A Push in The Right Direction
Michael Hendrickson Had It in Him. Ted Leonsis Helped Bring It Out.

By Darragh Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 20, 2005

Ted Leonsis has shooed a group of men from his top-floor corner office at America Online. Large, lapis-blue Bulgari cuff links wink on his wrists as he reaches out to greet a slightly nervous, 21-year-old Michael Hendrickson.

"You know what his nickname is?" Leonsis says, nodding at Hendrickson, who wears a charcoal suit, cornflower blue shirt and dapper art deco tie. "Giorgio. Because he's always stylin'."

"And I call him Silk," Hendrickson jokes back, even as he later admits, shyly and in private, "I get my dressing style from Ted."

They met five years ago, after Hendrickson's history teacher asked zillionaire Leonsis for help. After founding a program that gets students from the District's toughest neighborhoods into college, she was drumming up donations.

Give me a student, countered Leonsis, a goateed man who's vice chairman of America Online and owns the Washington Capitals and part of the Wizards, who has his own airplane and a second home in Florida. If I think your program works, I'll contribute. He became a mentor. The teacher paired him with Hendrickson.

"Owner of the Washington Capitals! And Wizards!" Hendrickson gushed to his mother, April, who had never heard of Leonsis. To her, only one thing mattered: Would he guide her son in the right direction?

The two first met on a Saturday and talked about their childhoods. Hendrickson was floored. He and Leonsis shared "so many similar situations growing up" that Hendrickson found himself thinking, "Wow. This is like the first person I can relate to."

In Leonsis's Brooklyn neighborhood of Sunset Park, as in Hendrickson's northeast Washington neighborhood of Trinidad, only one question mattered: "Are you alive, or dead?"

"If you're dead," Leonsis continues, "what'd you die of, a drug overdose? Get shot robbing a pharmacy? My best friend died of a heroin overdose at 16."

In Hendrickson's neighborhood, gunfire caught one of his elementary school buddies -- and the boy died. From Hendrickson's back yard one day, he watched a man his brother calls "the neighborhood crackhead" get hauled from the laundromat and beaten with a cane. Even the laughs sliced sharply there, like the time a guy handcuffed someone who owed him money to a phone booth, then left him -- in the snow.

"The good guy?" Leonsis is still talking about Brooklyn. "He's a bookie."

"Yep," Hendrickson says.

Leonsis, 49, was the first in his family to go to college. His mother was a secretary. His dad waited tables at a Greek restaurant. They "thought going to a state school or community college would be fine, and I could work and live at home," he notes. His high school guidance counselor thought "I wasn't college material. She said I should go to vocational school."

Leonsis thought otherwise. He bought a guide to colleges and applied to five schools, many of them prestigious -- the University of Massachusetts, Reed College, Columbia University, New York University and Georgetown, where he wound up. His adviser there was the Rev. Joseph Durkin, who was something of a legend on campus. Slightly unsettled at finding himself surrounded by "very rich kids" who went to prep school, Leonsis says he relied on Durkin's counsel, which "gave me confidence that, if you do the work, ask the questions," you'll succeed.

No Distractions

Neighbors called Hendrickson a mama's boy, and shyly, he tucked into himself even further, perfecting a quiet, watchful demeanor and telling himself he was different. He would make his mother happy. He would stay "self-motivated."

For most of his life, bedtime was at 10. No phone calls on weeknights, no TV after 8 p.m. If Hendrickson ventured outside, his mother expected him to stay within view. When he played football, she went to only one game. She was terrified of seeing him get hurt.

"I never understood why she was so strict on me," he says, "and she wasn't strict on my brothers. In my head, I was like, just give me a break. Don't be so strict."

By the time he started high school, his mother was turning 50 and fighting diabetes. She'd soon be battling cancer, then kidney failure, then the fallout from a series of strokes. She had watched the forces of Trinidad -- one of the city's more notorious neighborhoods -- envelop her three other sons. She was crushed when, one by one, they got locked up. Her eldest was sent away for life.

Michael was her last chance.

So when his 10th-grade history teacher called to say, "I kicked him out of my class," she charged in the next morning, dragging the boy along.

Hendrickson was mortified. For just "talking in class and laughing and not quite paying attention," he remembers -- for not even swearing, or threatening someone, or worse -- he was now in the halls of H.D. Woodson High, being seen with his mom.

"Embarrassing," he called it.

