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

Published: Thursday, Aug. 27 2015 8:11 p.m. MDT

Henry Astwood, from left, Levi Antoine, Jason Astwood and Jeff Benedict in Provo, Utah. (Provided by Jeff Benedict,) 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.

Henry Astwood, from left, Levi Antoine, Jason Astwood and Jeff Benedict in Provo, Utah. (Provided by Jeff Benedict,) Henry Astwood, from left, Levi Antoine, Jason Astwood and Jeff Benedict in Provo, Utah. (Provided by Jeff Benedict,)

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.

It has always amazed me how a weapon in the hand of a thug makes him feel like a man. Jounis, one of the best pure athletes I ever coached, got away. Marco ran into a public transportation stairwell. That's where he died. The gangster stabbed him.

I remember that incident like it was yesterday. It was the first time I had lost a boy in my youth group to street violence. But it wasn't the last.

Shortly after, Levi left on a Mormon mission to Fort Lauderdale, Fla. That was 1998. His neighborhood friends couldn't believe how much he had changed and that he was going away to be a missionary for two years.

A little more than a year later, Levi's younger brother Omar was murdered on a street corner. Omar was on my basketball team. He was in my Bible study class. Everybody loved Omar. He had an electric smile and not an impure bone in his body. One night he was hanging out with friends when a car pulled up and someone pointed a gun out the window.

Bullets sprayed. One hit Omar in the head. He didn't have a prayer.

All of us remember that weekend vividly. But I had never heard Levi's version of events. We were the only ones left in the restaurant by the time he told us how close he came to a life-changing act of revenge.

The night Omar was shot in Boston, Levi got a call at his missionary apartment in Fort Lauderdale. It was his single mother, Jennifer. She had joined the LDS Church with her two sons. She cried with pride when her oldest became a missionary. She wept with heartache when her baby got killed.

Levi punched four holes in the wall. Then he tore off his missionary name tag, removed his white shirt and vowed he was quitting Mormonism. He called his old friends from the neighborhood. They said they knew who killed his brother and they were determined to kill the killer.

Levi left his mission. After the funeral, Levi was ready to get revenge. His mother begged him not to. She begged him to go back and finish his mission. "You know your Heavenly Father loves you, right?" she said.

"No he doesn't," Levi shouted. "And I am done with the church."

"Then the devil has taken both my sons," she said.

Levi is a mountain of a man. But those words drove him to his knees. For the first time since his brother's death, he prayed to God and begged for help, help to get through it.

Henry, Jason and I were silent while Levi talked. Our eyes welled up because we know how this story ends.

Levi doesn't go kill his brother's killer. Instead, he went back to Fort Lauderdale and completed his Mormon mission. He went on to graduate from BYU. He's happily married and raising a daughter and a son named Omar.

Henry and Jason have done the same. They are raising families. They are working. They are happy. They are alive.

At the end of the meal, they thanked me profusely for being their leader when they were young men. But I owe them way more than they owe me.

I went back to my hotel and felt that burning that I get in my nose when I know tears are coming. Playing a small part in their journey from boys to men is one of the highlights of my life. Their faith and determination made me a firm believer.

Jeff Benedict is a magazine writer and the author of 10 books, including "The Mormon Way of Doing Business." His website is www.jeffbenedict.com.

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