RALEIGH — It started with shoes and a movie: The shoes a few players on Steve Sterrett's youth basketball team couldn't afford, and the movie about a wealthy family that takes in an impoverished friend who turns into a football star.
Inspired by the movie "The Blind Side," Sterrett, a north Raleigh insurance broker, thought he could do the same thing here, with smaller ambitions but on a grander scale. It wasn't about making Michael Oher a first-round NFL draft pick the way the Tuohy family did, but giving kids a better chance to go to college, whether they were athletes or not.
The movie came out in the fall of 2009. A year later, Sterrett had rallied a group of donors to pay for two kids' education at North Raleigh Christian Academy. He did it alone, without the benefit of any formal organization, but he still has bigger dreams. Now those boys are sophomores, the first in what Sterrett hopes someday will become the "Blind Side X 20."
It's one man's dream of giving back, of offering kids whose stories touched his heart the same opportunities his own three children have.
"I just kind of had this idea, why couldn't you do the Blind Side ... plus," Sterrett said. "Why couldn't you offer kids who are struggling a little bit, get them into circumstances where there would be a lot more people caring for what they would do. Maybe they could take their talent and go crazy with it."
In need nearby
Finding the kids to help was the easy part. They were right in front of him, playing in the Wake County Basketball Association, where Sterrett coaches and serves on the board of directors. Their stories made them candidates; their personalities and potential made them ideal.
Abdul Sesay was born in Sierra Leone and smuggled out of the country as a toddler when his father was executed in a time of civil war. His family came to the United States when he was 5. Guarded at times, Sesay also carries himself with a maturity beyond his years, a young man with the drive of an adult who knows what it's like to lose everything.
At 6-foot-5, Phillip Haynes towers over his peers in the classroom and on the basketball court, where he is starting to get some college recruiting interest. He lives in south Raleigh with his mother, who can get around with a cane, but not easily. He gets up at 5 a.m. each morning to clean the house and cook before going to school, but when he's there, his shy smile shines through.
Unlike Michael Oher, the player adopted in the Blind Side, neither Sesay nor Haynes is homeless. They're both part of loving families, with mothers who would like to do more for them but cannot. Sesay's mother, Mariama, works long hours at the state mental health facility in Butner. Betty Capers, Haynes' mother, has arthritis and fibromyalgia, and her mobility is limited. Haynes occasionally stays at Sterrett's house when he can't get a ride home from games or practices.
From hoops to help
Sesay and Haynes didn't need to be rescued. They just needed a little help.
"As a single mother, my salary's not even enough to pay my bills," Mariama Sesay said. "How much more for a private school? I'm not thinking, I'm not dreaming about it. When it came true, it just took me back to scripture."
Sterrett and former NRCA football coach Bob Winstead had been talking about helping a few kids through Winstead's Generous Community foundation for years. The movie brought things into focus for Sterrett, who has taken on the project nearly singlehandedly, soliciting donations and throwing himself into the boys' lives with the same fervor he does his own children.
"It's so taxing on your heart when you know the kids," Winstead said. "It's not like having an idea, 'We're going to go save the world.' When you have the relationships with kids, man, you want to help them and when you can't help, everybody hurts. It's what we all do. It breaks his heart daily. He's a fighter, I tell you what. That man fights for these kids."
DeShannon Morris started coaching both boys in basketball when they were 11. He helped Haynes with social skills, how to look people in the eye and shake their hand, how to groom himself. He helped Sesay learn to trust people, how to engage when his first instinct was to pull back.
Watching Haynes get picked on in school, watching Sesay withdraw, Morris knew both boys would benefit from a more nurturing environment. Having coached with Sterrett, he knew the "Blind Side X 20" idea was ideal for them. In the fall of 2010, Sesay and Haynes enrolled at NRCA as freshmen.
"DeShannon found this program for me," Capers said. "I'm a mother raising a son. I don't know how to do that. He just took him and did it. I'm still grateful to him. I'm so grateful."