"Excess energy," the teacher diagnosed.

"Life or death," his mother decided, turning away from the teacher and looking at her son, the last of her eight children, the one she was determined would graduate from high school and go to college. "This," she pronounced carefully, "is life or death."

A Little Help

More than anything, Hendrickson wanted to go to Hampton University, a high-ranking, historically black college in Virginia's Tidewater area, north of Virginia Beach. He had become entranced while watching a battle of the bands at RFK Stadium when Hampton was competing with Howard University.

Yet even with perfect class attendance, scholar-athlete awards and decent grades, he worried that his low SAT scores would torpedo his application. So, five years ago, he told Leonsis he was aiming for Delaware State.

You really want to go to Hampton, Leonsis countered. Let's work on it.

Two days later, Hendrickson was at the Washington Capitals headquarters, in Leonsis's office, filling out applications.

"I wanted to write a good letter," Hendrickson remembers, but he didn't know how. Leonsis offered tips: "Be straightforward," he said. "Tell about how you grew up." Leonsis proofed Hendrickson's essays, then they tackled the financial aid forms together.

Hampton wait-listed him.

So Leonsis picked up the phone. He was about to do for Hendrickson what well-connected parents everywhere do for their children: He called Hampton's president. He left a message. The president didn't call back, so Leonsis kept calling until finally, late one night, the president answered his own phone.

"I'm not getting off the phone till you hear my story," Leonsis remembers saying. "Please reconsider Michael. I can vouch for him." He talked up Hendrickson's discipline, his drive. He promised that the kid from Washington would be "a great student, an asset to the school. He won't get in trouble. He'll have high aspirations."

The president, William R. Harvey, recalls the deal they struck: Hendrickson could come to Hampton for summer school, and if he did well, he could enroll as a full-time student.

The next day, as Leonsis was driving into the District, a city abuzz with rumors that Michael Jordan would soon start playing for the Wizards. Leonsis was heading to a crucial meeting on that very subject. Yet he found time for one more call.

He phoned Susie Kay, Hendrickson's teacher and the founder of the Hoop Dreams mentor program that connected him with Leonsis, and told her: We did it. He did it. Michael's going to Hampton -- his first-choice college.

The Culture Gap

It sounds almost simple: Pair well-meaning, educated professionals with smart high school seniors unfamiliar with the labyrinth of college applications, kids who need just a small push and some savvy suggestions.

And yet among the highest achieving students in Hendrickson's high school, applying to college exposed a gaping cultural divide -- a minefield between the realities of the students' world and the manifold expectations of university admissions offices.

One boy worried about where to post his applications, because the mailboxes in his neighborhood kept getting blown up. Some have resisted filling out financial aid forms because they require a Social Security number, and would that lead authorities to a family member wanted by police? What about welfare? Students hated talking about it, and those to whom it applied were loath to admit it on an official form, no matter how much it could help with tuition.

The mentor system can't ensure success. Planning for the future is an especially tough sell, Kay says, to kids more focused on: "Is everybody around me still gonna be here in the morning?" For that matter, even though every one of the 750 students Hoop Dreams has sent to college in the last 10 years has been black, Kay and about half the mentors are white. Kay recalls people questioning her intentions: "What is really going on here? Who is this white lady, and who does she think she is?"

The white mentors she recruits have felt it, too. Washington is so segregated that many black students and their families have limited interactions with whites, "unless they're a cop or something's gone bad," she says. The distrust runs deep. Some students' relatives tell them, when a white mentor leaves a message at their home: Don't call back.

Off to College

Hendrickson left for college in the summer of 2001, elated.

"I'm finally gonna be on my own," he crowed to himself, then arrived at Hampton and reacted, "Oh, gosh." It was all so different. So difficult. So far from home. "What have I gotten myself into?'"

The e-mails he sent to Leonsis -- and "I can't tell you how many e-mails I got," Leonsis says -- laid bare the freshman student's discomfort. "I don't like the food," Hendrickson wrote. "I don't like the a/c. I don't like my roommate."

In summer school, he had to take math, his worst and most dreaded subject, and what if he couldn't hack it? What if he didn't live up to the deal Leonsis had cut? "They're gonna take it all back," he feared. But he earned a 2.5 grade-point average, and enrolled as a full-time student for the fall semester. He joined the marching band, loaded himself down with 18 credits of classes and wound up failing a four-credit computer-science class. He was put on academic warning.

