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 crunch 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 each other’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 frame and special basketball talent once made college a possibility. He veered off, though, toward a life involving drugs, and 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.
PHOTOS: Leonard Hankerson juggles fatherhood, football
Whatever the circumstances, they yielded an uncompromising result. Her boyfriend, Leonard Hankerson, 23, lay dead near the street from a gunshot wound in his neck. Two men were arrested at the scene and later 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 dad fortifies his identity as he becomes a man himself at age 24. He navigates typical challenges of fatherhood in an atypical dynamic: He is operating without a blueprint; he’s 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 kids.”
At practice that day, Hankerson’s son missed a tackle when he ducked his head and couldn’t see the ballcarrier. Hankerson had not interjected his football acumen until now.
“You gotta keep your head up!” he yelled.
Smith leaned over and muttered: “You’re gonna have to teach him.”
The family dynamic
Hankerson’s kids perked up when the waiter served a plate of honey butter croissants at lunch. They’re an adorable trio whose bright personalities are outdone only by their energy.
All five family members go by nicknames. Just about everybody calls Hankerson “Hank,” including his kids sometimes. To his right sat 7-year-old Leonard III. They call him L.J., short for Leonard Jr., a misnomer with a tragic subtext.
Hank is the Redskins’ quietest player, an observant man who usually speaks only when spoken to. L.J., on the other hand, always has something to say, whether he’s showing off the golf swing his dad taught him or a new game on his Nintendo DS. With his wide smile, earrings in both ears and fauxhawk haircut, he looks like an NFL wide receiver in training.
Lenaris — Naris, for short — sat in a booster seat next to L.J. He picked up the package of three crayons provided for kids by the restaurant and put it in his mouth. Hank told L.J. to replace the crayons with a French fry. Naris’ face illuminated when he tasted it, and Hank laughed.
Marketria, known as Kie Kie, is the glue that holds together the operation. She’s the fulltime caretaker. During the football season, she lives in North Lauderdale as a single mother of three. Her relationship with Hank is complicated by ups and downs not uncommon of a partnership between a 24- and 25-year-old.
She and Hank acknowledge they technically are not a couple right now, but “we’re communicating,” Hank said.
It’s obvious Kienarria, whom they call Na Na, has her father’s genes. She’s 4 going on 7. She’s strong enough to carry Naris up and down the stairs, and she’s only five pounds lighter than L.J. “Her feet are growing overnight,” Kie Kie said. “Pretty much every month she’s up another size.” The plastic beads in her hair augment her warm smile.
The family lunch, spurred by a reporter’s invitation, was one of their last experiences together before Hank left for training camp four days later. They generally dread his annual departure.
Football has a bilateral impact on Hank’s fatherhood. It enables him to provide for his loved ones well beyond his impoverished upbringing — he is scheduled to earn $580,000 this season, his third, according to league records. But it also pulls him away for half the year to Redskins headquarters in Ashburn.
Kie Kie and the kids could move to Northern Virginia, but Hank prefers his South Florida roots stay rooted, and changing the children’s school district mid-year is not an option. So Kie Kie and Lisa commute to all 16 games, and they bring the kids to Washington for the eight home games.
“The kids, they kind of understand, but they don’t understand why we don’t stay with dad,” Kie Kie said. “It’s really hard for them, if anything. They like flying up and flying back, but they don’t like leaving him. That’s the hard part for the kids. It’s a lot on them.”
Kie Kie has help when she needs it. Her mom and Lisa are two of many extended family members who pitch in, similar to how Lisa had help raising her six children. But the daily routine during the football season casts Kie Kie in a solitary role.
“She do a great job,” Hank said. “It’s hard work 24 hours a day.”
Hank stays connected to his kids by video chatting over cell phone. L.J. got his own phone this year, partly because Kie Kie got tired of him hounding her for hers. L.J. calls him up to 50 times a day, Kie Kie said, and Hank confirmed that’s no exaggeration. The second grader just started riding the school bus for the first time; that’s usually when he calls.
“Daddy, what is you doing? When you coming over?” Hank said, recalling how his kids question him over the phone. “It’s bittersweet. I got to take care of my business.”
Hank is as much his children’s friend as their father, but he does discipline them when necessary. And along with the kids’ adoration for him comes respect.
When Hank asked L.J. to put his uniform on for practice, L.J. did. When Hank wanted Na Na to take her open can of strawberry soda off the couch and return it to the refrigerator, she did.
Near the end of the family’s lunch that day, an elderly man approached the table on his way out of the restaurant. Local fans sometimes recognize Hank because of his record-setting career at the University of Miami, but this man didn’t seem to make that connection.
“When I saw all the kids come in, I thought, ‘Oh, no, they’ll be raising Cain,’” the man said. “But no. Keep up the good work.”
Hank and Kie Kie thanked the man. When he was out of earshot, they glanced at each other and chuckled.
‘It was a struggle’
Kie Kie didn’t think she’d hear from Hank after he asked for her phone number that Saturday in the park more than eight years ago. He didn’t write it down, so how would he remember?
“Later that night he comes calling me, and he asked me what I was doing,” she recalled. “I asked him what he was doing, and he said, ‘Waiting for you to be my girlfriend.’ I was like, ‘OK?’ Just connected since that Saturday night. We moved so fast and got to know each other through that time.”
