Homeless no more

The Baltimore Sun

Bundled in thermal underwear, a wool sweater and a heavy coat, Roderick Wolfe cranked back the seat in his old Toyota hatchback and closed his eyes. Sleep and morning would come soon enough.

The 17-year-old Edmondson High athlete was oblivious to the snow that fell around him and the cold that gripped his bones. He was homeless, drifting from house to house, neighborhood to neighborhood, staying with friends and relatives, teammates and coaches.

For four nights in the winter of 2002, the inside of that hatchback was Wolfe's bedroom. He would park in a secluded spot where no one would bother him, turn off the ignition and let the world drift away. He had lost his father to AIDS two days before his 12th birthday. His mother, also lost to AIDS, was unable to help. She would die by the time Wolfe was 19. The car represented independence.

Somehow, he got through it. Somehow, the journey has brought him to a better place. Despite the dead ends and dark undertones of his youth, Wolfe has become one of Morgan State's best football players, and one of Baltimore's more improbable success stories.

"I kind of put myself in the position to be like that," he said. "I wanted to be a man at age 17, I wanted to feel like a man. If it was a hardship to go through, then so be it."

Wolfe had so many addresses growing up in Baltimore, it takes him 30 minutes to retrace the trip. He was forever on the move. After the four days in the car, he went to stay with his grandmother in Highlandtown, but that was short-lived, too.

The transformation is striking:

As a homeless senior at Edmondson High, he was a big-play wide receiver and explosive punt returner in 2002, scoring a total of 13 touchdowns.

As a young man who was constantly around the drug scene - his father sold drugs and his mother was a crack addict - he was able to avoid serious trouble and has served as a role model for high school players at Edmondson and Northwestern.

As an athlete who was not much of a student, he applied himself at Morgan and is on schedule to graduate in May with a sociology degree.

If it weren't for football and Morgan State, Wolfe, 22, knows his life would be much different.

"I'd be dead or in a jail or selling drugs, one of the three," he said solemnly. "Without football and school, man, I'd be out here doing something crazy."

Without the help of several friends along the way, he wouldn't be where he is, either. Morgan quarterback Byron Selby, who played at Dunbar and came from a single-parent family, can appreciate Wolfe's journey better than most.

"I thought my situation was bad," Selby said. "But him, it's two, three times as bad [as mine]. I told him I'm going to do everything I can to help him stay focused and get to where's he trying to go. And he knows that's from the heart."

Dante Jones, an assistant coach at Edmondson in 2002, cringed as he thought about the path Wolfe had to follow.

"Roderick went through one of the most difficult situations you can be in," Jones said. "He's overcome everything."

It wasn't all bad for Wolfe growing up in Park Heights, however. Until he was 8 years old, he said, he felt rich. His father, Jerome Wolfe, had been a member of the Black Panthers. He remembers the family home on Wylie Avenue having African pictures on the walls, statues in several rooms, antique cars in the backyard and "exotic animals everywhere."

The lifestyle was affluent. The problem, of course, was that it came from drug money.

"My father was a real good man, but he sold drugs," Wolfe said. "It isn't something he really wanted to do. It isn't something he planned. But it put food on the table and it helped him help other people [in the neighborhood] like he really wanted to."

It was during that time that Deborah Ann Williams, who lived with Jerome Wolfe but never married him, became addicted to crack. Before long, she would go missing for days - sometimes she'd be in jail, sometimes on a binge. In her absence, Wolfe's older sister, Syeeda Morsley, now 28, cared for him.

He was on the move when his father contracted HIV, living with a grandmother in Fayetteville, N.C., and an aunt, Betty Williams, and his sister in Baltimore. After his junior year at Edmondson, he lost contact with his five brothers and sister for about two years.

He didn't mind being on his own.

"I'm the type of person who's going to keep an ace in the hole," Wolfe said. "Even though I didn't really have a place to stay, I always had a lady friend that might cook me a meal, another lady friend that might wash my clothes, a homeboy that might let me come over and chill a little bit. I didn't have places to stay, but I had places I could go."

Curiously, Wolfe said these were some of the best times of his life. There were days he didn't eat more than a bag of chips, many more days when he didn't have money to buy even that.

"I was just so happy and content that eating some days [didn't] really matter," he said. "I didn't think about my situation like that until I got in college and saw how civilized people act."

