From homelessness to approaching a college degree, Antonio Dawkins has come a long way
Antonio Dawkins would emerge out of the dark, slide the rock he'd used to crack open the locker room door out of the way, and slip into the building.
He had to be quick. The Fort Mill High School janitor sometimes doubled back and Dawkins couldn't get caught in the locker room showers.
As short as Dawkins' illicit late night showers were, he savored them. There was no hot water, or air conditioning, or sometimes even electricity waiting for him at home. Most of the time, there was no home at all. Dawkins attended one of the area's wealthiest high schools but he spent a large portion of his time at Fort Mill homeless.
"We were just put in a lot of crazy situations, man," Dawkins said earlier this week from Atlanta.
Dawkins' living situation is much more stable these days. He stays in a three-bedroom apartment surrounded by the calm, green mountains of northwest Virginia. He plays football for Bluefield College and is two semesters away from graduating.
"To see what he's doing now, it's awesome," said close friend Nick Chambers. "It's very uplifting, puts a smile on my face."
Pin-balling Dawkins' future in a different direction would be a huge accomplishment. He attended a different school every year until eighth grade. His mother, Brandy Freeman, did her best to keep the family above water, but a series of abusive relationships, bad luck and lost jobs meant the water was always rising higher.
Dawkins' family moved all over the region in search of stability. From Shelby to Charlotte, back to Shelby, back to Charlotte, to Columbus, Ohio and then Fort Mill, and later, Atlanta.
Dawkins' mom and step-dad bought a Charlotte house in 2009, a high point in an otherwise roller-coaster existence. Dawkins, a sixth-grader, had his own room for the first time in his life and he and his mom painted it orange, green and white, the colors of the Miami Hurricanes football team.
"We had always lived in the projects, in apartments and duplexes, stuff like that," Dawkins said. "When we got that house, I thought we were like the Jeffersons, moving up, man. We had a little backyard. It wasn't big, but it was something."
By 2011, that solid ground had crumbled. Brandy and her husband divorced. Brandy lost her job, and then lost the house. The family splintered in search of places to live and Dawkins ended up in Shelby with an aunt. He spent his sophomore year of high school at Crest but was unable to play football because of poor grades and behavior problems.
By the end of his 10th grade year, Dawkins, his mom and two siblings had moved to Fort Mill. Brandy's coworker offered to let them stay in one of her houses in Baxter Village for a while, as long as Dawkins mowed the grass. The electricity was intermittently on and off and Brandy bought her family gallon jugs of water so they could bathe and brush their teeth.
"She always fought to make things different for me and my siblings," said Dawkins. "Sometimes, it didn't always work out, but she always found a way to make it through those situations."
Dawkins didn't get into detail but that arrangement was short-lived. From there, things fell apart. The family alternately spent time with a great grandmother that lived in Charlotte, at local homeless shelters, or at a motel near Carowinds. Dawkins was enrolled at Fort Mill High School by that time, and trying to keep his family's turmoil a secret.
Dawkins' stint at Fort Mill High School -- one and half years -- was the longest he stayed at any grade school. He made close friends and excelled on the football field, all while keeping his homelessness secret.
That was no easy accomplishment. Dawkins occasionally stayed in Charlotte with his great grandmother, Madlen Dawkins, but unreliable transportation often made her house unreachable.
Madlen Dawkins passed away during her great grandson's junior year of high school, a huge blow because it ripped away another strand of his already shredded safety net. After his great grandmother died, there were multiple nights that Dawkins -- after taking his secret showers at the school -- curled up in the Fort Mill High locker room and slept there for the night.
None of Dawkins' teachers and coaches knew about his troubles. A few friends found out, including a kid he still calls his brother, Tee Muhammad. Muhammad and his mother, Shallie Bryant, moved to Fort Mill from Baltimore for Muhammad's ninth grade year and when he met Dawkins roughly two years later, the pair immediately bonded. Muhammad was the hyper talker, Dawkins more laid back and focused. Their strengths offset each other's shortcomings.
"Tee's always bringing kids home," said Bryant. "We're not even rich but apparently he thought we were. You have all of these kids living in $500,000 houses up on Lake Wylie and they all want to come to my house and eat pizza rolls! But I was struck by Antonio because he immediately reminded me a lot of Tee. I just remember thinking this little boy is trouble because he is so charming."
There was one time Muhammad asked his mom if Dawkins could spend the night. Bryant brushed off her son's request but he approached her again later, more earnestly, explaining that his friend had nowhere to go. Dawkins stayed the night, and within a few weeks was living with Muhammad and Bryant full-time. Lacking a permanent address, Dawkins considered dropping out of school to help support his mom, but Fort Mill High administrators and Bryant worked together to establish Bryant's home as his official residence so he could stay at the school.
"Kids should just be able to be kids," said Bryant. "They were just going through some hard times. I never asked him about it, I just made sure that he wasn't hungry and that he had the things he needed."
Bryant took Muhammad, Dawkins and several others on a college visit, an experience that infected Dawkins with the urge to play college football. He set up more visits by himself and showed college coaches Muhammad's highlight reels as well as his own, even though Muhammad was already veering toward a future in entertainment. They were football teammates and roommates at Bethany College (W.Va.) in 2014, and Muhammad, who never fully applied himself academically in high school, finished the year with a 3.2 GPA, which Bryant attributed to Dawkins' pushing.
