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Jeff Benedict: Young men's faith, determination made me a believer

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 19 2012 5:00 a.m. MDT

Henry Astwood, from left, Levi Antoine, Jason Astwood and Jeff Benedict in Provo, Utah.

Provided by Jeff Benedict,

This story is about overcoming.

Recently, I was in Utah, profiling Mike Leach, the head coach at Washington State University. His team kicked off the college football season on ESPN against Brigham Young University in Provo. They got beat, 30-6.

Tough start. But you can't keep a good man down.

The morning after the game, I visited an old friend. His name is Levi Antoine. He lives near the BYU campus.

I first met Levi in Boston in 1995. I was a married, 29-year-old graduate student at Northeastern University. He was a 17-year-old inner-city kid at a high school simply called The Burke. It was one of the worst public schools in Boston.

Levi played football there. He was a 280-pound nose tackle. Nobody messed with Levi.

Around the time I met Levi, I met two other teenage boys — Jason and Henry Astwood. They were from the Dominican Republic. Their parents barely spoke any English. They lived in a triple-decker on one of the most violent street corners in a Boston neighborhood called Mattapan. I used to pick up Levi, Jason and Henry and bring them to play basketball and attend church services at an LDS chapel near their homes.

If it weren't for basketball and the LDS Church, I would have never crossed paths with these guys and a dozen others from their neighborhoods. They weren't Mormons when I met them. But I became their coach, their teacher and their friend.

Over a three-year period, I coached them to three undefeated seasons in a basketball league in Boston. We traveled to places like Providence and Nashua. We won every tournament we entered. I even put these guys up against men's teams just to make them tougher, more competitive.

But the truth is, they were already tough and competitive. What they lacked was structure, direction and male role models. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Boston provided those things. I was just one of a group of guys who worked with these boys. Eventually, they all joined the church.

That was nearly 20 years ago. When I showed up at Levi's house in Provo last week, Jason and Henry were there, too. All three of them ended up serving two-year missions for the church and graduating from BYU. Today, they are married and raising families in Utah. Levi is a corporate trainer. Jason owns his own insurance firm. Henry works for Visa.

It had been so long since I had seen these young men. A brief visit in Levi's home wasn't sufficient. So that night we went to dinner in Salt Lake City. Over bibb lettuce salads and tenderloin, we relived those glory days in Boston.

But the glory days were also filled with tough days and tragedy. These kids fought through things that no young man should ever experience. One of the kids in that group was named Marco. He lived with his cousin, Jounis. They were two of my favorites. Great ballplayers. Great kids. Humble, hungry for a compliment and eager to please.

The first time I visited their housing project to drop off Christmas presents, four guys jumped out of a car and pinned me in mine. One of them shined a penlight in my eyes and demanded to know what I was doing there. I pointed to the Christmas presents on the front seat. Turns out they were undercover narcotics officers. They told me to hurry up because it wasn't safe for me to be there.

Jounis and Marco got baptized and became deacons at the church. But one weekend, they went to a park to play in a pickup football game. All the other boys were in church that weekend, wearing white shirts and ties, learning about Jesus Christ, safe and sound.

Meantime, Jounis and Marco won their game. But the opposing team had a couple of gangsters on it. One of them felt they'd showed him up. He pulled out a knife. Jounis and Marco ran for their lives.

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