SUDSVILLE 24-HOUR Coin Laundry sits on the main drag of Reisterstown, Md., right off I-795 in the northern suburbs of Baltimore. The low-slung building, framed by fast-food joints, gas stations and strip malls, is filled wall-to-wall with washers, driers, change dispensers, vending machines and overhead TV monitors tuned to the local news.
For Isaiah Lamb, Sudsville wasn't just a place to bring his dirty clothes. Thanks to the benevolence of its workers, who turned a blind eye, the laundry provided Isaiah's bathroom, rec room and study hall for much of last spring and summer. Night after night, the high school junior and his parents, Donald and Valerie, drove their black 2002 Hyundai Elantra into the back parking lot at Sudsville, hoping none of their friends or Isaiah's classmates saw them. They washed their bodies and brushed their teeth at the bathroom sinks. Dinner might be a snack from a vending machine. As Valerie and Donald watched TV or read, Isaiah did his homework, using a folding table as a desk and sometimes a laundry cart as a chair. When he finished, the family piled back into the Elantra. Valerie took the passenger seat, Donald settled behind the wheel, and Isaiah pretzeled his 6'5" frame into the backseat. Then they tried to sleep.
"Many nights I would cry looking at him, because he was so crunched up in the back," Valerie says of Isaiah. "I would say, 'You all right?' He would say, 'I'm all right, Ma.' "
Money had always been scarce for the Lambs, but early in 2014 they plunged into financial free fall. Donald suffered a heart attack while working as a maintenance man at a Baltimore nursing home. He recovered after months of convalescence but didn't get his job back. Beset by the stress of Donald's illness and unemployment, Valerie caught walking pneumonia, which forced her to take time off from work as an EMT. The Lambs incurred more medical bills without the income to cover them. Then came a sequence all too familiar to many Americans, particularly during the recent recession: overdue notices, denied or unattainable credit, eviction, homelessness.
The same long and lithe physique that made sleeping in the backseat so uncomfortable helped Isaiah succeed in football, baseball and basketball. He dunked for the first time in seventh grade, and by his freshman year at Dulaney High in Timonium, Md., he was starting for the varsity. Sports were a source of escape and joy. "I just went out and had fun," says Isaiah. "It took my mind off of what was going on."
Isaiah's living situation exacted a price on his game, however. He missed tournaments and AAU events because the Lambs couldn't afford the entrance fees or were on the move. How do you sign up for leagues when you don't have a permanent address? How do you arrive at practice on time when you have to take three public buses and a subway to get to school, as Isaiah did? How do you add muscle or stay in shape when dinner often consists of a 99-cent cheeseburger or a snack from a vending machine? How do you fit into a team when you're hiding a secret?
"[Teammates] would say, 'Hey, let's go to your house,' " Isaiah recalls. "I'd make up excuses: 'Aw, my mom's sleeping.' What I couldn't tell them was that I didn't have a home."
AS ACCEPTANCE speeches go, it was a bravura performance. In May, Kevin Durant received the NBA's Most Valuable Player award. Standing before a room full of family, fans, Thunder teammates and team employees, Durant was all honesty, humility and emotion. The moment of soaring sentiment, though, came when he addressed and thanked his mother, Wanda Pratt. "Everybody told us we weren't supposed to be here," he said. "We moved from apartment to apartment by ourselves. One of the best memories I have is when we moved into our first apartment. No bed, no furniture, and we just all sat in the living room and hugged each other because we thought we made it.... You made us believe. You kept us off the street, put clothes on our backs, food on the table. When you didn't eat, you made sure we ate. You went to sleep hungry. You sacrificed for us. You're the real MVP."
At that moment, talking vividly and without shame about his experience, Durant laid bare the plight of the displaced athlete. Untold others have experienced a version of Durant's childhood hardship. B.J. Mullens, a former teammate of Durant's in Oklahoma City, ran out of fingers when a reporter once asked him to count the houses in Ohio that he had variously called home. At Super Bowl XLV, wide receiver James Jones, then with the Packers, spoke about living in homeless shelters "from coming out of the [maternity ward] until I was a freshman in high school." Chardé Houston, the WNBA forward and former UConn star, was 12 when financial troubles forced her family to live out of a car. Ryan Mathews, the Chargers running back, spent four months as an infant living with his mother in a 1969 Oldsmobile. The teenage homelessness of Michael Oher, now a Titans tackle, inspired the book and movie The Blind Side.
