out and showing people what I'm really about," Beard said. "I know once I stopped playing sports I was going to go back to the streets."

Football led to basketball and to Coach Louis Adams, who saw something in the charismatic teen. He called his friend, former Chicago resident turned Austinite Philip Dorr.

"He said, 'We need to get him out of here,'" Dorr said. "He said, 'He's a great kid.'"

Trusting his friend and his faith, Dorr agreed to allow Beard to move in with him.

"What are the odds of an old white guy from rural Iowa meeting an inner city black kid in Chicago and living in Austin, Texas? You know, God is a pretty awesome God," Dorr said.

With his mother's support, Beard decided to detour off a road to nowhere and moved to Austin to complete his senior year at Westlake High. At the time, he didn't know it would mean giving up football. But once he was there, the UIL ruled Stefan ineligible to play.

"Stefan's situation was mostly based on the residency rule, which is, and it came down to really, did he have any other choice but to come here?" coach Darren Allman said.

Despite his disappointment, Beard saw the bigger picture.

"I've been through even harder stuff than this, just not to play football, and I'm still at a good school that I can still go to college," he said.

Stefan plans to go to Baylor University to play football on a full scholarship. He said he'll major in business and someday return to Chicago to help youth there realize their circumstances don't define them.
 

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