A lot of the kids running the streets of Baltimore City didn’t grow up in a stable home environment. Many of them attend a school system that is failing them. They feel berated, belittled and beat down by an aggressive and overzealous police force. A lot of them are criminalized, colonized and dehumanized by a society that rejects them and blames them for their own oppression and misfortune. A great number of them didn’t have both parents in the home, but in spite of these dark times and their bitter misfortune, they always had Keion.
Keion Carpenter wasn’t an extremely tall man. He stood 6 feet tall with a slight limp in his step that he usually disguised as a strut. He had a big endearing smile that he almost always had adorning his face while among friends. But to the people of Baltimore and almost everyone else who knew him, Keion was a giant.
In a city more known for its crumbling infrastructure, sky-high murder rate, suffocating drug addiction, and drowning levels of poverty, he was the one with the golden ticket. He overcame every obstacle that faced him to achieve both athletically and academically, earning an athletic scholarship to Virginia Tech, where he played for coach Frank Beamer before graduating in 1999 and fighting his way into the league as an undrafted free agent with the Buffalo Bills, where he played for three years. He then went on to play for the Atlanta Falcons in a six-year NFL career.
Known for his scrappy style of play, blue-collar work ethic, and fearless guts as a hard-hitting defensive back, Keion was well known for his toughness.
Upon retirement, Keion made a decision that would change his life forever, along with the lives of thousands of families and young children whom he would go on to work with through his nonprofit, the Carpenter House. He chose to come home to the city that raised him, and to use his NFL platform and resources to help change the city and the lives of the people in it for the better.
By the time we officially met, he was already four years into establishing his vision of transforming the lives of the people and children of Baltimore City, as well as Atlanta, where he also spent a lot of his time doing community work, establishing sports camps and outreach programs after growing connected to the city and the plight of its people during his playing time there. I was an ambitious but naive 20-year-old college junior, preparing to leave school to enter the NFL Draft in 2009. Assured that the potential millions I was about to make would allow me to completely change the lives of my family and I, along with fixing all the problems of my hometown through my own charity work, Keion was my first real taste of reality on that subject.
“Slow down lil Bro … way down,” he said, interrupting me in the middle of my young arrogant rant, boasting about all the great things I was about to do. “You don’t have any idea how deep the well goes yet when it comes to fixing all that’s wrong with this city and the neighborhoods we come from.”
He explained, “You might think that this check you got coming is enough to change the world bro, I been there. But what you need to change the world isn’t money, it's what God put in your heart already. … That’s all you need.”
I’ll never forget those words.
Soon after I was drafted, I got a call … to my surprise, it was Keion. He offered a partnership that would go on to change the trajectory of my career and my life in ways that I couldn’t even begin to comprehend at that moment. He went on to show me exactly how he went about establishing his nonprofit on the basis of empowering the most vulnerable of our disadvantaged families and urban youth in Baltimore. We decided to come together with former NFL wide receiver and fellow Baltimorean Bryant Johnson in a partnership to create Baltimore Team Shutdown, now known as “Shutdown Academy.”
Over the course of the next few years, Keion took me under his wing and taught me what it really means to give back. He taught me by showing me what it means to be selfless. He taught me by being accessible, attentive, and always present in the moment with whoever we worked with. He taught me what it means to really touch people and make spiritual connections, he taught me what it means to minister to people, not in the church, but on the streets where they needed it most. He taught me how to serve them. He taught me that kindness and goodness are so much more than simple acts of convenience, that they are essential components to how we should live our lives and deal with people on a daily basis, and they are also the key to transformative change in the lives of the people we are able to touch. He showed me what it really looks like to dedicate 110 percent of yourself to the idea that we all have to become our own agents of change in order to re-create the kind of city that we want to live in.
During this time, I also came to know and admire him as a father. Being in the NFL, I saw first hand how the game and its demands robbed children of their father’s time, presence, and proximity; making absentee fathers out of otherwise good men. Every one of those stereotypes were shattered the day that I met Keion Carpenter. He absolutely adored his children. He enjoyed every aspect of fatherhood. Most days, he was a soccer dad disguised as a tough guy. He loved taking his kids to practices and games as much as he did being present in every other aspect of their lives. As a new father myself at the time, he counseled and taught me the importance of doing whatever it takes to be there for your children, and he would always challenge that all fathers within an earshot distance to do the same.
It was personal for him.
He saw our youth as we should all see them, as our last best hope for a brighter tomorrow. He was adamant about us as black men being willing to get uncomfortably involved with our children in a society that labels and stereotypes us as all being absent in their lives. He challenged all men to be the types of dads that aren’t too cool to go to the school and have lunch with their daughters or have uncomfortable but necessary conversations with their sons about how to treat women with respect in a society that doesn’t defend them.
For the kids that knew him as coach Keion, he was more than just a mentor or role model, he was a lifeline to some, a surrogate father for others, a big brother to many, and a lifelong friend and counselor to all, because when Keion said that he had your back, he didn’t just mean it in the figurative sense, you were really stuck with him for life. And for the rest of my life, I’ll be forever grateful to have been so connected to someone I started off respecting as a role model, then coming to know as a friend, then coming to love as a brother. Now to be remembered forever as exactly what he was… a hero.
