The heat index in New Orleans for Monday’s session of Saints Training Camp was 105 degrees. Loyal members of the Black and Gold’s fan base sat quietly with damp towels draped over their necks, beneath umbrellas and sunglasses, attempting to hide at least partially from the relentless South Louisiana sun.
But 11-year-old Ka’Nard Allen was a bundle of happy energy as he flitted from the stands, to the group of boys armed with a football mimicking the action on the field, to the side of his mentor Sonny Lee. Despite the Saints having their most promising day of practice yet, according to Coach Sean Payton, Lee was solely focused on the smile across Ka’Nard’s face.
Ka’Nard has survived being shot twice in his young life, but his smile has been one of the more visible casualties. The first time Ka’Nard was shot: at his 10th birthday party last May, when a man now indicted on gang racketeering charges is accused of opening fire during a drive-by shooting, wounding Ka’Nard in the neck and killing his five-year-old cousin, Brianna Allen who stood next to him, celebrating his birthday.
Ka’Nard recovered physically, but in October of 2012, his father was stabbed to death, and Ka’Nard had another emotional hurdle to overcome.
Then this May, during a traditional Mother’s Day Second Line Parade in New Orleans’ 7th Ward, a mass shooting broke out: 19 people were injured, including Ka’Nard, who was grazed on the cheek by a flying bullet.
When 31-year-old Sonny Lee heard Ka’Nard’s story, he hit the recruiting trail, so to speak, because he knew the young boy was a perfect fit for his program. Lee founded an organization called “Son of A Saint” in July 2011, when he was just 29-years-old.
Lee lost is father, former Saints defensive back Bivian Lee, in 1984 to a heart attack. Bivian was 36-year-old. Sonny was just 3-year-old, but has been deeply impacted ever since.
The loss of his father still haunts Lee, but it has also inspired him to help younger boys trying to navigate the world without a dad. “Son of A Saint” is a mentoring program for fatherless boys that teaches them how to tie a tie, shake hands, what silverware to use, how to throw a football. Lee and his volunteer mentors tutor their “kids” after school, show up in the classroom to check grades and lead them in community service projects.
After the Mother’s Day Shooting, Lee approached Ka’Nard’s mother and asked if she would allow her son to join “Son of A Saint.” It was an answer to prayer for the Allen family.
That was just a little more than three months ago.
“Ka’Nard was cautious and withdrawn,” remembers Lee. “Now he’s doing great: smiling a lot. He’s always making suggestions about what to do. He’s very, very hyper, which is a wonderful thing. He’s got a lot of energy, and he’s a great brother to the rest of the kids in Son of A Saint. They love having him around.”
Ka’Nard has spent much of the summer with Lee and his fellow “Son of A Saint” participants: “Riding horses, going to the movies, all types of stuff!” beams Ka’Nard.
His favorite movie so far has been “Turbo.” Ka’Nard has also learned to help others and become one of Son of A Saint’s most dedicated volunteers. “He’s doing community service with us. We go out and do community service once a month. He’s loving doing that – just giving back to the community,” says Lee.
In fact, that’s part of how Ka’Nard arrived at Saints camp Monday. Ten of the thirty participants in Son of A Saint attended camp, met team owner Tom Benson, ate lunch and watched their favorite players as a reward for completing a summer community service goal and a reading project.
“We brought our kids out here as a reward for their behavior over the summer. This is the last treat before school starts. They all love football, They all love the Saints. We have some supporters who play for the Saints. They’ll come out here and see the kids after practice,” says Lee.
“It’s really cool,” says ten-year-old Trey Hand, who sized up cornerback Keenan Lewis all day and reports “He looks pretty good.” Hand also predicts the Saints will make another Super Bowl run this year.
That remains to be seen, but no doubt there is a tremendous amount of winning happening off the field for one particular “Son of A Saint” and the young men whose lives he’s changing.