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Looking for direction, a family finds football

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Some day, the Lundy cousins will put football aside.

Towson running back Mikal Lundy is said to have what it takes to be a preacher. Najee Lundy, a defensive back at Kent State, might become a businessman. Virginia tailback Wali Lundy is known for his rap-inspired rhymes.

"Maybe something will come out of that, too," said their grandmother, Etta Davis, of Wali's scribblings.

Former Connecticut linebacker Jamal Lundy has started to make the transition, counseling youths in the family's home state of New Jersey. Yet he also works out daily to prepare for Arena Football League tryouts.

Rajiv, the youngest football-playing cousin, is a high school senior and prospect for low Division I-A programs. If he becomes a college recruit, the sport will have furnished scholarships for five of eight boys whose goal has been to lead better lives than their fathers'.

"I was born playing football," said Mikal, who had a career-high 138 yards for Towson in a win over Holy Cross on Saturday. "I've been playing since I was 70 pounds or 65 pounds. I had to play."

Sports -- primarily football -- was the refuge that the boys' mothers sought to counter the street's temptations. Joann and Shirline Lundy were sisters who tried but failed to impose their upright values on their wayward husbands, brothers Brian and Peter Lundy.

As a sickly child with church attendance as her only avid interest, Joann had few dealings with athletics. But she wanted a better role model than the one her husband provided.

"She loved him to death," said the couple's oldest son, Shaheed, 24. "It's just that he was a street person. ... He was in jail a lot. That's why we didn't see him a lot."

Brian died of a stroke in 1989, and Joann moved her family from central New Jersey to Willingboro, near Camden. She pressed her sons into sports, hoping for an offsetting influence.

"She wanted them to do something positive," said Shirline, who had similar concerns about her own husband's lifestyle and its possible effect on her four sons and three daughters.

Three years later, Joann died of cancer, orphaning Shaheed, Jamal, Mikal and Wali. During her illness and after her death, football served as a diversion. For cousins Khayree, Kareem, Najee and Rahjee, athletics also mattered in a household increasingly without their father, Peter, who had separated from Shirline.

"It was everything -- football and basketball," said Kareem, 24, a Fairleigh Dickinson graduate. "They were probably equal, but some of us earned scholarships in football."

The sight of her grandsons in football pads came as a shock to Etta Davis after she and her husband, Frank, had given up their retirement in Florida and moved back to New Jersey to tend to their ailing daughter.

It was a Sunday. The boys, the oldest of them aged 12, came home in their pads.

"What is all of this mess?" Etta remembers thinking. "I told my daughter, "They're doing this on a Sunday, you better stop this mess!"

But keeping the boys in football, even on Sundays, was one of the wishes Joann outlined before she died in 1992 at the age of 33, counting on her parents to ensure the boys' education and spiritual well-being.

"They were old-school people with old-school values," Florence (N.J.) High School coach Joe Frapolli said of Frank and Etta Davis. "Even though they were old and not in the best shape financially, they just had that strong moral fiber."

For the first time in their lives, Joann's sons benefited from a two-parent home. Frank and Etta had the time to care for Wali when he endured an intestinal disorder that required life-saving surgery, to supply discipline and to give them rides to their football games.

Because of the grandparents, the boys continued to visit their mother's church, Cathedral International -- whose bishop, Donald Hilliard, also was a mentor.

Perhaps the most important decision that Frank and Etta made was moving from Willingboro to a house in Burlington Township, N.J., preferring the rural setting.

The relative seclusion strengthened the bond among the cousins, who all lived there at various points. The family's 2-acre yard became the scene of some of the Lundys' best moves.

"It was a free-for-all," Wali said. "It was physical, boys being boys. None of us would say that any of the others was the best, so it always turned into a competition."

In one contest, the ball carrier would try to reach an end zone against seven defenders, no matter the age differences. The rivalries ultimately prepared the youths for later triumphs and served as a salve for their personal struggle.

"That brought us closer," Najee said. "Games gave us something to get it off of our minds."

At Florence High School, which has had strong teams over the years, the coach was presented in 1996 with an assembly line of Lundys -- all of them big, fast, quick and knowledgeable about the game.

