“He took an active role in his own intervention,” said psychologist Bruce Purnell of Higher Hopes to the Outcomes, a youth mentoring organization in the District and Prince George’s County, who has worked with Austin since 2005. “The whole idea of transformation — he’s become the ideal. He’s really evolved into the best part of himself.”
Still, with his grades now intact and colleges such as DePaul, Saint Peter’s and Seton Hall showing interest, Austin is never that far from flashbacks — and fear.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re 7 foot 4, and 300” pounds, Austin said. “A gun bullet will go through you.”
* * *
Austin’s mother, Tandra, remembers when her son would spend so many hours roaming the neighborhood during long play sessions that he would report home only for a drink or to eat. That suddenly changed on Feb. 9, 2005.
At about 7 p.m., Austin was playing three-on-three basketball on the playground behind his Benning Terrace Complex apartment building when gunfire rang out, apparently intended for some “gang-bang” boys hanging out nearby.
After Austin dashed home, he discovered that he had been grazed in the back and had two holes in his upper right arm, requiring an ambulance ride to Children’s Hospital.
A few days later, he was on an outing with one of his sisters, Latavia, to buy a video game to soothe him after the shooting. At a bus stop on Benning Road, three men emerged from behind bushes and put a gun to Latavia’s head even after she had surrendered her prized North Face jacket. They took her coat and her cash. Demetric fled.
“After the robbing happened, I said to myself that I would never go outside again,” Austin said softly on the bleachers at Springbrook after a recent Saturday morning practice.
Other than school, Austin’s life was mostly four walls, TV, video games and maybe some homework. Stepping into the hallway outside his apartment door was like entering a haunted house, first at Benning Terrace and then in the similarly intimidating Barry Farm neighborhood, where a government agency moved his single-parent family. Austin recalls hearing gunfire many nights.
“I was scared for my son’s life,” Tandra Austin said. “Not only my son’s life, but the rest of my kids.”
Friends tried to coax Austin out, assuring him that they would keep him safe. If his buddies were able to lure him, Austin had a rule: He had to stay within a five-second radius of the front door of his building, two steps and one dive from peril.
He got a test run one day when the gunfire he thought he heard turned out to be a firecracker.
“I was that nervous, that paranoid,” Austin said. “I thought every time I go outside someone is going to try to rob me or shoot me. If I saw a gun shell or bullet, my heart would drop.”
* * *
Months after those incidents, Austin moved in with his paternal grandparents, Otha and Eunice Blount, in Northwest Washington, near Coolidge High School. Their home was a haven. Austin sang in the choir at New Southern Rock Baptist Church. He was baptized there. “Got to know Jesus,” as he said. But he was still scared.
“Even when he was with his grandmother, he still didn’t leave their sight,” said Tandra Austin, who in 2009 relocated to Montgomery County, where she lived for a time at Greentree Shelter, a transitional home for families in need. “He still stayed in the house.”
Building relationships with strangers was not easy. Settings mattered. “He was apprehensive about being certain places at certain times,” said Austin’s uncle, Tony Perry.
Looking back now, Austin, 17, and his mother think by sequestering himself indoors, Austin might have saved himself from falling into a violent lifestyle himself.
“Either you become so hard and callous that you’re able to survive, or you withdraw,” said Purnell, whom Austin now refers to as “Uncle Bruce.” “It’s a crossroad: Do I withdraw, or am I going to fight, and if so, what does this fight look like?”
Still reserved and cautious, Austin has regained some of his spirit at Springbrook, particularly in the past year, when he got serious about his grades. His dismissal from the team last year might have cost the Blue Devils, who finished 22-3, a chance at a fourth straight Maryland 4A title.
“I think I really hurt them,” Austin said, “so I have that down in my heart.”
Austin began to form meaningful relationships with many of his Springbrook teachers last winter. He was transferred into Wellington Uzamere’s geometry class, where with constant prodding he earned a B the second semester.
To make sure Austin stayed on top of his school work, Springbrook Coach Tom Crowell sent him to Spanish teacher Joyce Amatucci, who serves as an academic adviser for many Springbrook athletes.
“He got, I don’t know, quadruple-teamed by anybody we could get on his case,” Amatucci said. “He cared enough inside to do it. He had that or he wouldn’t have gotten this far. . . . I guess even though he was a victim, he’s decided not to be one.”
At various times, Austin has received help from basketball coaches and team parents for things ranging from rides to dental work. But he does not take them for granted, which is one reason they are so eager to help him or provide what amounts to a personal taxi service.
“He’s one of the type of kids where Christmas Day he’ll text you, ‘Merry Christmas, all you do for me means so much to me and my family,’ ” Springbrook assistant coach Darnell Myers said.
Assistant coach Rob Harmon, a 1965 Springbrook graduate, takes Austin out on odd jobs to help him earn some money. They mow lawns, rake leaves, shovel snow, clean out garages, do basic carpentry.
“He’s the best worker I’ve ever had,” Harmon said. “And he’s almost the only one who calls me regularly looking for work, too.”
On a couple of occasions during those chores, Austin said a sensation has swept over him: Wow. I’m outside enjoying what I’m doing, and I’m not scared at all.
* * *
For a player considered to be “a man among boys” by one of his coaches, and “the man around the house” by his mother, Austin is still insecure when he feels susceptible to violence, whether that threat is real or imagined.
He avoids being out after dark, particularly alone. Seeing police officers comforts him. He keeps his head on a swivel “to make sure nothing will happen to me.” If he hears a car creeping up behind him? “You’ll see me fly down the street,” he said.
One time after he did that, friends showed up at his door a few minutes later. “Why’d you run?” they asked him. Then he tells them his story.
“He always wants to make sure he’s safe and that others are safe, too,” Springbrook senior forward Charles Taylor said.
Austin is striving to become the first in his five-child family to graduate from high school — he has two older sisters and two younger. He brings tapes of his games home to watch with his mother, who does not make it to many. She is amazed that the boy on the screen, the one throwing his weight around underneath the basket and averaging 16.3 points and 14 rebounds, is the same frightened son who peeked out the window wondering what his messed-up world would throw at him next.
“To be honest, I never thought this lifetime would ever come,” Austin said. “I never thought that I’d make it to get college offers
. . .
or even be on the varsity team being a leader. I never thought I’d ever make the honor roll.
“I was a scared child, and right now, I’m a happy child. Happy as can be.”