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His brother's keeper

The Baltimore Sun

Todd Bozeman adored his older brother Danny. It was Danny who taught him to swim, drive and do all the stuff a younger sibling ought to know.

When Todd needed money, Danny gave him a buck. When Todd got into scrapes, Danny had his back.

When Danny died at 55 in 2007, he left behind an orphaned teenage son, Okoye. Todd knew right away that he would look after the 15-year-old just as Danny had once watched over him.

"If something happens to me, Bony, I want you to raise Okoye," Danny had said.

"For sure," Todd replied. "Bony" had been Danny's pet name for him since Todd was a skinny youngster. No one else dared call him that.

So when a pulmonary embolism claimed Danny two years ago, Todd Bozeman buried his big brother. Then he scooped up Okoye, took him home to Bowie and set another place at the family table.

The Bozemans have two teens of their own - Blake, 16, and Brianna, 15.

"Now, when people ask how many children we have, I say, 'three,' " said Bozeman, the men's basketball coach at Morgan State.

He still grieves the loss of his brother, 12 years Todd's senior.

"I was an aggressive kid," he said. "It wasn't uncommon for me to possibly get into a scuffle now and then. But Danny was always there to help. He gave me money to go to my prom [at Bishop McNamara High in Forestville] and let me take his car, a yellow Camaro."

A faded program from his brother's memorial service sits on Bozeman's desk at work. But having his nephew in tow helps him cope.

"I talk to Danny all the time and tell him how great 'O' is doing," Bozeman said. In fact, the once-chubby, underachieving Okoye has blossomed since moving in in May 2007. His grades are up; his weight is down. Now 17, he made the football and track teams at Bowie High, where Okoye plays linebacker, throws the shot put and runs the 55-meter dash.

Adapting to his adopted home wasn't easy, Okoye said. Bozeman, 45, is as demanding of his charges off the basketball court as on. Studies are a rigor - every night, for weeks, Okoye's aunt quizzed him on his classwork. Household chores are divvied up among the kids and monitored. Bedtime is 10 on weeknights. And there's no junk food in the fridge.

Okoye's life is laced with structure, teamwork and accountability.

"I take raising young men and women very seriously," Bozeman said. "God has given me an awesome responsibility, and I'm going to fulfill it. I've always been the 'tough love' guy. I'm not worried about hurting any feelings."

Initially, Okoye balked at the academic regimen. "My aunt even got me a tutor," he said. "I said, 'Do we have to go through all of this?' "

Yes, they said, he did. And now?

"I'm a 3.0 student."

Okoye seldom speaks of his parents. His mother, Mary, succumbed to bone cancer in 2004. Three years later, Okoye's dad - a surveyor for Pepco - died.

"After Mom passed, whenever her birthday or Christmas came up, it felt weird," Okoye said. "Same with my dad. He was a good man, a helping man. But I know my father wouldn't want me to just think about his death and not go on with my life."

Between their deaths came another - Todd Bozeman's father, the family's patriarch. Ira Bozeman died of lung cancer on New Year's Day 2006.

That loss hit Todd Bozeman hard, too, though he won't dwell on it.

"When I start feeling down about my dad, I think of how 'O' lost both parents before the age of 16," the coach said. "I can't imagine what that's like."

In a way, Ira Bozeman's demise drew his grandsons together. After his death, Okoye and Blake thought of getting tattoos honoring their loved ones.

On Okoye's left arm are the words "Rest In Peace Mom And Dad" beneath two clasped hands.

Blake's right arm bears the same praying hands and the inscription, "Rest In Peace Poppy."

"Neither Todd nor myself are very high on tattoos," said Bozeman's wife, TeLethea. "But what the boys got was acceptable."

Blake accepted Okoye from the start. They've been friends since grade school and, at one time, lived on the same street in Mitchellville. Also, Okoye's arrival meant fewer chores for Blake to do.

"Instead of Brianna and me having to wash the dishes every other week, now it's every three weeks," Blake said. "But besides that, it's kind of cool having a brother in the house, someone to talk to and laugh with."

Caring for her nephew has cut both ways, TeLethea Bozeman said.

"For our children, Okoye has brought an appreciation of family," she said. "Now, more than ever, they realize that you can't take family for granted because you never know what can happen."

Todd Bozeman sees a lot of his brother in Okoye. Like his dad, Okoye is quiet and even-keeled. He washes the family's car and totes in the groceries without being asked.

"He's in sync around here," the coach said. "It's working out great."

Several months ago, as he dozed in a chair in the family room, a thought jolted Bozeman awake.

"I said, 'Danny hasn't called me in a while,' " he said. "Then I thought, 'Oh, man, I forgot.' "

Bozeman hopes Danny would be proud of him for his part in raising Okoye.

"But I ain't done yet," he said. "I want 'O' to go to college, be a good citizen and have a good life. Then I can relax and say, 'I did my job.' "

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