By Paul Tenorio
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 11, 2009
The football-shaped sign sits inconspicuously in the middle of the manicured yard in front of a house in Ashburn, nearly identical to one in front of the house next door, and on it reads a name: simply, "T.J."
The sign announces that this is the home of a state championship football player for Broad Run, but how it ended up here, at a comfortable suburban home tucked away at the end of a cul-de-sac in the heart of the richest county in the country, had T.J. Peeler, the Spartans' senior running back, shaking his head earlier this week.
A few years ago, Peeler had no real home. His family had moved so many times in the previous six years he lost count. The cities and states no longer stayed straight in his mind. There were times Peeler wasn't sure where he'd lay his head, with different apartments and motels where his family would land and nights when even those were not an option. He isn't far removed from days when it was a question whether he would eat, or times he would have to find restaurant bathrooms to brush his teeth.
"We did what we had to do to stay together, but at the same time, things wasn't getting any better," Peeler said. "So I figured, I don't really know, at the age of 14, I wanted better. I've always wanted better for my family, and not just my family, [for] me. So I had to take things in my own hands. I told my mom I wanted to stay here so I could do what I needed to do: get an education."
In late spring of his freshman year, Peeler made a decision that has had a profound impact on the rest of his life. John Costello, the Broad Run boys' basketball coach, offered Peeler a place to stay in Ashburn. Peeler accepted.
At first, it was only temporary, but nearly three years later Peeler has become like another child to Costello and his wife, JoAnne.
"This is someone that has not only become significant, he's become a part of my family," Costello said. "To see him change his life has been very rewarding."
One of the top high school running backs in the state, Peeler is bound for Pittsburgh next year on a full scholarship. Saturday, he will lead the defending champion Spartans (13-0) into their second consecutive Virginia AA Division 4 title game. He is halfway through his fourth year at Broad Run, the only time he has been at a school for more than eight months since at least the fifth grade. He has a new family in which he has become a beloved son and brother.
He has a home.'A hurtful time'
At points when talking about his life, Peeler shakes his head and changes the subject. There are some things he still is not ready to open up about. What Peeler does share, however, is revealing.
Beginning in fifth grade, when his mother married, Peeler's family -- he has two older brothers, Michael, 20, and Charlie, 22, and an older sister, Clara, 23 -- started a life that would move them up and down the East Coast as his stepfather, Ronald Davis, looked for steady jobs.
His mother, Caroline Davis, who recently moved to Bridgeport, Conn., said the longest the family was in one place was eight months. Peeler, who described his relationship with his stepfather as conflicted, said it often was shorter.
Trying to piece together where he had lived since 2003, Peeler could rattle off only some of the cities he could remember: Bridgeport, where he was born, and New Haven in Connecticut; Laurel and Columbia in Maryland; a summer in Harlem, N.Y.; and Ashburn. Later he would recall stints in Delaware, Richmond and Chesterfield, Va.
When asked how many schools he attended in that time, Peeler could only guess. He remembered four in Maryland, a couple in Connecticut and finally Broad Run. In a phone interview the next day, Caroline Davis added a school in southern Virginia to the list.
The transient routine made academic success nearly impossible, though Peeler said he gave himself a chance by going to school every day. Asked whether school became his escape from home life, Peeler nodded.
"Definitely, I can definitely say that," he said. "Being around my mom and my stepdad arguing, my brothers and sisters always arguing, bickering, skipping school . . . an escape route, that could be a really good answer for that, yeah."
As they moved, Peeler's family lived where they could. Sometimes it was an apartment, or maybe a relative's place. Other times it was in hotels or motels.
Peeler would get acclimated, only to learn they were moving again. He would get a week's notice, sometimes less, and the family's belongings would be thrown in plastic bags and into their van and they would be off to a new place.
"It was a hurtful time," Caroline Davis said. "Like I said, I talked to [the kids] and just tried to hold it together and that's what we did. It was a painful time because nobody wants to be out on the street."
The journey often landed Peeler's family in marginal neighborhoods. Peeler said he tried his best to avoid trouble, but there were times when it found him.
Peeler recalled a time in Delaware a few years ago when he was walking home and was approached by a group of kids. One put a gun to his head and demanded money. Peeler tried to wrestle the gun away, was jumped and pistol-whipped. As he lay on the ground, they put the gun to his head again and took his wallet. It was empty.
