Homeless no more

Football pulls Morgan State's Roderick Wolfe off the street, away from drugs, into the limelight

September 14, 2007|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,Sun reporter

Bundled in thermal underwear, a wool sweater and a heavy coat, Roderick Wolfe cranked back the seat in his old Toyota hatchback and closed his eyes. Sleep and morning would come soon enough.

The 17-year-old Edmondson High athlete was oblivious to the snow that fell around him and the cold that gripped his bones. He was homeless, drifting from house to house, neighborhood to neighborhood, staying with friends and relatives, teammates and coaches.

For four nights in the winter of 2002, the inside of that hatchback was Wolfe's bedroom. He would park in a secluded spot where no one would bother him, turn off the ignition and let the world drift away. He had lost his father to AIDS two days before his 12th birthday. His mother, also lost to AIDS, was unable to help. She would die by the time Wolfe was 19. The car represented independence.

Somehow, he got through it. Somehow, the journey has brought him to a better place. Despite the dead ends and dark undertones of his youth, Wolfe has become one of Morgan State's best football players, and one of Baltimore's more improbable success stories.

"I kind of put myself in the position to be like that," he said. "I wanted to be a man at age 17, I wanted to feel like a man. If it was a hardship to go through, then so be it."

Wolfe had so many addresses growing up in Baltimore, it takes him 30 minutes to retrace the trip. He was forever on the move. After the four days in the car, he went to stay with his grandmother in Highlandtown, but that was short-lived, too.

The transformation is striking:

As a homeless senior at Edmondson High, he was a big-play wide receiver and explosive punt returner in 2002, scoring a total of 13 touchdowns.

As a young man who was constantly around the drug scene - his father sold drugs and his mother was a crack addict - he was able to avoid serious trouble and has served as a role model for high school players at Edmondson and Northwestern.

As an athlete who was not much of a student, he applied himself at Morgan and is on schedule to graduate in May with a sociology degree.

If it weren't for football and Morgan State, Wolfe, 22, knows his life would be much different.

"I'd be dead or in a jail or selling drugs, one of the three," he said solemnly. "Without football and school, man, I'd be out here doing something crazy."

Without the help of several friends along the way, he wouldn't be where he is, either. Morgan quarterback Byron Selby, who played at Dunbar and came from a single-parent family, can appreciate Wolfe's journey better than most.

"I thought my situation was bad," Selby said. "But him, it's two, three times as bad [as mine]. I told him I'm going to do everything I can to help him stay focused and get to where's he trying to go. And he knows that's from the heart."

Dante Jones, an assistant coach at Edmondson in 2002, cringed as he thought about the path Wolfe had to follow.

"Roderick went through one of the most difficult situations you can be in," Jones said. "He's overcome everything."

It wasn't all bad for Wolfe growing up in Park Heights, however. Until he was 8 years old, he said, he felt rich. His father, Jerome Wolfe, had been a member of the Black Panthers. He remembers the family home on Wylie Avenue having African pictures on the walls, statues in several rooms, antique cars in the backyard and "exotic animals everywhere."

The lifestyle was affluent. The problem, of course, was that it came from drug money.

"My father was a real good man, but he sold drugs," Wolfe said. "It isn't something he really wanted to do. It isn't something he planned. But it put food on the table and it helped him help other people [in the neighborhood] like he really wanted to."

It was during that time that Deborah Ann Williams, who lived with Jerome Wolfe but never married him, became addicted to crack. Before long, she would go missing for days - sometimes she'd be in jail, sometimes on a binge. In her absence, Wolfe's older sister, Syeeda Morsley, now 28, cared for him.

He was on the move when his father contracted HIV, living with a grandmother in Fayetteville, N.C., and an aunt, Betty Williams, and his sister in Baltimore. After his junior year at Edmondson, he lost contact with his five brothers and sister for about two years.

He didn't mind being on his own.

"I'm the type of person who's going to keep an ace in the hole," Wolfe said. "Even though I didn't really have a place to stay, I always had a lady friend that might cook me a meal, another lady friend that might wash my clothes, a homeboy that might let me come over and chill a little bit. I didn't have places to stay, but I had places I could go."

Curiously, Wolfe said these were some of the best times of his life. There were days he didn't eat more than a bag of chips, many more days when he didn't have money to buy even that.

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