'Carry On' Tells The Story Of Unlikely Bond Between 2 Athletes That Changed 3 Lives
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
It was February of 2009, and Lisa Fenn was working as a features producer for ESPN. Her dad knew she was always looking for a good story, so when he saw a write-up in his local Cleveland paper about two high school wrestlers with an unusual bond, he told her she should check it out. She did, and she was awestruck by the friendship she found between these two young men, Leroy Sutton and Dartanyon Crockett, each working to overcome the incredible roadblocks life had thrown in their way.
Leroy lost both his legs in a train accident when he was just 11 years old. Dartanyon is legally blind and, when Lisa met him, essentially homeless. Neither young man let any of that stand in their way when it came to competing on and off the mat. Lisa has written a new book called "Carry On" about Leroy and Dartanyon and how her own life has been changed by these two young men.
All three of them join me now from the studios of Colorado Public Radio in Denver. Hey, you guys. Thanks so much for being with us.
LEROY SUTTON: Thank you for having us.
DARTANYON CROCKETT: Thank you for having us.
LISA FENN: Thank you.
MARTIN: So Leroy and Dartanyon, I summarized how Lisa first heard about the two of you, but when did you first hear that there was this ESPN producer cruising around who wanted to do a story on you? And when you met her, what were your first impressions? And I'll start with Leroy.
SUTTON: I had previous experience with a media type, so I wasn't really accepting. But our coach did come up to us, and he stated that we should be open to talking to her. But I was still kind of, like, reluctant to do so.
MARTIN: How come?
SUTTON: With my previous experience with media, it was just kind of they'd come up, do their job and then disappear.
FENN: I think after Leroy's accident, he got a lot of coverage from local and some national media, and a lot of the coverage sort of painted him as this inspirational kid who had stared down the mighty locomotive, been overcome. But in fact, in his personal life and his home life he was, you know, very much languishing in the effects of trauma and of poverty. And it wasn't quite as shiny as people were led to believe by the media coverage. So I think what he's come to understand was that in some ways, as a vulnerable 11-year-old boy, he felt used by that.
MARTIN: Dartanyon, how did you feel about the situation? I mean, did you share that skepticism that Leroy had?
CROCKETT: Yes and no.
CROCKETT: For me, it was like, about time. I've been working hard at this wrestling crap, I'm a good athlete, and about time someone wants to ask me questions about something and put me on some sort of sports network. And so I kind of jumped at the idea of being interviewed by Lisa. I'm like, oh man.
MARTIN: Dartanyon, you were already on the wrestling team at Lincoln West when Leroy came on, right?
CROCKETT: Mm-hmm (ph).
MARTIN: So what was your reaction and that of your teammates when you heard a guy with no legs was going to join?
CROCKETT: I was, like, one of the guys who was quick to wrestle him because everybody else was like, I don't know what to do with that.
SUTTON: I don't know what to do.
CROCKETT: We just worked ankle picks last week and coach, you can't - you're not giving me anything to work with here (laughter).
MARTIN: So this whole interaction, your relationship with Lisa, started because she saw this picture of you, right? The two of you.
MARTIN: Dartanyon carrying Leroy.
SUTTON: Me riding my mighty steed.
MARTIN: You on the back of Dartanyon.
CROCKETT: Black stallion.
MARTIN: So this was a thing that started happening. Dartanyon, you carried Leroy up and down stairs, inside gyms, on and off buses that your team would take to meets. So it was clear to you, Lisa, probably from the beginning - right? - that these two shared a unique kind of friendship. But when did you realize that this was an altogether different kind of story? Because by this point in your career as a producer for ESPN, this was the thing you did. You did, like, these kind of very emotional, inspirational stories about athletes. So how did you start thinking of this in a different way?
FENN: The day that my father alerted me to that picture - in the photo, there was just something different about it to me. When I finally saw them in person, I was even more moved and touched by - and though they joke around a lot, just the mere act of carrying one another, there's a tenderness involved in that. There's a vulnerability involved in that. That's not sort of the norm in teen urban culture. But, you know, as I spent time in their school - and it's a hardened place. There's - it's - it is. And so to see this expression of compassion and this expression of self-sacrifice, it just stood out to me as really extraordinary.
MARTIN: The film came out in 2009. Lisa, can you describe the response?
FENN: It was overwhelming in the best possible way. Within a few minutes of it airing I started receiving emails from viewers, and they were enamored by Leroy and Dartanyon. They were really touched by their expression of friendship, and they were moved to want to help them. Most of them were offering money to get them to college. They were offering new ramps and wheelchairs and scholarships and really just an overwhelming number of opportunities and ideas to help these two into sustainable futures.
MARTIN: We should say in total, you got pledges for more than $40,000. Is that right?
FENN: Yeah, it was close to $50,000. And then on top of that, there were three really generous families offering to pay their college tuitions themselves.
MARTIN: You talk about this book - the subtitle's "A Story Of Resilience, Redemption, And An Unlikely Family." You did start feeling a kind of maternal sense towards these two guys.
FENN: Yeah, I definitely did for Dartanyon, who lost his mother when he was 8 years old, and for Leroy, who has had difficulties with his mother stemming from his trauma. They both had a hole in their lives for a mother figure, and I just feel really blessed that they let me have that kind of relationship with them.
MARTIN: Fast-forward, a lot of things have changed. You got Dartanyon in touch with the Paralympics. And Dartanyon, you have switched your sport. I don't know if you still wrestle, but now you are into judo. You won a bronze at the 2012 Games in London, which is awesome. Congratulations for that.
CROCKETT: Thank you.
MARTIN: And soon you're going to head to Rio to compete in this year's Paralympics, right?
MARTIN: And Leroy, you've graduated from college. You're working as a videogame tester. I guess I would ask both of you - Dartanyon first - how have your expectations for your life changed since you met Lisa?
CROCKETT: It put me in a position to where I - if I don't have a certain resource, I know how to find it. If I don't have certain people in my life who know the answers to the questions that I have, I can find the people who might. And it gave me tools to create my own avenue of wherever I wanted to go in life.
MARTIN: And Leroy?
SUTTON: The way that I've changed is I'm more open to people. When we speak at schools, I'll spend a lot of time talking to some of the kids just to get a sense of what they're going through.
MARTIN: Lisa, when you look back, how have these two young men changed you?
FENN: On a personal level, they are my family. I don't know that they've changed my family, but they've become my family. And I also have a 6-year-old son who's adopted, and he's African-American. And he believes Leroy and Dartanyon - he believes correctly that they are his big brothers. So much so that for his sixth birthday, he asked for a wheelchair for his birthday...
FENN: ...Because he wants to be like his brother Leroy. And that's beautiful to me, that race, that disability has normalized in my family setting because I think it's a reflection of what we've - what we want for our society.
MARTIN: Lisa Fenn. Her new book is called "Carry On: A Story Of Resilience, Redemption, And An Unlikely Family." We were also joined by Leroy Sutton and Dartanyon Crockett. Thanks to all three of you.
SUTTON: Thank you.
CROCKETT: Thank you.
FENN: Thank you, Rachel.
MARTIN: And Dartanyon, good luck in Rio.
CROCKETT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.