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Family key in Green-Beckham's decision

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Thayer Evans

Senior College Football writer Thayer Evans previously wrote for The New York Times and Houston Chronicle, as well as contributed to The Economist, USA Today, The Washington Post and more. Follow him on Twitter.

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SPRINGFIELD, Mo.

Dorial Green-Beckham was pronounced dead.

His mother, Charmelle Green, troubled and six months pregnant, had been taken to a hospital in this Ozarks city after ingesting a cocktail of drugs that included crack and Demerol.

Doctors miraculously revived her, then later told her the baby boy she was carrying was dead.

They were wrong. He somehow survived and was born a few months later.

It was the first time Dorial Green-Beckham had overcome adversity.

But it would hardly be the last.

“The fact that he has more than three brain cells is a miracle,” said Tracy Beckham, Dorial’s adoptive mother, who detailed Green's past.

So is Dorial’s improbable journey to becoming the class of 2012’s top high school football recruit, a turbulent path that defines the love his adoptive parents, John and Tracy Beckham, have had for decades for youths in need.

It is a spellbinding tale of peaks and valleys that climaxed Wednesday at Hillcrest High School when Dorial ended years of speculation about his college future by choosing Missouri before a live national television audience. Yet the night before the announcement, the star wide receiver spoke fondly not about his college future, but his love for the Beckhams and the impact they have had on his life.

“They’ve led me in the right direction,” said Dorial, 18. “It’s meant a whole lot to me.”

Just as he’s meant a lot to a couple, John and Tracy Beckham, whose plans were simply to have a baby of their own when they married nearly 28 years ago. That is, until they discovered they had fertility issues.

“Never in a million years,” Tracy Beckham said, “did we expect this.”

John Beckham could not have either when he grew up in Coral Gables, Fla., home of the University of Miami, and as a child took the bus to watch the Hurricanes play their home games. At Coral Gables Senior High School, he played safety with a kicker named Al Del Greco, who went on to a lengthy career in the NFL.

At 5-foot-9, 180 pounds and 4.7-second speed in the 40-yard dash, John Beckham was undersized and a step slow, but he still had opportunities to play small-college football out of state. He decided instead to attend a junior college in Louisville, Ky., where he also worked for his sister’s husband, who owned a construction company.

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One weekend, John Beckham made a trip to see his youth pastor from Miami, who had moved to Springfield, Mo. During the visit, he went on a church float trip on the Current River and met a girl, who at the time had a boyfriend.

“She couldn’t keep her eyes off me and vice versa,” John Beckham said with a laugh.

Before long, John Beckham and the girl went on dates and he enrolled at a local college to pursue being a youth pastor. He liked that Springfield was far less crowded than the Miami area, its rural setting and the locals’ friendliness.

Three years later, in 1984, he and the girl, Tracy, were married.

“I came for a visit and never left,” John Beckham said.

During John and Tracy Beckham’s honeymoon, a teenage girl was supposed to be checking on the house the newlyweds planned to move in to. But when the couple returned, they learned the girl had been staying at their house because of problems with her mother.

She ended up living with the Beckhams for the first five months of their marriage. It was a sign of the things to come for the young couple, who still were unable to get pregnant even with the help of a fertility doctor.

A LOVE FOR CHILDREN

A woman from the Beckhams’ church recruited them to be foster parents, and soon they had adopted two children. Since then, dozens and dozens of children have lived with them.

Of those, about 25 have lived with the Beckhams for at least three years. The couple have officially adopted six children, including Dorial in 2009, and are set to adopt another, Scott, in the next month.

“If I would have just been having kids from Day One, a lot of this wouldn’t have happened,” Tracy Beckham said.

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Ever since Tracy Beckham was in junior high and participated in a Sunday morning church bus ministry, she has had a passion for taking care of children in need. She is emotional talking about it and mentions Psalm 37:4, one of her favorite Bible verses: “Take delight in the Lord, and He will give you the desires of your heart.”