"Geez, it's like all of these guys are great athletes," Frapolli said of his reaction. "Just very multifaceted. Could have done anything they wanted to do."

At one point, in 1998, Jamal, Mikal, Najee and Wali wore consecutive jersey numbers -- Nos. 1 through 4 -- while leading the team to the state semifinals.

Playing as a linebacker, Jamal recorded 320 tackles in his last two seasons at Florence. Mikal rushed for nearly 3,000 yards and 42 touchdowns and teamed up with quarterback Najee to take Florence to the state final in 1999. The most talented of the group, Wali, eventually transferred to a more prominent football program at Holy Cross in nearby Delran, N.J., where he ran for 2,030 yards and 30 touchdowns as a senior.

Meanwhile, the oldest cousins, Shaheed and Khayree, became part of a Lundy family rooting section. Their grandfather, Frank, died of complications from heart surgery in 1998 but their grandmother, Etta, kept up her attendance. She was often joined by as many as six adult children wearing matching jerseys to games.

The success that many of the Lundys found on the field has "helped the family to come together," said Shaheed, a Rutgers graduate. Family members and friends often travel to college games, such as Saturday's 30-13 victory by Towson (3-3, 2-1) over Holy Cross. Eleven made the trip to Maryland.

The Lundys who became college prospects had hoped to stay close to home, playing for Rutgers. But the state's flagship school took a pass, meaning that the sport also forced the family to be apart. Mikal's destination was initially Kent State, a Division 1-A program that offered him a full ride unlike Towson, which he had also visited.

Mikal found only frustration at Kent, deprived of playing time. He had only 32 carries for 108 yards in his first two years. The coaching staff favored a different back.

"No matter what I did, they wouldn't give me a shot, Mikal said. "So I needed to go somewhere I could prove myself."

Towson was that place. Mikal had visited the school as a senior, but the Tigers didn't offer enough financial aid. This time, Towson had the money to entice Mikal, a 5-foot-11, 195-pound player whom the staff envisioned as a running back in the tradition of former Tigers standouts David Meggett, Tony Vinson, Jason Corle and Noah Read.

"The thing that excited us was that he was a big back," said Towson coach Gordy Combs. "He had the ability to run, but to also catch the ball, something we always look for out of our backs."

In his first session of spring practice, he caught everyone's attention when he ran full-blast in warm-ups, concerned that he wouldn't be noticed otherwise. He had no problem with visibility last fall, rushing 38 times for 201 yards before a severe hamstring injury ended his season after two games in 2002. This season, he is averaging 4.8 yards for 562 yards in six games.

"All that guy wants to do is run," senior offensive guard Jason Gunning said. "He tries to score every time he gets the ball; he'll get down on himself at times. He's such a perfectionist."

Mikal has plenty of help when it comes to critiques. So does Najee, who as a reserve linebacker, is finding the contentment at Kent State that eluded Mikal, and Wali, the Atlantic Coast Conference's leading rusher whose status for tomorrow night's game against visiting Florida State is uncertain because of an ankle injury suffered Saturday in a loss to Clemson.

Their siblings and cousins give them feedback on cell phones or in person when the family is home.

Much of the specifics are quickly discarded, they acknowledge. Four Division I-A football scholarships isn't a bad total so far. Nor are the seven college degrees that will likely come from the group. But the message is that it's possible to do better.

The next level -- the hopes of which have been pinned on Wali -- would be the NFL.

Regarding Wali's chances, Najee casually said, "There's our money right there." But he added that neither he nor Mikal gets a free pass despite playing at smaller programs.

"At Thanksgiving, you can't come home until you do something."

Lundy lineup

Three brothers ...

Mikal Lundy Towson junior Running back 5-11, 195 pounds

Wali Lundy Virginia sophomore Tailback 6-1, 212

Jamal Lundy Connecticut 1999-2002 Linebacker 6-0, 228

... and their cousins (who are brothers)

Najee Lundy Kent State junior Defensive back 6-1, 215

Rajiv Lundy Holy Cross High, Delran, N.J., senior Defensive back/quarterback 6-1, 190

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