Most often we hear these wrenching stories after an athlete—like Durant—has reaped millions as a pro. But what about the current young players who bounce from couch to couch, use the team locker room as a place to bathe, or sleep under the bleachers of the high school football field? What about the ones who head to practice hungry, distracted by the stress of struggling to meet their most basic needs? What about those whose eligibility is often threatened because their lives are itinerant?
At a time when the U.S. homeless student population is at a record high, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED undertook a six-month investigation of homelessness among young athletes. "Some players, you worry about how they are spending Friday and Saturday nights," says Matt Lochte, Isaiah Lamb's high school coach. "Other kids, you worry: Is there a pillow under their heads?"
First, the numbers: In 2012--13 the U.S. Department of Education documented more than 1.2 million homeless students in the nation's public elementary, middle and high schools, defining homelessness as "the lack of a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence." That represents an astounding 58% increase since the beginning of the recession in 2008. The total includes students who sleep in cars, parks and motels, but the vast majority—about 900,000—"double up," residing with relatives or friends.
It's impossible to know precisely how many homeless athletes compete for middle schools and high schools, but even the most conservative extrapolation of data from the DOE and from individual school districts is startling: The total is above 80,000. When homeless students in youth sports—for instance, Chicago's Jaheim Benton, the recent Little League World Series star—and college sports are factored in, it surpasses 100,000.
In the Mobile (Ala.) County school system, for example, 27.6% of homeless students competed for middle and high school teams in 2013--14. In Kansas City, Kans., the figure was 20%. In the Cypress Fairbanks Independent School District of Texas, the third largest in the state, 16.8% of homeless students played on teams. If only 17% of the nation's 483,929 homeless students in grades seven to 12 participated in sports, their number would still come to 82,268.
Moreover, advocates for the homeless say that the numbers are underreported. Many students don't realize they're homeless as defined by the DOE, according to Cyekeia Lee, director of higher education initiatives for the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth. Says Jonathan Brice, deputy assistant secretary for policy in the DOE's Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, "I would expect to see the number [of homeless students] increase as we get better at finding these kids."
Sports, according to virtually every homeless athlete SI interviewed, are a positive force in their lives. Coaches often become mentors and even surrogate parents; pregame and postgame meals provide essential nourishment; kids benefit from the exercise and structure. "I didn't even care that much about playing in the game," says Solomon Watson, 18, a homeless linebacker who played for Morristown (N.J.) High last year. "I liked going to football practice, because it gave me a place to be, where I'm cool with everybody and our team is like a family." As Olympic hurdler and bobsledder Lolo Jones (below) recalls, "No matter what was going on, I knew I could always go to basketball practice and track practice. It was something that was a constant in my life."
Sports provide academic benefits as well. Young people who had experienced homelessness were 87% more likely to stop going to school than their nonhomeless classmates, according to a study by America's Promise Alliance and Tufts University that was released in May. Sports often keep kids in class, help them graduate and, in some cases, get them into college. "What we are doing by having athletic programs," says Brice, "is keeping [homeless athletes] away from outside factors that would derail their chances at a successful future."
But while sports provide balm for homeless students, homelessness can undermine even the most promising athletic career.
By age 12, 83% of homeless students have been exposed to at least one serious violent event, according to a 2004 study in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry.
THE DOOR to the steel cage swung open. Inside, a large man in his early 30s balled his hands into fists. He looked to be about 6'3" and 280 pounds, all snarl and swagger. Lawrence Mattison, a 17-year-old high school running back, stood a few feet away, gripping a bottle of whiskey. He took a swig and stepped inside.
The cage looked like a holding cell for pit bulls. It sat on a hard floor inside a dimly lit building of corrugated metal on the East Side of San Antonio. At tables surrounding the cage, men wagered on the outcome. There was no referee. There were two house rules: 1) The fight ended when someone quit or got knocked out, and 2) only the winner collected a cash prize.