At one point, Tracy Beckham thought God might call her to move to Africa to help children, but she realized there were children in Springfield who needed her.

“He puts in us what He wants us to want,” Tracy Beckham said.

After the couple married, John Beckham briefly worked with his father-in-law in the insurance business before they entered the cattle trade together. They raised purebred cattle for 15 years, and at one point, they had 150 head on about 500 acres.

“It was a lot of work but a lot of fun,” John Beckham said.

But all along, he was still passionate about football and missed being involved with it.

“It was one of those weird things,” he said.

While John Beckham was a cattleman, he did business with a man who was also athletic director of Springfield Public Schools. The man mentioned he was looking for an assistant coach for the seventh-grade football team of John Beckham’s oldest adopted son, Rick.

“If you don’t find somebody, give me a holler and maybe I’ll do it,” John Beckham told the AD.

John Beckham didn’t know it then, but the AD’s search had ended there. John Beckham was an assistant for his son’s seventh-grade team and, the next year, for his eighth-grade team.


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When Rick started at Hillcrest High in 2003, John Beckham became an assistant football coach at the diverse, lower-income school. While he worked there, he realized it had a lot of students who needed help with difficult home situations.

Most were athletes John Beckham coached, and he mentored them initially. But more often than not they ended up living with him and his family for a variety of reasons.

One student needed somewhere to go for six months while his mother went to drug rehabilitation. Two brothers lived with the Beckhams for years while their father struggled with a meth addiction.

Another student moved in with the Beckhams after his family moved to the US from Nigeria and he became lost in the shuffle.

ENTER DORIAL

Dorial was another who needed help, because of the struggles of his biological mother, who has a checkered past and is on probation for receiving stolen property, according to the Missouri Department of Corrections website. He is one of her six children, all of whom lived with her at one point for months in a van in Springfield.

“There was nothing but drugs and alcohol and men,” Tracy Beckham said. “It was crazy.”

Dorial and his younger half-brother, Darnell, do not know who their father is, Tracy Beckham said.

“I mean nobody knows,” she said.

The Beckhams’ relationship with Dorial stems from another student John Beckham met while coaching football at Hillcrest — Dorial’s oldest half-brother, Vincent Tate. Tate was 6-foot-3 and oozed athleticism, but he played only a couple of games before he was injured and stopped showing up at school.

Tate is serving five years in prison for multiple offenses, including assault and a felony of possession of a controlled substance, according to the Missouri DOC website.

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“He was a tremendous athlete, but he went to the dark side pretty fast,” John Beckham said. “Who knows what he could have done? He could have been pretty special, too.”

A grade behind Tate was Sam Smith, Dorial’s second-oldest half-brother, whom the Beckhams had seen play in junior high. The Beckhams helped Smith become eligible to play football as a freshman at Hillcrest High.

When Smith played games, Tracy Beckham picked up Dorial and younger half-brother Darnell Green from Boys & Girls Town of Missouri, a home for abused and neglected children, where they lived with Smith. The trips were an escape for the two brothers, and Tracy Beckham would take the two to McDonald’s before they went to watch their brother in action.

“It was really hard at some points,” Dorial said of his early childhood.

John Beckham had Smith suit up for varsity games a few times as a freshman in hopes the youngster would feel he had a future. But one night in November, Smith, Dorial and Darnell were uprooted and sent by their social worker to live with family members in St. Louis.

“We were very upset,” John Beckham said.

Smith and Dorial moved in with a grandmother, Darnell with an aunt. The move was so traumatic that Dorial and Darnell lost 10 pounds apiece.

Smith ended up enrolling at a problematic high school in East St. Louis, got in a fight shortly after he started and was kicked out. He tried to get back in school, but when he couldn’t, he called the Beckhams.

“Get me out of here,” Tracy Beckham recalled being told by Smith.

Darnell’s adjustment to his aunt’s drive-by-shooting-infested neighborhood was going just as poorly. He didn’t have a bed at his new house and had to sleep on a sofa in the front room with a large window.

“It was rough,” Darnell said.

