- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 3, 2013

NORTH LAUDERDALE, Fla. — The two football fields at Lauderhill Middle School come alive each weeknight during the summer and fall. Youth football teams of all ages practice on their allotted sections of turf. Whistles chirp between the crunches of shoulder pads and helmets. Cheerleader squads rehearse their routines on the periphery.

Hundreds from this South Florida community — mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, cousins and grandparents — sit in lawn chairs or walk the fields and share one another’s company. They sell conch fritters at the concession stand and serve chocolate cupcakes in the parking lot.

On a Wednesday evening this summer, two hours after the day’s thunderstorm blew past, Leonard Hankerson II stared from the sideline as his 7-year-old son performed a tackling drill. Across the field, his 4-year-old daughter ran around with her fellow cheerleaders. At Hankerson’s feet, his 11-month-old son sat in his stroller delighted by the taste of a green watermelon lollipop. To Hankerson’s right stood his high school sweetheart and the mother of his three children, Marketria Smith.

Hankerson stood immersed in fatherhood, oblivious to the violence that changed his life just four miles south.

Lisa Williams, only 19, was seven months pregnant with her third child the night her boyfriend loaded his .38-caliber revolver and left to settle a dispute. His 6-foot-3-inch frame and special basketball talent once made college a possibility. He veered off, though, toward a life involving drugs. In that world, resolving disagreements sometimes required firepower.

At approximately 8:30 p.m., sheriff’s deputies responded to a shooting at 1741 SW 40th Terrace, a section of Fort Lauderdale best avoided even in the daytime. Witnesses described to police a shootout that punctuated an argument about the location of a recent drug sale. Williams disputed that during an interview this summer, saying her boyfriend defended his sister in a confrontation unrelated to his drug dealings.

Whatever the circumstances, they yielded an uncompromising result. Her boyfriend, Leonard Hankerson, 23, lay dead near the street from a gunshot wound to his neck. Two men arrested at the scene pleaded guilty to second-degree murder.

Hankerson’s death so distressed Williams that her body could not hold the pregnancy. Twenty-seven days later, on Jan. 30, 1989, she gave birth to a healthy 8-pound, 6-ounce, 23-inch-long boy. When it came time for her to choose a name, there really was no debate.

The boy would never know his father, but he would bear his name.

Now, Hankerson is experiencing what his father could not.

Being a father fortifies his identity as he becomes a man at age 24. He navigates typical challenges of fatherhood in an atypical dynamic: He is operating without a blueprint; he is the product of a culture in which raising children is optional for fathers in many cases, and his job as a receiver for the Washington Redskins significantly impacts his role as a provider and caretaker for his children.

Hankerson doesn’t dwell on his father’s absence because he never knew anything else. Instead, he is driven by a fatherly instinct, an innate responsibility. It’s an uplifting example but not a fairy-tale life. The obligations of fatherhood, his children’s needs and his own youth are too real for that.

“I love two things more than anything,” Hankerson said, “football and my children.”

At practice that day, Hankerson’s son missed a tackle when he ducked his head and couldn’t see the ball carrier. Hankerson had not interjected his football acumen until now.

“You gotta keep your head up,” he yelled.

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