Hot Dawg

Anthony Lawston's beginnings were a blueprint for failure. But for his spirit and determination, the Eastern Technical High School superstar's story might have been quite different.

January 21, 1999

Tell me where do you go when you got no dough, "There must be a way out of here. "But I've got to find some peace of mind, "There must be a place that I can find." -- Garnet Mimms and the Enchanters

On the sidewalk near Big Boyz Bail Bonds and the liquor store, a few men stand in a splash of sunlight and speak in reverent tones of the high school kid everyone calls "Dawg."

It's a nearly discarded neighborhood, a tiny chunk of Middle River in eastern Baltimore County, the kind of place where police removed two public telephones because dopers were using them to run their packages.

For now, despair is missing from the voices of the regulars.

"Ah-ight, the boy's gone to the top," says a guy wearing two hats against the winter.

An older man, way tired around the eyes, remembers a newspaper picture of Dawg trotting into an end zone. "Young blood got it," he spouts. "Ain't nobody got it like that boy, yea. Nobody."

Some of these lost souls actually do know Dawg, but most merely pretend, riding on a most delicious dream. Many remember four years ago when Dawg lived a few steps away, in the grim Village of Tall Trees apartments, then one of the most crime-ridden spots in the county, today a place officials want redeveloped. Dawg ran nightly training sprints past the hookers and drug hawkers.

But now Dawg's life is elsewhere. Now he is Anthony Lawston, football superstar at Eastern Technical High School. Poised to graduate with honors, he was one of the most recruited players in the nation last season -- offered full scholarships by the University of Wisconsin, University of Southern California, University of North Carolina, University of Maryland, Penn State and Georgia Institute of Technology, better known as Georgia Tech.

Now he is Anthony Lawston, standing wide-eyed before a locker bearing his name on the sparkling campus of Georgia Tech, flown to Atlanta for the Big Sell. Hanging there is a gold and white football jersey emblazoned with his name and number -- 80. If Lawston signs with Tech, the recruiters tell him, he will play football, share a gleaming dormitory room equipped with a personal computer and cable, and earn one of the most coveted college degrees in the nation. Baby, this is pure heaven.

Flying back, Lawston's mind drifts to the future. Staring at the white puffs of clouds below the jet's wing, he sees a prestigious engineering degree, an NFL career Jerry Rice, Keyshawn Johnson, Randy Moss, Anthony Lawston.

A most delicious dream.

Back on the corner, the men stop talking about the "Dawg" and drift away in pairs, alone. They head back to the dying neighborhood. They have their own dreams to chase.

Earned his place

Anthony Lawston never forgets he has carefully sidestepped the abyss that has sucked so much young promise from the world. Anything in his possession has been earned.

The heartbreak associated with his private odyssey runs deep, and when the subject arises, Lawston hides behind a practiced smile. At times, though, he unveils a hard edge; the 6-foot-3, 220-pounder has crushed the face masks of four high school opponents with clean but furious hits.

When Anthony was a child, there was nothing but the depressing surroundings of Cocoa, Fla.'s, "Little Vietnam," named for its violence and drugs. The crack boys in the housing project took over from the heroin merchants in the early '80s, unleashing regular firefights for control over the street market. Anthony's mother found herself smack dab in the middle of it.

Phyllis was 16 when Anthony was born. She had fallen hard for the crack pipe, and kept having babies -- Steven, Sedric, Nakaita and Carey. She went from using to dealing. There was always a crowd at her apartment, something not unknown to the local police.

It's difficult, but Anthony recalls the day in 1987 when he, a 6-year-old, accidentally walked into his mother's bedroom. Through a thick veil of smoke, he saw his mother with her friends getting high, cooking up cocaine rocks. Acting on "instinct" -- that's the only way Anthony or his mom can explain it now -- Anthony gathered up his siblings, carrying the youngest, Carey, in his arms. They headed across busy Route 520 and seven blocks away to the house of his grandmother, Joann Smith.

"I didn't even know my kids were gone," Phyllis says today, sadly. "I went to look for them in their rooms and they weren't there. Those days, it was crazy, so crazy."

Smith was away at work that day. She came home to find the five children in her living room.

"I was pulling my car up my driveway and a neighbor told me she saw the children walking across the street, up past the ABC Lounge, and I said, `My god' and ran inside," Smith recalls.

Smith moved the children into her home. She enclosed her carport and put in two double bunk beds for the boys. The little girl slept with one of Smith's own small daughters.

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