In the hallways of Smithson Valley High in suburban Spring Branch, Texas, in the late spring of 2011, Lawrence cut a striking profile. Long dreads. Gold grills. Slice in his brow. A 6'1" frame carrying 225 chiseled pounds. Among his peers, he looked big. Inside the cage, he looked small.
He had gone to the fight club hungry and broke. Lawrence was the face of an emerging trend: poverty in suburban America. According to a 2012 report by the Brookings Institution, more Americans live below the poverty line in suburbia (16.5 million) than in cities (13.5 million). On the northern outskirts of San Antonio, Lawrence straddled two worlds. He walked among classmates who drove BMWs and others who received free or reduced-priced meals.
As a child, Lawrence had watched his mother call 911 before police led his father away in handcuffs. His parents divorced; his father died of heart failure. In the spring of 2011, while his mother was on a visit to California, Lawrence came home from football practice to find a 60-day eviction notice. In desperation he called a friend who told him of a job more than 30 miles away, no experience required. "Just bring your body," he was told.
The door to the steel cage clanged shut. The betting crowd recognized a mismatch: a teen debuting against a veteran fighter. What no one could see was the rage building inside the kid, fueled by the pain of losing his father and the disgust at having to fight for food. "I choked him out," Lawrence says.
The fight was a revelation. Lawrence collected $300 for three minutes of work—more than he could make flipping burgers for 40 hours a week. He began fighting every Wednesday, Friday and Sunday night. He felt the power of teenage wealth. "I made $2,300 a month," he says.
At Smithson Valley, rumors began to spread about the fight club. Cuts and bruises on Lawrence's face offered confirmation. Football coach Larry Hill pulled Lawrence into his office. The boy spilled the story through tears. Hill tried to reason with his star. He explained the risks of fighting. Lawrence countered with the truth: He was living alone, with no support. "I hear you, Coach," Hill recalls him saying, "but what are my options?"
In the fall of 2011, having quit the fight club and been evicted from the apartment, Lawrence lived for two weeks behind a gas station in an upscale neighborhood. He bathed himself in an adjoining car wash. He slept behind a Dumpster. He ate Doritos for dinner.
After his homelessness became known, he moved in with a teammate's family and slept on the couch. After several weeks there, Lawrence was taken into the home of James and Robin Perrin, a couple who did volunteer work with a Christian ministry. They gave Lawrence a spare bedroom. The Perrins brought order and accountability into his life. Lawrence had a designated time for homework and tutoring. He had a scheduled ride to school and practice. But the arrangement lasted only a couple of months. Lawrence loved the attention and the security of a home but still found it tough to adjust. Suddenly he had to answer for his classwork and whereabouts. He was unable to come and go as he pleased. "There were growing pains to the loss of freedom," says James, a lawyer. "He had been on his own for so long, it was hard to go from that to a more structured environment."
For the last two seasons of his high school career, Lawrence bounced from place to place. It wasn't optimal preparation for his future, but he rushed for 1,943 yards and 27 touchdowns as a junior and 1,426 yards and 26 TDs as a senior. In February 2013 he signed with Oregon State. He never made it to Corvallis, never played Pac-12 football. First, he failed to qualify academically. "We thought about putting together a plan that would grayshirt him, but it wasn't good for him to do that," Beavers coach Mike Riley told The Oregonian in the summer of 2013. "The last thing we told him was, 'Even if you have to go to a junior college, we're going to see you through it. We're going to get you to Oregon State.' "
Lawrence, though, failed to complete a single semester at two junior colleges, one in Kansas, the other in Texas. He left school each time for a girl in San Antonio. The relationship collapsed last spring. Recently he failed to qualify for the Navy on an Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery exam.
What's next? Lawrence, now 20, says he plans to take the exam again in hopes of becoming a Navy Seal.
According to a 1999 report from The Better Homes Fund, homeless children go hungry twice as often as other children and are five times more likely to suffer gastrointestinal problems.
BOBBY LIMON, 16, was beginning to look like the "after" picture in a weight-loss ad. Broad shoulders. Flattening stomach. Shrinking thighs. Had he stepped into a pair of his old jeans, with the 44-inch waist, they would have fallen to his feet. He could now slip into a 38. Which was ideal for a dieter but not for a star high school lineman with college aspirations.