Later, Peeler said, he found out the kids in the group were friends of his cousin and didn't know he was related. "They was just seeing me as another kid that they didn't know walking in the neighborhood," he said. The gun, his cousin told him later, didn't have any bullets.
"I don't do anything wrong to anybody to deserve that, but that's how life is," Peeler said. "They just going about it a different way, they were robbing me because they needed money to eat. And I'm doing it the right way. I'm going to school so I can better myself and get my family something to eat."
The struggles, however, are a reality, one that Peeler knows is not unique to his family.
"Growing up as a young black man in bad areas, that's just something I had to grow up and deal with," Peeler said. "All my friends was dealing with the same thing. It wasn't like a not-normal thing. That was the normal thing for most kids where I lived at, so I just dealt with it because I had to deal with it. I didn't think about anything to make it better.
"At the time that was something I had to deal with, so I dealt with it. When I was hungry, I didn't eat anything because I dealt with it. That's just what you got to do. That's how life is. I look at life for what it is. Things happen for a reason, that's just life."Part of another family
Peeler and his family landed in Loudoun County in late 2006, and T.J. was in his first year at Broad Run, trying out for the basketball team. His mother's van had broken down, forcing Peeler to sprint through the school's hallways, trying to get to his first freshman basketball practice on time. Peeler got to practice just a minute or so after it started. When he walked into the gym, his coach, Costello, kicked him out. Peeler knew Costello didn't know his situation, no one did. So Peeler went outside the gym and cried.
The incident prompted Peeler to share some of his background with Costello, and the two quickly grew close. "He's like a father figure, like a real father figure I've never had," said Peeler, who has never met his biological father. "Someone that actually cares."
As he neared the end of his freshman year, Peeler learned that his family was again planning to move, putting another unknown landing spot on the horizon. If Peeler left, he would not be able to take the Standards of Learning tests, and faced the prospect of losing credit for ninth grade. He asked Costello for help.
Costello and his wife agreed to take him in for the rest of the school year. When Peeler broached the topic with his mother, with whom he is extremely close, she at first refused. Eventually, she relented.
"It wasn't [easy], it wasn't," Caroline Davis said. "I cried. I didn't want to leave him. But he talked to me and he said, 'Mom this is what I want, this is what I want to do.' "
Peeler is at Broad Run as part of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, the federal law that ensures children who lack a fixed residence receive an education at the school of their choice.
Peeler said it was an adjustment living with the Costello family, especially during the first week. One of the ways he grew acclimated, both Peeler and John Costello said, was when the two would talk during walks with the family dog.
"It was weird waking up, having something to eat every day and having dinner every day," Peeler said. "And Mrs. Costello buying me stuff. I never had that. I was basically wearing the same clothes that I had every day, I never had new clothes and stuff like that."
When the year ended, Peeler went back to visit his mother -- then living with her husband's family in an apartment on 152nd Street in Harlem. She wanted him to stay, but Peeler begged her to let him return to Ashburn, where he didn't have to worry about where he would be living or sleeping.
At the Costello home, he has become another older brother to the Costello's youngest daughter, Shannon, 13 (the Costellos have three other children in their 20s).
"He's just so loved by everyone," JoAnne Costello said. "People say to me now, 'You guys are so awesome.' And I go, it's really not that hard. He's just part of the family."
The affection is mutual. On a questionnaire Pittsburgh sends its recruits, Peeler was asked which individual he would trade places with given the opportunity.
"I would like to trade places with Coach Costello," Peeler wrote, "just because I would like to help a kid succeed in life, like he did me."
On the football field, Peeler started to excel as a junior, when he first got extended playing time on varsity.
Last season, he rushed for 1,145 yards and 17 touchdowns to help lead the Spartans to their first state title. He has filled out to 6 feet 1, 205 pounds, and is second in the area this season with 2,054 yards and 23 touchdowns. He has been a critical part of the Spartans' run back to the state championship game, where they will defend their title against Amherst on Saturday at Virginia Tech's Lane Stadium.
Yet despite his success on the football field, Peeler, who said he would be the first of his siblings to graduate from high school, emphasized that his goals go far beyond sport.
It's the front yard, not the football sign planted in it, that represents what Peeler wants to achieve.
"I just see Coach Cos and he has a steady job and a family, a family that loves him, and they have a lot of chemistry, they always talk," Peeler said. "I just want a family and kids, that's it. I just want to be a man and take care of my kids. Because I love being around kids and I just think it'd be great just to have my own home to come to and have my kids and tell them to do their homework.
"I just think it'd be great to be a man."