New lives at a new school
The choice of school had as much to do with familiarity as anything; all three of Sterrett's kids are enrolled in the school now. Both of the boys' mothers were deeply religious, so the boys were comfortable in the Christian environment. The idea, Sterrett said, was to get them someplace where they could get some guidance and attention.
It hasn't always been easy: Both boys struggled academically as freshmen, and Sesay in particular suffered from the culture shock of being plunged into an affluent, nearly all-white environment. He heard slights, real or perceived, that Haynes didn't. A year and a half into their high school careers, they both are thriving.
"I just try to take advantage of what I've been given," Haynes said. "I don't think about how it got there. I just thank God for the opportunity."
With the help of a history teacher who took a special interest in their coursework, Melissa Bailey, the two eventually caught up with their classmates academically. Bailey, citing school policy, declined a request for an interview, but Sterrett and Morris both described her as integral to the academic improvement Sesay and Haynes have shown as sophomores.
"A lot of it was maturity," Morris said. "A lot of it was also getting to a point where they realized, 'If I don't get this stuff in order, I'm not going to be able to do the things I love the most.' With hard work, patience, strong love, they're more responsible and stay on top of things. It's an adjustment, coming to a new environment. Most kids at NRCA have been there for years."
Athletics have proven less of an adjustment. Sesay had been playing Pop Warner football for years; he stepped right onto the football team at 5-11, 185 pounds, and became a contributor. This year, as a sophomore, he led the team in rushing and was voted all-conference team, although NRCA football coach Chris Rivera thought he might have had more of an impact at linebacker.
He had company: Because of his height and bulk, Haynes is a basketball player first - he is second on the team in scoring this winter - but he joined the football team for the first time this fall. It proved to be as much of a learning process as anything else he has been through in high school.
When told to get a player to the ground by any means necessary, he'd grab him by the face mask. He once wrapped an opponent in a bear hug, then let him go without tackling him, thinking his job was done.
But as Haynes adjusted, his natural ability started to shine through. In one game, an opposing running back broke through the line on the opposite side of the field from where Haynes was playing. He took off after the back, who had a five-yard head start, and ran him down from behind. "He jumped on him like Spiderman," Rivera said.
Even before they were linked by generosity, Sesay and Haynes became close friends through basketball. Their give and take highlights the differences between their personalities, between Sesay's protective bluster and Haynes' accommodating cheerfulness.
"I can beat him in (NBA video game) 2K," Sesay said.
"We haven't had that match yet," Haynes objected.
"We don't need to have it. We already know you're going to lose. I can beat him in chess."
"We haven't had that match yet, either."
"I can already picture myself beating you. I can picture it. But basketball, he got me."
Haynes laughed and rolled his eyes, knowing Sesay was all talk - although, there's more to both kids than talk.
A quest to help others
When Sesay interviewed at NRCA, he was asked how he saw his future. He responded, "I will try to do my best to please my mom, because she has worked so hard for us." When Morris first started working with Phillip, he asked him, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" Haynes said, "I want to be a good person."
Both Sesay and Haynes receive financial aid from NRCA, which still leaves the cost per student at about $4,000 per academic year. Sterrett gets some money from WCBA's scholarship fund and some from family and friends. The rest comes out of his pocket, which makes expansion impossible at this point.
Last year, in an attempt to raise funds, he brought Sesay and Haynes to a couple cocktail parties. They met with potential donors, told their stories, provoked a few tears from their audience ... and left empty-handed. "We did a bad job asking for money," Sterrett said.
It's hard enough raising the $16,000 it will take to complete tuition for Sesay and Haynes over the next two years. More money would help more kids - not just athletes, but musicians and scholars. As Sterrett looks around, he sees more kids to help, more good kids who deserve a chance at a better life.
"There's another kid I'm trying to get in the program," Sterrett said. "I asked him how he was doing in school, and he said, 'Just trying to stay out of fights, coach.' That's crushing, that a kid's just worried about staying out of fights."