TOUGH TIMES

The brothers’ sudden departure couldn’t have come at a worse time for the Beckhams. Three years earlier, Tracy Beckham had been diagnosed with thyroid cancer.

When she started undergoing treatment, doctors warned her not to get pregnant because her radiation would present a health risk for a child.

Given the couple’s infertility problems over the previous 22 years, she thought pregnancy was impossible. She became even more convinced after her radiation treatment caused bleeding in her brain.

It eventually caused meningitis in her brain, which left her in excruciating pain.

“It was like the worst thing ever,” Tracy Beckham said.

As she lay in a hospital bed, Tracy Beckham recalled thinking that her dream of giving birth to a child was over.

“I am so stupid,” she thought. “I have to realize this is the final word. Clearly, I’m never going to have a kid.”

But when she couldn’t figure out why she kept throwing up, she visited a doctor who told her she was four months pregnant — at age 42 — with the couple’s only biological child, a daughter, Eliza, who is now in kindergarten.

“It was God’s little joke that I would be pregnant someday,” Tracy Beckham said.

The baby was a welcome addition to the Beckhams’ already crowded family. But even if the Beckhams wanted Smith, Dorial and Darnell to return to Springfield and move in with them, there were obstacles.

Tracy Beckham called the state’s family services department constantly and was told each time the boys’ cases could not be discussed. But after a friend of the Beckhams called some Missouri state legislators on their behalf, Smith was allowed to move back to Springfield with the Beckhams just four months after he had been sent away.

During that transition, family service officials asked the Beckhams if they had any interest in also taking Dorial and Darnell. The couple decided if somebody was going to, it might as well be them.

“It was a horrible time for us, but we figured we could make it work,” John Beckham said.

With the addition of the three boys, the number of children who lived in the Beckham household swelled to 10. No longer worried about the drive-by shootings in his aunt’s neighborhood, Darnell told the Beckhams, “I can finally sleep.”

Smith, Dorial and Darnell had never had any real stability in their lives until they moved in with the Beckhams. Dorial, then in the seventh grade, struggled the most with his new rural home, located on 60 acres with cattle outside of town, and at first was withdrawn a majority of the time.

He would occasionally surface from the finished basement where he and his brothers lived to get food out of the kitchen before heading back downstairs to play video games.

“He was like a ghost,” John said. “It would be like, ‘Hey, there’s a Dorial sighting.’ ”

Smith never ended up buying into his new family and was eventually kicked out of Hillcrest High after a shooting in a parking lot, Tracy Beckham said.

But there was still hope for young Dorial.

“We got him just in the nick of time,” John Beckham said.

TWO-SPORT STAR?

Shortly after Dorial moved in, John Beckham took him to a Missouri football camp for high school players. He was 6-foot-3 at the time and performed so well the Tigers coaches couldn’t believe he was only in the seventh grade.

In eighth grade, Tracy Beckham recalled the men’s basketball players from a local NAIA school, Evangel University, visited Dorial’s school that year and put on a dunk contest as part of an outreach effort.

During the event, the college players brought out Dorial, who quickly made it clear he was the best dunker in the gym. Soon, the college players stopped dunking and sat down to watch his acrobatics.

They howled in amazement and held their hands over their mouths at the sight of Dorial jumping over his own classmates and dunking. The display was so impressive that a local television station on hand planning to do a segment on Evangel’s outreach project instead ended up airing footage of Dorial’s dunks.

But, if not for the Beckhams, Dorial might have played only basketball. When the Beckhams were working to help him and his brothers move back to Springfield, they considered having Dorial live with another family before taking in all three boys.

It worked out perfectly for Dorial because the father of the other family was adamant he would not play football. The man feared the youngster would get hurt and not be able to play basketball.

“'If he comes to live with us, there’s no football,'” Tracy Beckham recalled the man saying.

Football, however, is a way of life for the Beckhams. After a new head coach was hired at Hillcrest High, John Beckham left to be an assistant at Missouri State.

But when the Hillcrest High coach left after just one season, John Beckham’s wife thought he should return to the high school.