Bobby had begun his junior year at Lehman High in Kyle, Texas, just south of Austin, as a 6'2", 310-pound offensive guard. By the end of the season, in November 2012, he had dropped to 288. A month earlier Bobby and his family had been evicted from their modest house. His father, John, had fallen behind on the rent, and for some time it had been a challenge for him to secure enough food for his ravenous son. "My stomach would growl," Bobby says. "Sometimes during practice I would mess up on my plays because I was thinking about where I was going to sleep that night. Or where—or if—we were going to get food."
The family divided. John, Bobby and Bobby's 14-year-old sister, Brianna, moved in with a sister of John's in Austin. Bobby's mother, Susan, who is disabled with MS, and his 18-year-old brother, Johnny, went to live with John's mother in another part of the state capital. Meanwhile Bobby, despite the changing contours of his body, played well enough to receive calls from eight Division I schools. But a dispute about Bobby's eligibility put his football future in jeopardy. That winter, still living in Austin, John transferred Bobby and Brianna to Hays High in Buda, Texas, where John was working. Bobby's former coach at Lehman, a rival of Hays's, protested to the state's University Interscholastic League.
John argued that Bobby had not gone to Hays for football; he transferred because John worked in Buda and it was closer to south Austin. The UIL sided with the Lehman coach and ruled Bobby ineligible to compete for Hays. (Anticipating this scenario, other states—but not Texas—have drafted legislation to protect the eligibility of athletes forced to transfer due to homelessness.) A family that lived from check to check feared Bobby's hope of a college scholarship had been crushed.
The Limons saw one option: They left town. Father and son drove along the Texas coast until they stopped in Port Lavaca, 140 miles southeast of Austin. They met the Calhoun High football coach and quickly grew fond of the school. They found a place to live, and Bobby enrolled in the fall of 2013 and became an instant star. He tore his left ACL in the fourth game and sat out three games, but he returned on a bad leg to finish the season and earn third-team all-state honors. The interest from big D-I programs, though, had waned.
Multiple college coaches interviewed by SI said that when a student abruptly transfers to a new high school, it can signal a problem, cooling their recruiting interest. So can disputes over eligibility. "It's hard to get ahold of [homeless athletes], because they typically don't have phones," says Fresno State coach Tim DeRuyter. "You don't know where they're going to be living from month to month. The other thing is, you're nervous just about the character of them."
Fortunately for Bobby, the University of the Incarnate Word, a Football Championship Subdivision school in San Antonio, offered him a scholarship. He accepted, underwent surgery and now, at 18, is redshirting this fall.
The opportunity inspired John to write a mass email to friends and supporters who had been following the family's saga. It read in part: "God has done amazing things—even though we came from the bottom."
A 2011 study of homeless youth in Salt Lake City found that 84% had experienced physical and/or sexual abuse as minors.
IN OKLAHOMA CITY, the same metro area where Durant delivered his MVP speech, Tyritta Dixon, 18, sleeps on a ripped and tattered couch. She and her two-year-old daughter, Ta'Niya, occupy a small living space in the house of a relative. It's the latest indignity in a life defined by divorce, intense poverty and sexual molestation. Tyritta, a basketball star at Northwest Classen High, has been without a stable home since she was in eighth grade. "The toughest part of being homeless," she says, "was the abuse. It took my thoughts into places that you would never imagine.... It got to a point like, Why keep living?"
In high school Ty, as she's known to friends, carries an uncommon burden. Teammates know about her daughter. They don't know about the homelessness and abuse. The details are excruciating. While recounting her story after school one day last month, she dropped her head, covered her face and stifled tears. Then, defiantly, she continued. "You can't really describe being homeless," says Ty, a 5'6" senior guard who averaged 14.3 points and 7.8 rebounds last season. "It's depressing. It's heartbreaking. It's overwhelming. The only thing that kept me going was basketball, my daughter and my coach."
Jackee Brown is more parent than coach. Away from teammates, Ty calls her Mom. While Ty lifts in the weight room, Brown bounces and feeds Ta'Niya on her lap. She helps Ty with homework. Brown even makes house calls. After staying on a couch in another home, Ta'Niya caught a skin infection, and emergency room doctors noted that she had been sleeping in unsanitary conditions. Brown arrived with bleach and other cleaning supplies to disinfect the area. "I've been coaching right under 10 years," the 32-year-old Brown says, "and I've had a kid who has had a bad home life. A kid who has been raped. A kid who's had a kid. But [until now] I haven't had a kid who has had all three."
