Lucas: A Changed Life
The following column originally appeared in GoHeels Season Preview, a print magazine mailed to Rams Club members.
Senior running back A.J. Blue ponders the next six months of his life, which will include a chance to become Carolina's starting tailback, his scheduled graduation and a move into the job world.
"There's a lot of opportunity out there to be taken in the next six months," he says. "There's no doubt that what happens in these next six months could change my life forever."
Growing up in Dallas, N.C., Blue rarely bothered to consider the possibility of a college degree. His neighborhood was not a good one. There were three streets that formed a corner of Dallas in which outsiders were not welcome; Blue and his mother, Theresa Adams, lived on South Davis Street, the main road of the troubled area.
Drugs were the primary currency of the neighborhood.
"You got used to hearing gunshots," Blue says. "You were always watching your back, and it wasn't unusual to see police jumping out of a U-Haul or out of a minivan."
But Adams was unwilling to let her son fall into that crowd. On Saturday mornings, she'd wake him up early for Pop Warner football games, and he'd do sit-ups and push-ups while she cooked his breakfast. By the time he was in high school, they'd developed a new routine. Every Wednesday, Adams would interview him to prepare him for the media questions he'd get on Thursday and Friday during the prep football season.
When Blue was in eleventh grade, his life reached a turning point. He remembers the date instantly--"November 16, 2006," he says, recalling it without a moment's hesitation. That's the day he was pulled out of class by a coach.
"Your brother's been in an accident," he was told.
This was not especially surprising news. De'Marreo Beard, his older brother, loved motorcycles. Blue even smiled a little. Of course De'Marreo had been in an accident.
"It's not like that," the coach told him. "He's been shot. He's dead."
Blue freely admits that his initial impulse was to react angrily. "I was ready to lay it down," he says. "But my mother told me she wasn't going to lose another son. That's when I became a man, when I knew I had to start acting like a man."
That maturity carried him through an unscheduled detour to Hargrave Military Academy--"Lots of Division II schools came to my house and told me I would never make it through Hargrave," he says--before enrolling at Carolina, and then through the rehab from a serious knee injury during the 2009 season.
At the time, the injury was described as anything from severe to catastrophic. And in the world of knee injuries, it was a serious one, as he tore all three ligaments in his left knee.
But Blue chuckles when he remembers all the dire predictions for his future that surrounded the injury. "That was nowhere close to the toughest thing I've ever been through," he says. "I knew I would be back."
Larry Fedora now describes Blue as "the best leader we have in our locker room."
That leader is about to have an eventful six months. He's likely to get plenty of carries in Fedora's snap-happy offense. But he suspects the event that will cause more emotion in the house on South Davis Street will be graduation day. "My mom will cry all day," he says. "It's going to blow her mind that her son is going to have a diploma from North Carolina."
Over the Fourth of July weekend this summer, Blue had a couple days off from conditioning workouts and summer school classes. He returned to Dallas, where he played football in the street with his six-year-old son, Amareon. South Davis Street is different now. "All the bad influences are in prison," Blue says matter-of-factly, as though he's discussing a new supermarket in the neighborhood.
Amareon ran up and down the street off with his shirt off, doing push-ups and sit-ups and flexing. He is a budding football star.
Blue watched his son and sees a little bit of himself, at the same time that he can't help but think of the differences in their childhoods.
"You didn't just go play in the street when I was a kid," Blue says. "But he actually gets to be a kid. He doesn't have to worry about getting a gun or watching his back every time he plays. He's six years old, and he can remain six."
So, yes, these next six months have the potential to dramatically impact A.J. Blue's life. But change a life?
He's already done that.
Adam Lucas is a GoHeels.com columnist.