To raise money, he'd jump in his 1988 Lincoln and hack - use the car as a taxi. There were also times he'd ask strangers for help.

"The most random people would help me," he said. "I talked to somebody on the bus and they might give me $5."

At the same time, he tried to keep his homelessness a secret from those at Edmondson.

"For a period, we didn't know," said Jones, the assistant coach. "After a while, we started putting things together. He'd try his best to get it done on his own."

Wolfe stayed with Jones for a short time. He stayed with another Edmondson assistant, Eric Woodson, most of the 2002 football season after head coach Pete Pompey learned of his homelessness.

"I wasn't going to let him stay in the street," Woodson said. "I discussed it with his mom, and she pretty much gave me guardianship with him. She was in bad shape.

"I knew he was going to make it just from talking to him. He basically told me that what happened to his parents wasn't going to happen to him. He always had dreams of making it big."

Wolfe's grades kept him from getting a scholarship to an elite Division I school. Pompey, a Morgan alum, steered him to Morgan coach Don Hill-Eley.

"I remember him coming in my office, sitting down and saying, 'If you give me a chance, I won't let you down. I just need a break,' " Hill-Eley said. "He hasn't let me down. He hasn't let himself down."

Hill-Eley gave him a full scholarship, red-shirted him in 2003 as a freshman and tried to restore discipline to Wolfe's life. Wolfe dealt with his mother's death in 2003, battled depression in 2004 and reeled with the loss of Edmondson teammate Darryl Smith Jr., who was shot and killed in March 2005 at age 19.

Wolfe credits Smith, who played quarterback, with helping him develop as a player.

"I didn't cry at my mother's funeral, but I cried at his," he said. "I really do appreciate that man. If it wasn't for him, I wouldn't be in college right now. He's the only person I could relate to."

Wolfe withdrew into himself. He found expression by writing poetry in a journal. He rapped and played a keyboard his sister, Syeeda, had given him.

"When you listened to his rapping, you could hear the struggle," she remembers.

Hill-Eley helped arrange visits to teammates' homes during holidays. In the summer, Wolfe stayed on campus and worked odd jobs for the Office of Residence Life.

He did not escape trouble at Morgan. He had a string of four incidents involving traffic violations during the past two years, incurring more than $500 in fines. In 2005, Maryland court records show he was arrested on a charge of marijuana possession, but charges were dropped. He has deferred-payment status on several of the fines.

"They're going to get paid," he said.

Wolfe insists he has never sold cocaine or any other drug.

"My mother did drugs, my father sold it, and I made a promise to myself and them that I would never go as far as selling cocaine," he said.

After one of Wolfe's scrapes, Hill-Eley pulled him aside with a warning. "I told him, 'Those guys you're with can make a mistake and go home. You make a mistake and you lose your home.' I really haven't had a problem since."

Those who watched Wolfe grow are impressed with the adult he has become.

"It came to be a wonderful thing, the way he applied himself," Pompey said. "He was almost a self-made man in football. I'm really proud of him because he didn't have a lot of help."

Wolfe also repaid his debt to Woodson. Since having success at Morgan, he has gone to Northwestern High several times to work with and talk to Woodson's kids.

"I can call him, say 'I've got this kid who reminds me of you, can you come talk to him?' " Woodson said. "Wolfe will come in and tell them what happened to him and say, 'You don't want to go down the same path.' He's built a relationship with some of my kids."

Earlier this month, Wolfe was baptized at the Church of the Redeemer off Old Frederick Road. It was a seeming exclamation point to a life of constant turmoil and change.

"Sometimes, it still doesn't hit my mind how bad stuff was, and I really thank God," he said. "I could've gotten killed out there. There are people out here dying. It's not a game, and now that I'm grown, I see it as real. Maybe it's because of my will that I got out of it, but if it weren't for God, I wouldn't have gotten out of it."

Wolfe, who has 10 catches for 106 yards and a touchdown this season, has followed a curious path to success. He took the road less traveled and hit almost every bump. Yet, here he is, eight months from graduation and a year away from a potential pro football career.

"It was real bad at times," Wolfe said, "but I made the best of it. It seems like I never get dealt the right hand, but I always make the best of it."

ken.murray@baltsun.com

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