Ty was the youngest of eight children born to Peechz Dixon, a onetime manager at a fast-food restaurant. Mother and daughter clashed when Ty was a preteen. The conflict drove Ty to make a succession of temporary arrangements: a bed here; a couch there. She says one family acquaintance molested her. Another raped her. The abuse continued for years. "I trusted people, and they always gave me a reason not to trust them," she says. "So I went somewhere else."
When Brown arrived at Northwest Classen during Ty's sophomore year, the coach at times found her uncooperative and confronted her about telling lies. But slowly they came to trust each other. Brown pushes Ty to work hard to improve her game and her grades. "She's not getting [college] looks now," Brown says, "but I'm trying to get her into a smaller school. She could go D-II. I know she could go juco or D-III or NAIA."
Basketball, Ty's surrogate mother says, is the vehicle that can take her from homelessness to college. "It is," Brown states flatly, "absolutely the only way she can go."
Only 51% of homeless high school students tested nationwide met or exceeded state proficiency standards in math in 2012--13. Only 49% met or exceeded proficiency in reading.
LAST SPRING, Griffin Furlong remembers, he lost concentration on the mound. He was pitching for First Coast High in Jacksonville, and while he glared at the batter 60'6" away, his mind drifted. What am I going to eat for dinner? Where am I going to sleep? Hours earlier, the 18-year-old senior had come home from school to a U-Haul parked in front of his house. The rent had not been paid. Griffin would have to move. But where?
After Griffin's mother died of leukemia when he was six, he and his father, Brian, and older brother, Sean, spent two extended stays in homeless shelters in Louisville. In July 2007 they moved to Jacksonville, but Brian hurt his back lifting boxes and hasn't worked since. Plunged into poverty, the Furlongs lived in a rental house, aided by a relative. When the support stopped, the U-Haul appeared.
It was Senior Night, a time to celebrate, but the skies over the ball field opened and the rain came down, and Griffin lost control. He doesn't recall how many batters he walked, but he remembers this: The parents of his girlfriend took him into their home for a month so he could study for AP exams and send in supporting materials for his college applications. Brian moved into a motel while Sean neared graduation at Florida State. Griffin finished his career as a pitcher distracted by hunger and tenuous housing.
In the late spring, astonishing secrets came to light. A news story revealed Griffin's homelessness, which left First Coast High in awe. A straight-A student-athlete had no home? Days later a friend of Griffin's, Jasmine Byard, with whom he'd shared AP classes, told him, "I've been homeless, too." Jasmine—a track athlete, honors student, senior class president and Miss First Coast—was heading to Jacksonville University to study neuroscience. "It was just shocking," Griffin says.
Griffin became a most improbable graduate: a homeless valedictorian with a 4.65 GPA. He hadn't simply survived homelessness; he had found a way out. "I make the grades I do," he said during his valedictory address, "because once I was lost and had nothing."
He is attending Florida State on a full academic ride, doing pre-engineering course work. He's interested in a NASA internship for the summer of 2015. The Seminoles' baseball coach has invited him to walk on. Griffin says he won't have room in his schedule for baseball as a freshman. But maybe next year.
According to the DOE, more than 56,000 U.S. college students report themselves as homeless. Cyekeia Lee of the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth estimates that varsity athletes make up 10% of the homeless college population—many of them at NCAA Division III schools, which do not offer athletic scholarships.
ATHLETE AFTER athlete interviewed for this story cited higher education as a goal. Apart from being a gateway to success, college represents a vast upgrade in quality of living. But homeless college athletes have an unusual dynamic. They often sleep in campus housing and have access to meal plans, but they can still teeter on the edge of destitution.