No hour of the night was too late to wake him with a call or a text. No situation was too insignificant or insurmountable to warrant his attention. All he needed to be drawn to action was for someone to be in need, especially our youth. There were no lengths in which he wasn’t prepared to go when he knew one of our babies or their families needed his help. He would literally give you the shirt off his back, food off his plate and money out of his pocket without hesitation if he believed it would bring the least bit of hope to someone who felt they couldn’t find another way. He was truly doing God's work here on earth.
Through my work with Keion I came to know and fall in love with the satisfaction and fulfillment that comes from making real efforts to transform people’s lives in a tangible way. I began to draw strength from the personal connections forged by building relationships I was able to build with people while in the midst of their struggle. I began to see grassroots work and community building that Keion introduced me to as a personal responsibility rather than a necessity born of convenience and privilege. Over time it became such a big part of my life that I realized that I was more emotionally invested in my grassroots work than I was in my football career.
A year later I made the decision to step away from the game to do my artwork and community activism full time. Keion was one of the first people I talked to about it afterwards. We talked about what led to it, then we prayed, and since that moment he supported my decision and newfound direction wholeheartedly, offering his support in any and every way possible. It took me until today to really begin to grasp just how much Keion himself factored into the transition that led to my decision. I now stand forever in his debt for opening my eyes and helping me to realize that it’s what you do with your life for others and not what you do as a pawn on some field of play for people’s entertainment, that defines who you are as a man.
It will be weeks, maybe even months before the real weight of his tragic loss is felt in full capacity. But in his wake is left a deep, dark void. How do you replace the value of a man with such an insatiable appetite and desire for serving others and changing lives with no thought of payment, reward, or personal recognition? You may not have known Keion, but if you live in the city of Baltimore, believe me or not, his life has probably affected you, directly or indirectly.
Maybe you’ve met one of the thousands of kids to matriculate through the Commitment 4 Change youth camp, or maybe you know a few of the hundreds of kids to play on a team in one of the chapters of Shutdown Academy. You may live next to or around one of the hundreds of families that he has helped to find affordable housing through Carpenter House in a city known for its predatory homeowner’s associations, and unfair lending practices that leave many citizens in substandard living conditions. Or maybe your own child has been taught by one of the many young black aides and educators, whom he has helped to find placement in our struggling school system to provide a safety net to kids with learning disabilities, extreme cases of trauma, and mental health issues etc. Most importantly, you could have crossed paths with one of the countless individuals whose lives were on a destructive track before receiving his mentorship.
Knowingly or unknowingly, Keion’s fingerprints are all over this city and will continue to be for years and even generations to come because of his tireless commitment and dedication to the people and city of Baltimore. Countless youth who have been under his tutelage have now made their way to becoming Division I student athletes, earning full athletic scholarships to get free educations at some of the nation's top academic institutions, which will change their lives forever, all because of Keion’s dedication, loyalty, and influence. Guys like Tavon Austin, William Crest, Raymond Jackson, Daelun Darrien, Charles Tapper, Trevor Williams, Lawrence Cager, Jaquan Davis, and Adrian Amos are a testament to how priceless his contributions were.
In a world where most of our youth equate success with growing up, getting rich, and getting out, Keion represented the reality of what success really should look like … growing up, getting paid, and bringing those much-needed resources and connections back to the communities and the people who so desperately need them.
Keion was, is, and will remain one of the most incredible and irreplaceable human beings that I have ever met. He spent his life in the service of others, and it stands as high praise to say that as great an athlete as he was, his accomplishments as an athlete pale in comparison to his achievements as a man, father, son, friend, and human being. To honor his legacy is to honor the best parts of ourselves and our city, because he represented us. He was a voice for the voiceless, an advocate for the oppressed, brutalized, and disenfranchised, and a face for those who are often made to feel invisible.
Knowing him has changed my life in ways that I still have not yet begun to understand or comprehend. But I’m still so thankful for the contributions that he made in my life while he was here. I look back on his time here and I can’t help but think of all of the success stories he has contributed to.
I’ll miss him in so many different ways. I’ll miss our late-night counseling sessions just talking about life, fatherhood, relationships, politics etc. I'll miss his laugh and his uniquely disarming personality. I'll miss his fearless passion for the youth of the city of Baltimore. More than anything, I’ll just miss and be forever grateful for his friendship. And like many others I'll be thankful for his commitment to the people of Baltimore City.
We should all strive to further Keion’s legacy by making sure that the organizations and resources that he dedicated his life to establishing are maintained and sustained in his absence. And by making sure that the hundreds of kids still being serviced by these organizations can continue to reap their benefits. We should all honor his memory by making sure the goals that he was fighting for are achieved.
We all should take it upon ourselves to fill the void and be the next Keion Carpenter!
Rest in Power to a true Baltimore legend.
Aaron Maybin is a former NFL player and a co-founder of Shutdown Academy, a program within The Carpenter House.