On top of all this, his mother had been diagnosed with cancer and needed chemotherapy. Though she had recently remarried, becoming April Hountangni, and her husband was there to take care of her, Hendrickson hated being so far away.

"I'm not gonna make it here," he remembers worrying. He told Leonsis, "I want to come home. I want to transfer. I want to go to UDC or Howard."

"Let's give it another semester," Leonsis answered. "Let's work on it." He told Hendrickson that getting into college was only the first step. Staying and earning a degree -- that's what mattered.

"The thing your mother wanted most," he told Hendrickson, "is that you be educated and self-sufficient."

They're retelling all of this, 3 1/2 years later, in Leonsis's sunny office at AOL headquarters in Dulles. Hendrickson supplements the story over dinner one night at the Capital Grille on Pennsylvania Avenue, a place he chooses after saying, "These are the restaurants I know: The Capital Grille, D.C. ChopHouse, Rosa Mexicana" -- restaurants that are part of Leonsis's world, in which Hendrickson has spent time via jobs with both the Capitals and the Wizards. Hendrickson talks about his life, his old neighborhood and his struggles in college while eating a $35 steak, surrounded by dark wood and oil paintings of businessmen in suits.

Convinced that Hendrickson could use some specific guidance in how to organize his time, Leonsis told him, "Okay. E-mail me every day," which is how Leonsis started learning Hendrickson's habits.

"I studied till 9, then I played video games till 12," Hendrickson wrote. "Then I ate pizza."

It was a schedule that defined "what you're supposed to do in college," Leonsis says. "But you can't maintain that." He wrote back: "How about one hour of video games" and take the other hours for math?

"Without Ted," Hendrickson says, "I would've come home." He adds that he never had a man, a father figure -- someone who wasn't a powerful woman -- "telling me, 'You can do it. I'm proud of you.' And those things -- it's like a recharged battery. I could keep going."

Leonsis compares Hendrickson to a plane that, on its way into the sky, "shoooook," and he waffles his hand as it climbs in the air, "but once it got up" -- he levels out his hand -- it flew.

His junior year, Hendrickson earned a 3.65 GPA, and at the end of the semester, he had dinner with Leonsis and his family at the Capital Grille in Tysons Corner. Leonsis didn't yet know what Hendrickson's grades were, and the student wanted to surprise and thank him, but "what do you give someone who has everything?"

So he laminated his report card at Kinko's and bought a frame at CVS, and he put both the report card and "a picture of me hugging him" in the frame. He gave it to Leonsis at dinner.

"I never saw him smile so hard," Hendrickson says. "I almost thought that he was gonna cry."

The next semester, Hendrickson's GPA rose even higher. He was flying.

Dress for Success

Fifteen minutes a day. That's all it took. Fifteen minutes to advise Michael on everything from classes to finding tutors to study skills to how to prepare for his senior class trip to the Bahamas. "I've never been on a cruise," Hendrickson says, and a few weeks ago he sent Leonsis a note asking, What should I wear? What should I expect?

Leonsis answered with several paragraphs advising sartorial choices for each part of the day. He ended with: "At night -- you can dress in style -- as they have seatings for dinner -- and shows and entertainment -- dinner is usually buffet style -- so you will come back 5 pounds heavier. :-)"

'The World Is Open for You'

It's a Sunday afternoon, and Hendrickson is in his mother's dining room, in the Shaw-Howard apartment where she moved about the same time he graduated from high school. Eleven orange prescription bottles line up across the table. Her son pours pills into a small cup.

April Hountangni is now a whisper-thin woman wearing a blue sweat shirt and sweat pants that blare, proudly, HAMPTON. Nine months ago, she suffered a stroke that stole her speech and sent her to a nursing home. She returned home only a few weeks ago.

"I -- I -- I. Um," she starts, but the sentences tangle in her head. "The words can't come out," she says, her Caribbean accent still lilting softly, "and I want them to come out."

She is trying to describe what she feels about her son graduating earlier this month from Hampton University, with honors and a degree in sports management.

"This is the day I've been waiting for," she says, quietly. It's "one of the best presents -- that I ever get. And as I say -- " She looks over at her son, who is e-mailing and instant-messaging friends on a computer whose screen saver scrolls: "Hampton Pirates."

"The world is open for you," she tells him, talking a little louder. "For you to -- go up." She reaches her hands above her head. "Go up ! To go up and in a different path."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company