By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
It started with a few tweets from Tavon Austin.
“Today I lost my homeboy!!!!! Los you in a better place!!!! Love u shorty. I remember when u was at my game you told me to never look back!!!”
A friend had died.
Not my business, really. Not then. Not anyone’s, but the following tweets let you know that this was one of Tavon Austin’s really close friends.
“Los u still living In me!!!!!” read one.
“This night for u Los!!!” read another.
Then came a telling one.
“I guess it true when they say ‘when it rains it pours!!!’ Two homeboys in two months smh (shaking my head),” he tweeted.
That was Dec. 8.
Two days later, Dec. 10, came another tweet.
“Another homeboy smh Booda boo we miss you shorty!!!! It’s crazy solemnity said the only way out of Baltimore is death !!! Love u.”
This was almost too much to fathom, but again it’s his business, personal business from the hood. Tavon Austin, who may just be the best college football player alive today, was being torn apart from the inside, knowing he was alive.
Then came Dec. 14. Newtown, Conn. Twenty grammar school children, just beginning their lives, and six teachers and administrators in that school were slain in an avalanche of bullets, a simple, cold, meaningless execution by what has to have been a madman.
In the wake of what had happened, it was time to ask Tavon Austin about his feelings about life and death and the world in which we live.
It was a football interview session, but football was the furthest thing from my mind as I slid in next to Austin.
“I saw you lost a friend on Twitter,” I said, opening the door to the conversation, knowing it had been two.
I wasn’t ready for the reply I got.
“I had lost three friends in a matter of four weeks,” he said.
“Three? How did they die?” I asked.
“Just living on the streets of Baltimore and they got shot,” he said.
It was almost matter-of-factly the way he said it.
He knew he was the lucky one, that he had escaped those streets, had gotten to Morgantown because he had an amazing talent and a dream.
“Baltimore is a rough place. I’m not saying other states don’t have rough places, but I was one of the blessed ones who had good grades and God blessed me with talent, so I’m definitely not going to put it to waste. I’m going to keep on pushing it,” he said.
You may expect it on the streets of Baltimore, but as a 6-year-old sitting in a classroom in a rural setting in Connecticut?
“Those little kids, they had a whole life to live,” Austin replied. “It’s sad how people come in and take someone’s life right there based on something that happened at home. That’s crazy. I feel for them personally. If there was anything I could [do] I definitely would help.”
You know he means it. How much can you take? He lost Artie, Loso and Budda Boo. All those parents and brothers and sisters and cousins and aunts and uncles had lost loved ones, innocent loved ones whose lives had not yet really begun.
You could tell how much it all meant to him by his follow-up tweets after learning of his friends’ deaths.
Then came the capper, this from the mind of a kid who is standing on the doorstep to fame and fortune in the National Football League.
“It’s a dirty dirty world that we live in!!!!”
He had somehow been allowed to follow that different path to glory.
“I always had older cousins who played football, and they were this close to making it. I wanted to be that person to make it. I feel so far I’m doing good, and I guess I’m the one that made it,” he said.
But he knows he left the others behind and he wants to help, to do something to contribute to cleaning up that “dirty dirty world we live in.”
“It’s definitely sad. It kind of strikes my heart and you feel a certain weight. I feel like I should be able to do more to help my homeboys out and put them in a different situation, but it’s hard. I’m not there right now,” he said.
“For the rest of my life they are definitely going to be with me. For the rest of my life I am going to keep on grinding, keep on pushing for them. Then, hopefully, if I get blessed and go to the NFL, I definitely will try to help out my community,” he said.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.