HOUSTON — At the 40-yard line, as he made the catch, Eric Charles’s gold helmet muffled the roar of the crowd. The Sharpstown High School senior shifted into a new gear to outrun the defenders on his tail, the cheers propelling him forward.

He pushed over the 30-yard line.

The 20.

At the 10-yard line, the gap widened between his fiery feet and the Wheatley High guys chasing him.

The Houston Chronicle (http://bit.ly/2q2zv1j ) reports he used everything he had. He used the left knee he’d regained through surgery and rehab. He used the speed he’d earned through years of track and football practices where he ran so hard he puked.

He sailed past the pylon. Six points: Sharpstown.

The crowd cheering. His dad in the bleachers. That was what he lived for. That was the best.

That was August.

In September, he suited up for a game against Waltrip, armoring his weak leg with a knee brace and two knee pads. He sprinted out for a long run, but the defender caught him for a tackle. Out went his ACL — snapped for a second time.

And suddenly, the athlete who’d lived to play football had to begin a life without it.

Dreams of playing pro sports shatter every day. More than 1 million Americans play high school football. But only 6.8 percent of them go on to play in college, according to the NCAA — and of those, only 1.5 percent make it to a major professional league like the NFL.

That doesn’t make losing the dream any easier.

This time, the surgeons grafted muscles from a different part of his leg. And once again, he began rehab. But in the weeks after the injury, Eric couldn’t go to football practice. He couldn’t even lift his left leg, and hobbled around on crutches.

The coach at Yale stopped talking to him. He was no longer a sure thing.

His teammates were too busy at practice to hang out.

Eric beat up his bed. He cried why-me tears. He drifted. For the first time in his 18 years, he felt untethered. Uncertain. UnEric.

He talked about that in, of all places, a poetry class. The year before, his AP English teacher asked him to join a fourth-period class called Iconoclast Artists. Writing wasn’t at all Eric’s thing. But as a favor to a teacher he liked, he signed up.

The class had a coffeehouse vibe: A blue-and-white tablecloth, a Keurig whirring in the background, students snapping their fingers when they approved of a line. Eric was the only jock.

The rest of the class was a Breakfast Club-assortment of people from all over the school: theater kids, aspiring poets, transfer students, kids who didn’t fit into a label at all.

The program’s director and traveling teacher, Marlon Lizama, was like no one Eric had ever met. Lizama was a grown-up, sure. But he always had the coolest sneakers in class, and his hair was styled precisely.

At first the kids didn’t know what to make of Lizama. Lizama was used to that.

For the Iconoclast Artists program, Lizama travels between several locations each week — six schools and three juvenile detention centers. He teaches that poetry doesn’t belong only to dead white men. It belongs just as much to the kids in Sharpstown, where 90 percent of students are economically disadvantaged and only 3 percent are white.

“In the beginning, I’m foreign to them,” Lizama said of his students. “I might as well be French, because they don’t know people like that: A working artist who lives off his art? You’re crazy. That doesn’t happen to us.”

Just by existing, Lizama radiated a powerful message to the class: You can do this. At age 9, he’d moved to the U.S. from El Salvador, becoming a permanent resident six years later. In his late teens, he’d been a breakdancer. Only later did he become a poet; he published his first book in 2014.

“I ask them to write down how many careers they know,” he said, “and I’ve had lists that come back at three: Teacher; doctor; cop.”

Kids can’t dream of becoming things they can’t imagine.

On Thursday, Eric himself will become a published poet: One of his poems will appear in “They Say, Vol. II,” an anthology of Iconoclast students’ best work. That night, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, he’ll be part of the book-launch reading.

One morning in late April, under the hot spotlight of Sharpstown’s black-box theater, he was practicing for the performance. Of the 40 kids in the theater, about a dozen were from the Sharpstown Iconoclast class — the group that, over the months, had become Eric’s new team, the people he hangs out with.

Standing in the center of a scuffed-up stage, with a pencil in hand and his wide, easy smile shining in the spotlight, Eric introduced his poem: “Goodbye to High School Football.” The crowd was mostly prospective students considering next year’s Iconoclast class, but a couple of Eric’s old football teammates had sneaked into a pair of blue plastic chairs in the last row, hoping to see what he’d been up to all year.

He read steadily: “Thanks to two torn ACLs, a meniscus tear, left ankle sprain, pulled hamstrings, groin pulls and a limp when I walk, creating a casual lean – defining Eric Charles.”

But the poem wasn’t a lament. And it wasn’t a take-down of football. It was a thank-you, a tribute to the daily grind that had shaped him.

He read about the senior year he’d expected: Preparing for a Friday night under a different set of a lights, “destined to shine with my brothers.”

His eyes flickered between the printout and the crowd. But his voice was clear, and the little crowd was rapt.

“That didn’t happen. See my real brothers? Couldn’t make the starting lineup,” he read.

His Iconoclast classmates — those “real brothers” — smiled from the stage’s wings.

“I began to see the real trophy,” he read.

When he came to the part about his new way of being in the world, the way that he now applies his athlete’s intensity to things like poetry, his voice reached a crescendo, issuing himself a command: “Play football in all areas of life.”

He paused, letting that sink in.

Finally he reached the poem’s last stanza. “Roses do grow from concrete,” he read.

When he finished, a crowd once again cheered wildly for Eric Charles.


Information from: Houston Chronicle, http://www.houstonchronicle.com

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