Muhammad passed away in 2015, his drowning in Lake Wylie a knee-buckling loss from which Dawkins and Bryant still haven't fully recovered. Bryant knew her son's carefree approach to living could get him in trouble -- she could imagine him walking right into a busy intersection without looking -- and she always asked Dawkins to look out for Muhammad. "I got you, Ma," he would tell her.
"You never saw one without the other," said Bryant. "And something changed with Antonio when Tee passed away. He doesn't talk about it, really at all."
But there were other friends that still remain close. Football teammate Nick Chambers had Dawkins over to his house constantly. Chambers' father offered to give Dawkins a ride home from Fort Mill football practice one day. They dropped Dawkins at a motel, where he said his uncle was staying while he was in town visiting. Chambers figured out that Dawkins' immediate family was living in the motel when he again dropped Dawkins there after a practice a few more times. Chambers also found his friend asleep in the Fort Mill High locker room early one morning.
"You could see it on his eyes some days," said Chambers. "It broke my heart, to be honest."
Dawkins routinely stayed at Chambers' home, the four-bedroom house in Tega Cay allowing Dawkins to sleep deeply without stress, or freezing or sweating. Chambers' mom paid for Dawkins to attend a football camp, which helped him get recruited. Just as important, Chambers kept his friend's secret.
"I couldn't really lie anymore because nobody's family comes in town for a whole month," Dawkins said.
Finally, a little white house directly across the street from Fort Mill High offered Dawkins and his family some shelter from their storm. They didn't always have power, air conditioning, heat or water, but at least there was a roof. And Dawkins didn't have to make up stories to tell his coaches when no one came to pick him up after practices or games.
Football was mostly a respite from personal turmoil.
Fort Mill High football coaches Ed Susi and Bill Geiler got an inkling that something was wrong in Dawkins' personal life after a steamy summer workout. Susi asked the team's captains, including Dawkins, if they had anything to say before concluding the workout. Dawkins stepped forward to speak, but his throat tightened and no words came out. Confused, he laughed. But then his hamstrings twanged and other muscles in his body went rigid.
Dawkins had barely eaten during the two previous days and he was badly dehydrated because the water was shut off at home. The training staff hooked him up to intravenous fluids for the next few hours, and over the next few months, Susi and other coaches gave him money or took him to the grocery store. But had his body not betrayed him, Dawkins' coaches may have never known what was going on.
“They’re embarrassed," said Geiler. "This day and age, it’s just not cool. You’ve got to have that chip on your shoulder, but Antonio never had that. He never had that cocky, ‘I’m better than everybody’ kind of thing. He would just go about his business, practice hard. If he gave up a touchdown or would make a pick, he never got the highest of the highs or the lowest of the lows, because he was living the lowest of the lows. Giving up a touchdown, that was nothing.”
Far from a source of stress, football offered Dawkins an avenue to escape his unstable life. When he got his first scholarship offer in the mail from Chowan College, he found the package in the mailbox of the little white house. Dawkins and Muhammad hustled inside and ripped open the mail. They cried together when they read the letter.
Dawkins produced a strong freshman campaign at Bethany College, playing well enough that he had Division I interest when he decided to transfer. He moved to N.C. Central, but found himself back in a busy big city with too many potential traps. One of his coaches knew another coach, who knew another coach, who helped Dawkins land at Bluefield, a small school at the base of quiet, green Appalachian hills.
Dawkins graduated high school with a 1.6 grade point average, but, with his own life stabilized, he's made the Dean's List every year of college. More importantly, he no longer worries about where he'll sleep at night, or if he'll eat. He has a meal plan that allows him to chow down three times a day in the school's cafeteria, a convenience that probably none of his teammates appreciate more.
"I just love being in college, man," said Dawkins. "It just feels good to not be in a situation where I'm like, 'what am I gonna eat today? How am I gonna eat today? How we gonna do this, or do that?' All I've got to do is go to the cafeteria, or call one of my teammates or coaches. It just feels real good."
Dawkins is slowly emerging from a 20-year-long traumatic fog. He rarely spoke about his journey previously, but several people close to him have urged him to speak up about it in the event that it might help someone else enduring something similar.
"I told myself I was going to put my pride aside and let my story be heard," he wrote in a text. "Your environment or upbringing doesn't define who you are, it's your fuel."
Dawkins has more fuel than any one person should have.
One brother was murdered. Three other brothers are in, or have spent time in, prison. Dawkins never knew his biological father, and attended six different high schools. He said his mother grew up in similar circumstances. As Bryant, said, "this boy's life could have went a completely different way."
Next May, Dawkins will become the first in his family to graduate from college. He dreams about playing in the NFL, but by simply graduating from college, he'll have broken a painful, repeating loop. Still, for a person that's survived so much turmoil this far, that's undoubtedly burdened with mental and emotional trauma he may never escape, Dawkins is leery of what life could throw his way in the coming months.
"It's really sink or swim," he said. "That's what one of my coaches told me when I was at Fort Mill. I had gotten into a little trouble and he pulled me to the side and said, 'look man, you come from a rough past, you got into a lot of trouble in the past, if you want to go to college this is your opportunity. Sink or swim.' And that's stuck with me the whole time. Even now, that's something that goes through my head.
"I can't make stupid decisions. The odds are already against me. I was supposed to be like how my brothers, or how my pops ended up. That's just always been in my head."