BOSTON -- Dennis Harding is Exhibit A in support of the African adage, "It takes a whole village to raise a child."
When his mother and father were unable, Harding's grandparents raised him. The Educational Opportunity Program at Lake Clifton-Eastern High provided a way up and out. There were guidance counselors to help prepare for the Scholastic Assessment Test, and coaches who fought to get him noticed at all-star games.
A most unlikely member of the Boston College football team, Harding is grateful to all, but what was it that made him take their hands and let them lead him in the right direction?
"Sometimes I ask myself that," Harding said. "I think the reason I'm here, I aimed high by looking at my parents, the failure in their lives. My father has been incarcerated. My mother has had drug problems, too. It comes from seeing so much failure in the neighborhood, so much failure around me. I didn't want to go that route."
The path Harding took landed him an athletic scholarship to BC.
A 1994 graduate of Lake Clifton, Harding is a redshirt freshman who, with 21 catches, is the Eagles' fourth-leading receiver. Perhaps you saw his knees shaking when he began his college career Aug. 27 against Ohio State in front of 62,000 at the Meadowlands or his cool touchdown catch that beat Virginia Tech.
Harding gave his first media interview in a conference room at Boston College's Conte Forum recently. It sounded like an Oscar acceptance speech, with thanks for the many people who got him here.
The list begins with his grandparents.
"My grandparents always saw the good in things," Harding said. "I'd come home with my head down, but they let me know it would be all right if I just stayed in school and kept my head straight."
Olivia Harding, 64, is a retired nurse. Her husband, Wiley, also 64, spent decades laboring at Bethlehem Steel. They have provided for and watched out for Dennis and his sisters, and it wasn't easy. Dennis has a daughter, Jasmine, who lives in Florida with her mother. She's 5, which means that Dennis was 13 and in the eighth grade when he became a father.
When Harding entered Lake Clifton in fall 1990, he was aided by the luck of the draw. He was one of 120 incoming freshmen selected for the Educational Opportunity Program, a private-public support system that uses a wide array of resources, from mentors to summer enrichment courses at Morgan State to the promise of college scholarships.
"All kids have potential, and we challenge them," said Nathaniel McFadden, a state senator who, between stints in political office, was Harding's EOP facilitator. "There were naysayers when it came to Dennis. I told him that you can't change the things that have happened in your family, but you can make a mark for yourself."
David White, his high school football coach, said he worried that Harding would end up like others who were unable to further their education.
"You say college to a lot of these kids, and it doesn't mean anything to them," said White, now athletic director and football coach at Douglass High. "Dennis was way beyond being a normal high school receiver, but it was hard getting colleges interested in him. When they looked at his SAT, they dropped tTC out, but he kept working on that."
Not before some despondence.
"My first semester as a high school senior, my grades slipped under a 2.0," Harding said. "I put a college scholarship out of my mind. Coach White got some recruiters to come in, and they reminded me of the opportunities out there, but I thought I had blown it all."
Harding impressed the college scouts and the selection committees for the city-county and Chesapeake Classic all-star games. He continued to receive SAT tutoring, and, on his third attempt, raised his score to 930, well beyond the NCAA minimum for freshman eligibility.
Most major-college scholarships were gone, but Dan Henning and the new staff at Boston College invited Harding on a recruiting visit. Described as quiet and shy by all, Harding was coached in showcasing his assets by Michelle Yates, a counselor at Lake Clifton. His grandmother allayed his fears about jet travel.
Harding said he understands that he does not come from the normal Boston College background. Other Baltimoreans on the Eagles team come from prep schools such as Gilman or suburban schools such as Dulaney.
"Dennis has had to understand that there's a psychology of competition in a school like Boston College," said Bob Harrison, Eagles receivers coach. "The first semester he was here, he thought he was doing a lot better than he really was. He had to pick it up, but he's a fast learner. The guy has yet to miss a practice."
Harding stayed on campus last summer, trying to stay ahead academically. He's enrolled in the College of Arts and Sciences, and sometimes wonders what he would be doing if it weren't for his grandparents and teachers, coaches and counselors at Lake Clifton.
"If certain things hadn't gone right for me," Harding said, "I'd be sleeping at 8 o'clock in the morning instead of being in Spanish class."