As a teen, former NFL star Donald Driver was placed on the right path by a loving neighbor.
- Posted on Sep 23, 2013
It was a shiny little Cadillac with leather seats. The kind the guys at the chop shop paid 500 bucks for. The streets of Houston’s Fifth Ward were empty. I wrapped my fist in my T-shirt and punched through the back window. In a flash I was in.
I pulled out my screwdriver, jimmied the steering wheel and popped the ignition, just like my older brother had taught me. The engine roared to life. Then I heard sirens. I pushed the pedal to the floor. Red and blue lights flashed in my rearview mirror.
I’ve got to get off this road, I thought, or I’m going to juvie for sure.
I was 12 years old.
It seems crazy now. Today, everyone knows me as Donald Driver, wide receiver with the NFL’s Green Bay Packers, Pro Bowl player and winner of Dancing With the Stars. I’ve dedicated my life after football to helping disadvantaged kids around the country.
But back then, I was Quickie, a nickname that described my speed as well as how fast I was headed in the wrong direction.
Mom would have strangled me if she’d known what I was up to. My dad had gone to prison for robbing a convenience store while she was pregnant with me. I didn’t meet him until I was six. Mom wanted a better life for me, my two brothers and two sisters.
She worked long hours to support us—first as a housekeeper at a hotel and then nights as a security guard. We went to church three days a week. But she often fell behind on rent and then we’d have to move. For a while we even lived out of a U-Haul trailer.
Trouble really started when we moved next door to a man named J.R. Mom trusted him to watch us while she was at work, and he did. What Mom didn’t know was that J.R. and his buddies were dealing drugs.
My older brother Moses and I served as lookouts. We knew it was wrong, but the money was too good—$100 a night. We broke it into smaller bills, and regularly slipped some into Mom’s purse.
“Shoot, well, I guess I do have money for the light bill,” Mom would say, finding an extra twenty in her wallet. The way I saw it, we were helping the family.
Then Moses discovered we could bring in even more cash by stealing cars. I was just tall enough to reach the pedals. Before long, I got good at playing two different characters. Quickie the son, who went to school and got good grades, and then Quickie the kid who dealt drugs and stole cars.
I practiced giving the same smile, hug and kiss for my mom when I came home, no matter what I’d done on the streets. She never suspected a thing.
Now, though, I was about to get caught. The sirens got closer. I turned into a back alley, my best chance to lose the cops. I was almost free. Suddenly, up ahead, a car backed out of a driveway. I slammed on the brakes.
Too late. The Caddy T-boned the other car. Through the shattered windshield, I saw a little old lady sitting stunned in the driver’s seat. I jumped out. Thoughts flashed through my brain. Gotta get away! I had a head start on the cops, but...What if she’s hurt? You can’t just run away.
I stopped. I turned back to see if the old lady was okay. I hadn’t forgotten everything I learned in Sunday school.
The woman looked angry, but unhurt. “Go sit on my porch right now,” she said. It was the tone of voice no kid can disobey. I walked over to her ranch-style house and sat in her porch swing. The cops arrived and began to question the old woman. She’s going to turn me in! I thought.
“The man who did this ran that way,” she said, pointing down the alley.
“Who is that on your swing?” one of the officers asked.
“Oh, that’s my grandson,” she said. The cops gave me a wary look, but got back in their patrol car and drove off. The woman marched toward me. “You!” she shouted. “Come inside!”
She led me into her kitchen. “Sit,” she said. I sat, dazed. Why hadn’t she turned me in? She pushed some cookies in front of me. I took a bite but my stomach was doing flip-flops. She sat down and looked me square in the eye.
“Why did you do this, young man?” she finally asked. “You could be doing so much more with your life. This is not the way God wants you to be living.”
“This is how we survive in this neighborhood,” I said.
“It’s not how you get out of it,” she said, and pushed the cookies closer. “My name’s Evelyn Johnson.” She lived alone, she told me. She’d never married, never had kids. But she gave me the talking-to of my life, like I was her own kin.
I didn’t listen to her every word—I kept eyeing that door, wanting to run. But I stayed. She could always call the cops, after all. “You’ve been given an opportunity,” she said. “Don’t waste it. There aren’t any second chances in this neighborhood and don’t kid yourself.”
I went back to Miss Johnson’s a few days later, trying to make amends for damaging her car. I picked up groceries, helped around the house. I went again the next week, and I kept going back.
“How are your grades?” she’d ask. “Did you win the game?” Why does she want to know? I wondered. But I liked that she cared. Sure, my mom cared, a lot, but she worked so much. Miss Johnson always had the time.
At 14, I went to live with my grandparents. I spent more time studying. Miss Johnson had told me good grades were the key to a better life. Football, basketball, baseball and track kept me busy too. I do want to change, I prayed. I want to make Miss Johnson and my family proud.
One night, I said to Moses, “I’m going to go to college, like Grandpa always tells us. I’m going to make something of myself.”
Easier said than done. I won a football scholarship to Alcorn State, a college in Mississippi that had sent a ton of football players to the pros. My sophomore year, I fell for Betina, a clarinet player with the band. I was still fooling around with marijuana, though, and Betina didn’t like that.
The Olympic trials were coming up, and I had an opportunity to compete in the high jump. She couldn’t understand why I would risk that. “God is testing you, Donald,” she said. “You have to make a choice.”
Just like Miss Johnson said, I thought. Over the years, she’d become like a real grandmother to me. The last time I’d visited her, she was frail, and it was clear she didn’t have much time left. “I’ll be praying for you,” she said.
All throughout the trials, I thought about her and the chance she’d given me. I didn’t make the Olympic team, but when I got back to school, I found out my roommates had been busted for dealing dope. “That could have been you,” I could hear Miss Johnson say. She passed away not long after.
It was a major wake-up call. I’d been trying to start a new life while still making the bad choices that ruled my old one. So I buckled down. I earned my bachelor’s degree in accounting. Betina got hers in criminal justice.
I worked hard on the football field too. In 1999, the Green Bay Packers picked me in the last round of the draft. I was a long shot to make the team, but then again, I’d been a long shot most of my life. I retired last year after 14 seasons with the Packers.
Betina and I are married, with three children. I pray they’ll make good choices in life, like the one I’ll never regret: turning back to help Miss Johnson.
I’m convinced God put her in my path for a reason. I turned down an alley to escape the cops, to evade responsibility. Little did I know I’d find a way to a better life than I could ever have imagined.
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