Consider Antoine Turner, who grew up in New Orleans. He says he had little relationship with his father, and after Antoine's mother died of cancer when he was four, he moved in with an uncle. The uncle, however, died in 2005 during Hurricane Katrina, which also destroyed his house. Antoine was rendered homeless and moved more times than he can recall—crashing on relatives' and friends' couches—but he continued to play football. An uncommonly mobile 6'1", 290-pound nosetackle, he enrolled at Fullerton (Calif.) College in '11 because it came up first in his Google search for junior college. Owing to a low GPA, however, Turner lost his merit-based financial aid and, with it, his living arrangement at a team house. He was then forced to redshirt after a physical altercation with a coach at practice. "In retrospect, I know what [the cause] was," the coach, Greg Hoyd, told SI.com. "He was just basically homeless and not eating and just trying to survive."
Turner ended up sleeping in the passenger seat of his girlfriend's Kia Optima. Over the next year his weight plummeted from 290 to 220 because he often didn't have anything to eat. He stayed on the Fullerton team, though, and his play caught the attention of Boise State. On National Signing Day last February, Turner committed to the Broncos, prompting coach Bryan Harsin to send this welcoming tweet: #7 Antoine Turner pass rusher and run stopper specialist! Welcome Home.
It's become a heartwarming story, but not without complications. When a Boise television station featured Turner and his remarkable backstory, there was an outpouring of support. Then Boise State's compliance director, John Cunningham, sent a letter to the station asking the public not to assist Turner financially. Why? Because it could have constituted an NCAA violation.
Working with Cunningham, the NCAA moved with uncharacteristic speed to grant Boise State an exception. The school was allowed to lodge Turner (who was still living in his girlfriend's car) at a Marriott in Fullerton and provide him with meals until he arrived on campus.
While Turner, now a redshirt junior, receives room and board from Boise State and lives in a two-bedroom apartment with his girlfriend and a teammate, he is on his own during summers and vacations. "I don't want to be homeless again," he told SI.com. "I'm searching for stuff for myself to be proud of. Everybody else has parents. I don't have anybody to be proud of me. And that angers me."
IN SUBURBAN BALTIMORE, the Lambs' fortunes have improved in recent months, if incrementally. Valerie is back working at the hospital. Donald found part-time employment as a maintenance man at a gym in Towson, Md., before being laid off last month. He is trying to launch a housekeeping business. After saving enough money for rent and a security deposit, the family recently took a month-to-month lease on a small ground-floor apartment in Cockeysville, a middle-class suburb.
Finances remain tight. The apartment has no furniture except for a small television and two chairs. Isaiah's clothes are neatly arrayed on the floor of his bedroom. He sleeps on an air mattress. "I can't even really remember the last time I slept on a mattress outside of being in a hotel," he says matter-of-factly. "I never had my own bed."
The move has been "wonderful," he says. The apartment is within walking distance of Dulaney High, sparing Isaiah his old hour-and-a-half commute on public transportation. The apartment's bathroom saves him from having to shower in the locker room before school. Free of the worries that came from living at a coin laundry, Isaiah, a senior, has flourished on the basketball team. A silky and nimble guard, he can bring the ball upcourt but also nail jumpers and break down his man off the dribble.
Isaiah doesn't talk much with his teammates about his living arrangements. "My mother told me not to wear my feelings on my sleeve," he says. "I always smiled and joked, but [my teammates] never knew what I went home to, what I was going through." Still, his home situation is something of an open secret. "There's a fine line," says Lochte, the coach, speaking about helping underprivileged players. "You try to find a support system, help the kid find a ride, make sure there's breakfast available. But you don't want to make anyone uncomfortable or self-conscious. Honestly, it's a touchy subject."
Isaiah carries a B-plus average and made the school's honor society. Affable, handsome, modest, he is popular in the extreme. With prodding, he admits that he attended three proms last spring. (If the girls had the guts to ask him, he reasoned, the least he could do was accept their offers.) It's easy to forget that he is 17; he shows uncommon wisdom and maturity, hard-earned to be sure. While far less talented peers dream of the NBA, Isaiah is more concerned about graduating from college—which, he says, "is much more of a sure thing." When Lochte gushes that Isaiah is "a special human being" and "full of courage," it doesn't come off as a coach's hyperbole.
Still, Valerie worries about what she calls "my son's mental state. He's so quiet but strong He says, 'I'm O.K., Ma.' But you often wonder, Is he really O.K.?" Isaiah, for his part, is almost philosophical about his childhood. When discussing the hardships, he quickly—perhaps wishfully?—switches to the past tense.
