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Hot Dawg; Anthony Lawston's beginnings were a blueprint for failure. But for his spirit and determination, the Eastern Technical High School superstar's story might have been quite different.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Tell me where do you go when you got no dough, "There must be a way out of here. "But I've got to find some peace of mind, "There must be a place that I can find." -- Garnet Mimms and the Enchanters

On the sidewalk near Big Boyz Bail Bonds and the liquor store, a few men stand in a splash of sunlight and speak in reverent tones of the high school kid everyone calls "Dawg."

It's a nearly discarded neighborhood, a tiny chunk of Middle River in eastern Baltimore County, the kind of place where police removed two public telephones because dopers were using them to run their packages.

For now, despair is missing from the voices of the regulars.

"Ah-ight, the boy's gone to the top," says a guy wearing two hats against the winter.

An older man, way tired around the eyes, remembers a newspaper picture of Dawg trotting into an end zone. "Young blood got it," he spouts. "Ain't nobody got it like that boy, yea. Nobody."

Some of these lost souls actually do know Dawg, but most merely pretend, riding on a most delicious dream. Many remember four years ago when Dawg lived a few steps away, in the grim Village of Tall Trees apartments, then one of the most crime-ridden spots in the county, today a place officials want redeveloped. Dawg ran nightly training sprints past the hookers and drug hawkers.

But now Dawg's life is elsewhere. Now he is Anthony Lawston, football superstar at Eastern Technical High School. Poised to graduate with honors, he was one of the most recruited players in the nation last season -- offered full scholarships by the University of Wisconsin, University of Southern California, University of North Carolina, University of Maryland, Penn State and Georgia Institute of Technology, better known as Georgia Tech.

Now he is Anthony Lawston, standing wide-eyed before a locker bearing his name on the sparkling campus of Georgia Tech, flown to Atlanta for the Big Sell. Hanging there is a gold and white football jersey emblazoned with his name and number -- 80. If Lawston signs with Tech, the recruiters tell him, he will play football, share a gleaming dormitory room equipped with a personal computer and cable, and earn one of the most coveted college degrees in the nation. Baby, this is pure heaven.

Flying back, Lawston's mind drifts to the future. Staring at the white puffs of clouds below the jet's wing, he sees a prestigious engineering degree, an NFL career Jerry Rice, Keyshawn Johnson, Randy Moss, Anthony Lawston.

A most delicious dream.

Back on the corner, the men stop talking about the "Dawg" and drift away in pairs, alone. They head back to the dying neighborhood. They have their own dreams to chase.

Earned his place

Anthony Lawston never forgets he has carefully sidestepped the abyss that has sucked so much young promise from the world. Anything in his possession has been earned.

The heartbreak associated with his private odyssey runs deep, and when the subject arises, Lawston hides behind a practiced smile. At times, though, he unveils a hard edge; the 6-foot-3, 220-pounder has crushed the face masks of four high school opponents with clean but furious hits.

When Anthony was a child, there was nothing but the depressing surroundings of Cocoa, Fla.'s, "Little Vietnam," named for its violence and drugs. The crack boys in the housing project took over from the heroin merchants in the early '80s, unleashing regular firefights for control over the street market. Anthony's mother found herself smack dab in the middle of it.

Phyllis was 16 when Anthony was born. She had fallen hard for the crack pipe, and kept having babies -- Steven, Sedric, Nakaita and Carey. She went from using to dealing. There was always a crowd at her apartment, something not unknown to the local police.

It's difficult, but Anthony recalls the day in 1987 when he, a 6-year-old, accidentally walked into his mother's bedroom. Through a thick veil of smoke, he saw his mother with her friends getting high, cooking up cocaine rocks. Acting on "instinct" -- that's the only way Anthony or his mom can explain it now -- Anthony gathered up his siblings, carrying the youngest, Carey, in his arms. They headed across busy Route 520 and seven blocks away to the house of his grandmother, Joann Smith.

"I didn't even know my kids were gone," Phyllis says today, sadly. "I went to look for them in their rooms and they weren't there. Those days, it was crazy, so crazy."

Smith was away at work that day. She came home to find the five children in her living room.

"I was pulling my car up my driveway and a neighbor told me she saw the children walking across the street, up past the ABC Lounge, and I said, 'My god' and ran inside," Smith recalls.

Smith moved the children into her home. She enclosed her carport and put in two double bunk beds for the boys. The little girl slept with one of Smith's own small daughters.

In the next few years, Phyllis would be arrested several times for possessing and dealing crack. In her last hitch, in 1991, she went to prison for eight months in Lantana, Fla. Smith took the kids to visit. "I knew my daughter was awfully sick but really loved her children," Smith says.

Because Smith had six children of her own, raising her daughter's was tough. So in 1993 she sent Anthony and Steven to Maryland, to live in Essex with their aunt and uncle, Valarie and Christopher Morris.