Hank’s life stabilized during that period in high school. It was difficult before then, although to hear him tell it: “I always felt like my life was good.”
One of Lisa’s six children is Leonard’s full biological sibling — Leonarda. She’s 25 with an 8-year-old son and 1-year-old daughter.
“It was a struggle for us,” she said. “I’m not going to say it was a good life. It was crazy. We wasn’t fortunate, and we wasn’t able to get anything we want.”
She and Hank frequently stayed with their paternal grandmother. To this day they remind her of her lost son.
“It’s only me and Leonard that she still babies,” Leonarda said.
Lisa and all six kids, and occasionally a couple other cousins, lived in a two-bedroom apartment at one time. She worked for the Broward County school system as a bus attendant and bus driver. “It was always chaotic,” she said. “I thank God for the help I did have.”
Lisa never had to worry about Hank acting out. He always has been self-disciplined. He never fought in school or stirred up any drama. He doesn’t drink alcohol.
“As far as a bad bone in his body, there isn’t one,” said George Smith, his high school football coach.
Being around so many children then helped Hank learn how to care for them. He would change their diapers and play games, following the lead of his mother and grandmother.
After Hank’s freshman year at Dillard High, a public school, he transferred to private St. Thomas Aquinas High. He was a standout basketball player like his father, but he decided to try football. It turned out his talent in that sport was even more elite.
“I think the place kind of encompassed him, and he thought this is a place I could be successful,” Smith said. “His entire culture changed, which meant that he changed this way of thinking about what the world was. That’s how I read it.”
Hank and Kie Kie’s relationship began during the summer after his 10th-grade year. She was a year ahead in school at Dillard. Within months, he began living with her. Hank was in 11th grade when Kie Kie got pregnant with L.J.
She worked at Lady Foot Locker and Victoria’s Secret. Hank washed cars for friends and neighbors for $20 per car.
“When you’re in high school,” he said, “that’s a lot of money.”
Kie Kie saw in her partner a dedication to her and their son. That continued when the family of three moved south after Hank began classes at Miami.
“I always felt like I was lucky because I watched all my other friends that had kids, and their baby dad wasn’t helping, wasn’t around, didn’t see them,” she said. “I just watched them struggle, I guess.
“But with Hank from high school and college, I felt like I was lucky because he was always here. We lived together. He helped me. So I always thought I was lucky even before he got to the NFL.”
In some ways, Kie Kie remembers those as easier times. His presence as a caretaker means that much to her and the children.
“If I could trade it in,” she said, “I would prefer him to be around more.”
Role model for teammate
Na Na held her daddy’s burgundy and gold football helmet with both hands while he spoke to a reporter coming off the practice field at training camp in Richmond last month. About 10 yards away, L.J. spotted his dad’s teammate, receiver Pierre Garcon, and raced over to request an autograph. Na Na toted the helmet as she went running after him.
Redskins receiver Aldrick Robinson, Hank’s closest friend on the team, has seen many of these moments since Washington drafted both of them in April 2011. In advance of his wife’s October due date — they’re expecting their first child, a son — he and Hank have discussed how to be a positive influence raising children.
“He always talk to his kids,” Robinson said. “He love his kids, and you can see it. When they around him, they don’t want to leave him. I look up to him as a father. I see how he handles his kids and everything. I plan to treat my kids the same way that he treats his kids.”
If Hank’s fatherless childhood motivates him, he does not admit it. Maybe he isn’t conscious of it.
It doesn’t, he said, because others filled the caretaker role when he was a boy. But Hank grew up without a dad who provided for him and the family. That’s an aspect of fatherhood at which he is determined to excel.
That would be more difficult if he weren’t making NFL money, although he did graduate from Miami with a degree in liberal arts.
Kie Kie admired how Hank pushed himself toward the financial security the NFL would provide. She recalled a conversation Hank had with his son while he was at Miami.
“I don’t remember what L.J. asked him, but I remember Hank saying, ‘That’s why Daddy working so hard, L.J., so you can have stuff.’ That stuck with me because he was only in college. He worked hard to make sure he improved to get that chance, training and everything.”
Now, L.J. and Na Na can navigate an iPad like pros. Kie Kie and the kids last month moved to a new apartment 10 minutes away because their old two-bedroom had been broken into three times since the spring. And Hank agreed to put Naris in day care until 2 p.m. each weekday to help Kie Kie’s workload and stress.
Hank extends that outreach beyond his kids. “I don’t want for nothing,” Lisa said. Leonarda knows she can ask her younger brother for help, but she’d rather follow his example.
“I’m happy that he made it the way he did, but I’m trying to get there, too,” she said. “I want a child care license for myself so maybe we could open a day care in the future.”
After practice that day in Richmond, when L.J. and Na Na finished chasing down their dad’s teammates, Hank spent a few minutes with them before he had to go shower and eat lunch.
His father didn’t have moments like that.
“I know I had a responsibility to my kids,” Hank said. “I mean, those are my kids. I’m sure there’s things I can do better. I know I’m not perfect. Na Na will say, “Daddy, you’re No. 1,’ so I know I’m doing something right.”
On other side of the rope that sections off the field from fans, Kie Kie stood wearing her Redskins T-shirt and holding Naris.
Next to them stood Lisa, as proud a mother as she could be.