Part of what makes his parents proud also imbues them with fear: Their circumstances are at variance with the conventional perception of homelessness. There was no family dysfunction, no divorce. No substance abuse, no cataclysmic event. There were simply a series of unanticipated expenses, and—absent a safety net ("no sponge," says Donald)—the Lambs were suddenly homeless. "Don't think because you're at a certain status in life, because you have certain material things, it can't happen," says Valerie. "It can happen in the blink of an eye."
Now Valerie and Donald are trying to save as much of their paychecks as possible. Isaiah is pondering scholarship offers from Siena, Radford and UNC-Greensboro, among other D-I schools. Life is a lot better for the family than it was earlier this year. Isaiah thinks about what advice he might give to others facing homelessness.
"I guess you just need to remember, it's temporary," he says. "I'm not saying it's easy, but you can overcome it. You can get past being homeless."
He stretches out the last word, as if to make sure there's no misunderstanding: It's spelled with an m, not a p.
TYRITTA DIXON, BASKETBALL
"[Homelessness] is depressing. It's heartbreaking. The only thing that kept me going was basketball, my daughter and my coach."
ISAIAH LAMB, BASKETBALL
"I always smiled and joked, but [my friends] never knew what I went home to, what [my parents and I were] going through."
LAWRENCE MATTISON, FOOTBALL
After being evicted from his apartment, Mattison lived for two weeks behind a gas station and bathed in a car wash.
BOBBY LIMON, FOOTBALL
"Sometimes in practice I would mess up on my plays because I was thinking about where I was going to sleep. Or where—or if—we were going to get food."
GRIFFIN FURLONG, BASEBALL
"I make the grades I do," the straight-A student said in his valedictory address, "because once I was lost and had nothing."
• NOW: U.S. Olympic hurdler and bobsled brakewoman.
• THEN: Jones attended eight schools in eight years. In elementary school she briefly stayed in the basement of a Salvation Army church in Des Moines with her mother, sister and three brothers. She slept on a fold-out army bed, bathed in the church gym's group showers and went to school early to avoid being seen leaving the Salvation Army and being teased about it.
• ADVICE TO DISPLACED YOUTHS: "Persevere. I knew my education would be my way out of poverty. My mom didn't go to college. My dad didn't go to college. So I knew I just needed to get to college, because there are so many better options."
• NOW: Chargers offensive tackle.
• THEN: Uprooted by Hurricane Katrina, D.J., his mother, brother and two sisters spent years living in shelters, churches and cars throughout Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi. He didn't sleep on a bed by himself until he was 15. "Sometimes we would eat out of garbage cans outside of [fast food] restaurants," he says. "There were times we would go to school with pants smelling like pee because we had nowhere to wash our clothes."
• ADVICE TO DISPLACED YOUTHS: "Have faith in God. Have faith that you can overcome. There were days when I said, 'I got two legs, two arms, I can see. I have a purpose.' "
• NOW: Baylor running back.
• THEN: Homeless, on and off, from 2011 through this spring, he slept on the couches of high school teammates in Bakersfield, Calif., in a ditch by a truck stop in New Mexico, in a hotel lobby and in a park in Waco, Texas. He spent one year at Cornell. Then, after a year as an on-line student at McLennan Community College, he earned an academic scholarship to Baylor.
• ADVICE TO DISPLACED YOUTHS: "Place your hope, joy and love in something that will be available whether you have everything you ever wanted or nothing at all. Nothing can give you that fulfillment except for faith in Jesus Christ."
Photograph by Robert Seale For Sports Illustrated
A PLACE TO BELONG After years of rootlessness and sexual abuse, Dixon found a new home—and a path to a better life for herself and her toddler—in her high school gym.
ROBERT SEALE FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (DIXON)
SIMON BRUTY/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (LAMB)
BREAKTHROUGH Now that he and his family have an apartment, Lamb is philosophical about his past hardships and counsels others that homelessness is only temporary.
BILL FRAKES/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (JONES)
SIMON BRUTY/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (LAMBS)
DARREN CARROLL FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (MATTISON)
DARREN CARROLL FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (LIMON)
NORM HALL/GETTY IMAGES (FLUKER)
BILL FRAKES/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
JEROME MIRON/USA TODAY SPORTS