Soon afterward, Phyllis, clean from drugs, caught a Greyhound bus for Baltimore. She began a maintenance job, then moved with her two sons into Tall Trees along Old Eastern Avenue.

It would have been easy for Anthony to fall in with the wrong crowd, but nearly from the start at Eastern Tech High, Anthony was an eye-catcher. On the football field, he was fluid. In school, he made National Honor Society. He respected people who stood for something positive, who were generous with their knowledge and life experience. They responded by closing ranks around him.

His coach, Nick Arminio, pushed Anthony on the field, then welcomed him into his family's home for spaghetti dinners and friendship. Principal Robert Kemmery saw a leader in the 15-year-old, and the student didn't disappoint -- he was junior class president and varsity football captain for three years.

"It was amazing to me, watching him over four years overcome his adversities, blocking out his troubles," said Arminio, a rapid-fire talker who brought his football team from a 1-9 season -- Anthony's freshman year -- to the regional state championship last fall. "He had a bad injury in that championship game and essentially played on one leg. There is never an excuse with Anthony." Tech lost, 45-29.

Anthony surrounded himself with friends who had goals -- his girlfriend, Elisha Carter, is headed for University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Friend and teammate Frank Shannon is shooting for the U.S. Naval Academy.

And Anthony made a promise to himself: Never let grades or football slip.

In his senior year, he was ranked as the sixth hottest high school football prospect in the nation by a private ranking service. He ended his career with 152 receptions for 2,992 yards and 25 touchdowns. In the past two seasons as a defensive back -- Anthony played both offense and defense -- he had 19 interceptions, five of which he returned for scores.

When he graduates in June, his GPA will be 3.13.

"It wasn't so much his being a star but the way he became a star, his desire to achieve," says Shannon. "In practice, Anthony would run his pass patterns full tilt, just like a game. That's how he conducted his life. He always felt like the pressure was on him, like people were depending on him to make it to the top.

"But," adds Shannon, "nobody put pressure on Anthony but Anthony. He had to hit the books hard to stay in the National Honor Society while playing sports. He volunteered for things around school, like selling sandwiches at games or taking tickets, like he felt a duty to his school. For money, he worked four nights a week as a movie usher in Essex. The guy just wrings every bit he can out of life."

An early start

One recent night, sitting around the large glass dining-room table in their sixth-floor apartment, the Lawstons -- Anthony, Steven, Sedric and Carey surrounding Mom -- are joyous. Anthony accepted Georgia Tech's full scholarship offer. The signing will be in February.

But Anthony isn't waiting. Typical Anthony. He has signed up for a summer engineering course to study the lay of the land at Georgia Tech. He wants to enter his freshman year confident, not intimidated by a monster of an engineering program.

Sitting there, you can't avoid the striking similarity between mother and son. While their relationship was cool when she first moved to Baltimore, he began to respect her again as she stayed drug-free. She married a local cabbie, Samuel Nwachukwu, and now works six days a week renting apartments.

"I can't believe he's going away," says Phyllis, 34, clean now for eight years. "Yesterday he was born and now he's ready to be a man. I'm a little concerned because the other boys do listen to him. I don't know what will happen when he's away."

Phyllis isn't worried about Anthony away at college; she's much more concerned about what happens in Essex and Baltimore. Anthony has been the family's stabilizer, riding his younger brothers, encouraging them to do well.

That night, three of the boys get into a tussle in the kitchen. Phyllis yells and yells but they don't listen to her. Finally, Anthony rockets from his chair and is immediately in their faces. Instant peace. "When things get out of hand, Anthony can bring it all back together," Phyllis says afterward. "Like making the boys stop fighting between themselves. They just listen to him."

Clearly, the future for Anthony's brothers is uncertain.

"I'm going to miss him," says Carey, a student at Winston Middle School. "I don't think I'll miss him staying on me about my grades, though."

Steven, a senior next fall, promises he will be big man on campus at Eastern, academically and on the football field. Like Anthony, Steven is chiseled from devoted hours in the weight room. And like his brother, he moves effortlessly on the run.

Sedric plays junior varsity basketball and studies hard, but sometimes not hard enough for Anthony's expectations. When Sedric lets his homework slide, Anthony becomes the family enforcer -- "he punches me right here," says the tall and lanky Sedric, half smiling.

Before departing for Georgia, Anthony has one last duty representing his high school and himself. There is one final page to turn in Maryland, before he continues the quest for his dream.

He'll be honored Wednesday at a banquet held by the Essex-Middle River Chamber of Commerce. They will dedicate a $500 scholarship in Lawston's name.

Anthony's family and friends will join him in perhaps his finest, but in another way most difficult, moment.

For Anthony, he can't begin to think of the appropriate words, what he might say in appreciation that night in the large banquet hall on Pulaski Highway.

There are those, however, who feel Anthony won't have to utter a word. He has done all his talking.

Pub Date: 1/21/99

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