Tears filled Lamel Matthews’s eyes as he tried to say goodbye to his now-22-month-old son, Lamel Jr., on one of the first days of school earlier this fall. Matthews stood inside the UPO Day Care center in the basement of Dunbar High School, and Lamel Jr. began crying hysterically when his father turned his back to head to first-period English class.
Matthews, an 18-year-old Dunbar senior, always had been comfortable in these hallways, as the Crimson Tide’s star quarterback and one of its most popular students. He was a strong student and he always could attract a girlfriend if he wanted to.
But on the first day Matthews brought his son to the school’s day care, the supervisor, Renee Burroughs, remembers seeing the faces of two scared boys — two boys who carried the same name and who were still trying to learn from one another. She watched as Matthews told his son he loved him, and that he would be back after class.
“Lamel was kind of emotional,” Burroughs said.
Matthews often wonders what will become of his future. Not much has changed for him on the football field this fall. For the third straight season he has starred under center, and Thursday morning at Eastern High, Matthews will lead the Crimson Tide into their third consecutive Turkey Bowl, against Anacostia. But in the past 22 months, football — and the interest from college programs such as Temple and Marshall — have become an afterthought.
In that span, Matthews has fathered two children with two women he met at Dunbar, one of whom he still dates. He has wandered in and out of the limbo between adulthood and life as a high school student, and has seen a once-promising future in college football become more questionable by the day.
Fatherhood got off to a rocky start for Matthews. He nearly slept through the birth of his first child, Lamel Jr., born to his former girlfriend Stormi Sheffield in January 2011. Sheffield’s text messages and phone calls initially didn’t wake Matthews that evening, but he eventually made it to Howard University Hospital in time for the delivery. The night spoke to the crumbling relationship between the young parents.
“I wasn’t ready to accept it, being a father,” Matthews said. “I had so much ahead of me at the time, thinking about my future. . . . It hit me hard.”
Matthews was terrified the first night his son stayed with him at his mother’s home in Northeast. Lamel Jr. cried for much of the night, and he watched his young father learn how to change his first diaper. He and Sheffield now split Lamel Jr.’s time between his football schedule and her work hours.
Matthews thought fatherhood would be easy, since he grew up in a household with four younger brothers and a younger sister whom he was expected to care for in a house devoid of a father figure.
But it wasn’t. Matthews started seeing a new girlfriend at Dunbar, Donica Dowery, which strained his relationship with Sheffield. Some nights, he struggled to get sleep, staying up late with Lamel Jr. while trying to balance homework and football practice. His friends often asked him to come out and socialize, and at times Matthews grew angry with his mother, Tyvice, when she refused to look after Lamel Jr., forcing her son to accept responsibility for his own son. She was out of work at the time, having left her job as a cashier at a frozen food retail store a year earlier, and was trying to make ends meet by running a day care out of her three-story home.
In April 2011, during Matthews’s younger brother’s birthday party at the house, Dowery told Matthews she didn’t feel well. He ran to a nearby CVS to buy a pregnancy test and threw the box away coming back. Two lines appeared on the strip, but neither of the teenagers knew what that meant, so Matthews ran back to the pharmacy to look at another box.
Matthews waited two days before he and Dowery, 19, handed Tyvice the positive test. They didn’t need to say anything else. Dowery considered having an abortion.
“The doctors visit . . . I couldn’t do it,” said Dowery, who was 18 at the time. “When they showed me, like, the little picture of him, he already had, like, a little body, little arms.”
Matthews’s second son, Aiden, was born last December, and although he was worried about what all the kids at school would say about him having another child, Aiden’s birth gave him a renewed focus. He got a job at an Indian restaurant near his home and worked out a schedule to watch Aiden every weekend while Dowery worked long shifts at a local hot dog restaurant and caught up on her criminal justice homework from classes at the University of Maryland.
Matthews began to think more seriously about college, understanding that some doors might be shut because he came as a package deal. He and Dowery previously had enjoyed going to the movies alone and taking long walks together, but both got used to life with a child. Aiden split time between the Matthews house and Dowery’s home in Northeast, where she lives with her father, a U.S. Army reservist. For a portion of her paycheck, she drops her son at a day care in Southeast every morning, then heads to school, while Matthews and Sheffield take turns dropping Lamel Jr. off at Dunbar.
Matthews’s father hasn’t been in his life for many years, and his absence left its mark. But Matthews believes the lack of a father figure in his life helped him begin to accept his circumstances after Aiden was born.
“For the fathers, it’s hard for them to step up to the plate,” Burroughs said. “Him coming in there . . . owning up to being a father and being involved with his son just adds more credibility. I really respect him for that.”
Matthews visits Lamel Jr. every day for lunch, to play with him, feed him and put him down for his nap before he heads to third period. And even though Aiden is across town at another day care, Matthews has tried to be equally centered with his youngest son. He has missed school and football practice at times this fall to stay home with Aiden. When the 11-month-old had difficulty breathing earlier this month, Matthews pushed to check him into Greater Southeast Community Hospital for a weekend. After Dunbar beat H.D. Woodson two weeks ago, many of the players went out to celebrate after the win. Matthews went straight to the hospital that Saturday night, eventually bringing his son back home. He spent Sunday and Monday monitoring Aiden’s progress.
Earlier this week, Matthews returned home from a late-night football practice and was greeted by two healthy and loud boys, in a living room decorated with his athletic trophies. Tyvice got an extra bar of soap from her next-door neighbor, and Matthews bathed his sons and eventually dressed them for bed. It had been another long day that began at the day care, and Matthews had bags under his eyes.
“I need to think ahead to the future, and think about what I want to do in life,” Matthews said. “It no longer just affects me, it affects both of them.”
He still doesn’t know what his immediate future holds. He plans to find a job in the coming days, and is looking for one that pays more than the $7.25 an hour he made at his last one. He struggled on his first ACT test attempt in October, and will take it again soon, hoping a better result will help him get a college football scholarship. Matthews has his eye on a junior college program in Mississippi, but he likely doesn’t have the luxury to move that far away from his sons.
He doesn’t know if his father will come to the Turkey Bowl, and neither does Tyvice. She knows it’s the biggest game of her son’s life, though. So she will bundle up her two grandsons, Aiden and Lamel Jr., and she will take them to see their father play high school football one more time.