She maintained the timing was just right with Dorial about to enter ninth grade. Few candidates applied for the Hillcrest High job, and John Beckham got it.

“I wanted to do something with a purpose,” he said. “This place has a lot of kids that just need a little help.”

At Hillcrest High, Dorial played varsity as a freshman and his first game was against West Plains High School, which was about two hours away. West Plains had no clue about Dorial, and on the game’s first play, Hillcrest’s quarterback just threw the ball up to Dorial, who caught the ball near midfield and outran the remaining defenders for an 80-yard touchdown.

But it was Dorial’s second career catch that got John Beckham’s attention. He cleanly caught a short pass on a crossing route and when he turned up field, there were four West Plains defenders, all of whom had the angle on him.

They didn’t have it for long, because Dorial accelerated and outran them to the end zone on a 70-yard reception that was called back because of a penalty.

“Holy cow,” John Beckham recalled thinking. “This kid is going to be good.”

At the time, Dorial had primarily referred to his new father by his first name or “Coach.” But when the Beckhams officially adopted him and Darnell just over a year later, Dorial had a new name for John Beckham: “Dad.”

During Dorial’s junior season, he broke the state single-season record for receiving yardage he had set as a sophomore and had become the poster child recruit for the Class of 2012. But the achievement hardly mattered a couple of months later.

TRAGEDY STRIKES

Darnell was in the midst of his freshman basketball season in February 2011 when his hip began to hurt, but he didn’t remember injuring it. He also didn’t feel well, but his parents initially thought he might have had the flu other family members had battled.

A few days later, Darnell could barely walk into his father’s classroom to tell him he felt even worse. Tracy Beckham took Darnell to a doctor, who ran a blood test, and later that day the Beckhams received an urgent telephone call: They needed to get Darnell to the local hospital's intensive care unit immediately because he had leukemia.

John Beckham thought there had been a mistake, but he went downstairs and woke up Darnell and told him he had to go to the hospital for more tests. The father also told Darnell he needed to pack a bag because he could be gone for a while.

When Darnell asked why, John Beckham told him he had been diagnosed with leukemia. Further tests revealed Darnell indeed had the bone marrow disorder and that he would have to undergo treatment for the next 2-1/2 years.

Darnell was then put in an ambulance, accompanied by Tracy Beckham, and taken to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis. Just days earlier, Darnell had been dunking a basketball, but by the time he got to St. Jude, he couldn’t even walk on his own.

“We were in complete shock,” John Beckham said. “It just didn’t feel real.”

He took a leave of absence from Hillcrest High and stayed with Darnell during the four months he was at St. Jude. There is a 93 percent success rate for curing Darnell’s leukemia and he is currently in remission, John Beckham said.

But Darnell must undergo chemotherapy every Tuesday and often ends up vomiting all the way home and sometimes even the next day. He also must take dozens of pills daily, which makes him sick on occasions, and struggles with depression, John Beckham said.

“There’s a lot of bad days,” John Beckham said.

John Beckham said Darnell can’t play football until his senior year, after his 2-1/2 years of treatment end, but Darnell is optimistic he can return next season. Before he got sick, he was a promising 6-4, 185-pound wide receiver who had already been offered a scholarship by Arkansas, which was one of Dorial’s final college choices.

But Tracy Beckham said Missouri offered Darnell a scholarship in recent weeks and there’s talk he could join Dorial.

“It’s a good possibility,” Darnell said.

When Dorial announced his college decision Wednesday, his personal growth over the past several years was evident. No longer the once shy kid who mumbled, he spoke confidently and waved his arms to encourage the boisterous crowd of 1,500 in Hillcrest High’s gym to get even louder after he declared he was headed to Missouri.

He did so while surrounded by nearly a dozen members of his family, most of whom he didn’t even know six years ago.

“It was amazing for me,” Dorial said on the eve of his announcement, “to meet those type of people.”

Almost as amazing as Dorial having lived to do it.

Tagged: Missouri

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