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The Life And Legacy Of Keion Carpenter

March 15, 2017
It's often been said people who have a platform should use it. 

Actors and musicians have used their platform to initiate and achieve positive change throughout the world. Athletes have a similar platform. Their talents and clutch performances have earned them recognition and respect. 

Keion Carpenter, whose passing in December following a freak fall stunned and saddened all who knew him, was one of those people. Following a highly successful football career that took him from Woodlawn High School to Virginia Tech, and finally to the NFL's Buffalo Bills and Atlanta Falcons, Carpenter took a different route. 

He didn't accept a job on a collegiate or NFL coaching staff. 

Instead, he took another kind of coaching position. At his new job, Carpenter was able to directly influence the lives of young people who needed love, guidance and reassurance during the most vulnerable times in their lives. 

The Early Days
 
Carpenter began his trek to professional football at Woodlawn High School. He used his superior athleticism to excel as a two-way player on the football field and on the Warriors' basketball team. 

Following his 1995 graduation from Woodlawn, Carpenter headed south to attend Virginia Tech. During his final two seasons with the accomplished Hokie program, Carpenter recorded 113 tackles and nine interceptions as a defensive back, returning a pick for touchdown. Carpenter also blocked five kicks during his time at Virginia Tech. 

Carpenter's production at the collegiate level caught the eye of professional scouts, but he entered the NFL as an underdog. 

Overcoming The Odds

Despite his success at Virginia Tech, Carpenter's name wasn't called during the 1999 NFL Draft. But the 5-foot-11, 205-pound safety still had a future in football. 

Buffalo signed Carpenter as a free agent after the draft. Carpenter played sparingly during his 1999 rookie season, which ended with the Bills on the losing end of the franchise's most recent playoff game. 

Carpenter earned a starting spot for the Bills during the 2000 and 2001 seasons, before he was traded to the Falcons. During his three years in Atlanta, Carpenter was an impactful defender. In 2002, he recorded 47 tackles and four interceptions. Carpenter followed up with 30 tackles and three picks in 2003 but suffered a serious spinal injury during a playoff game against the Philadelphia Eagles and missed the entire 2004 campaign. 

After undergoing spinal fusion surgery, the gritty Carpenter played one more season with the Falcons. During the 2005 campaign, he returned to his earlier form, posting a career-high 55 tackles and swiping two interceptions during his final professional season. 

Carpenter The Mentor

During the final seasons of Carpenter's career, he and DeAngelo Hall became teammates and friends. Hall had already been on a parallel path with the man who would become his mentor in the National Football League. 

Hall was an All-American cornerback at Virginia Tech, the same school where Carpenter made his name. When Hall was selected by the Falcons in the first round of the 2004 NFL Draft, he was united with a former Hokie who also played in the defensive backfield. 

Carpenter, who was still recovering from his spinal injury during Hall's first season, immediately reached out to the rookie cornerback. Hall soon joined Carpenter on the sidelines, after suffering a fractured hip during a preseason game. 

"He took me under his wing, because I was a Virginia Tech guy," said Hall, who will enter his 14th NFL season and ninth with the Washington Redskins this fall. "But I could have gone to [rival] University of Virginia, and I think he would have still mentored me. And being the born leader that Keion was, he observed me and helped me grow into the player I became."

Hall also observed Carpenter, and what he saw made a difference in his own life. 

"Just watching what he did on our off-days, you could see that Keion wanted to do something for kids who were less fortunate," Hall said. "It was a beautiful thing to watch, and it helped me understand what was important in life."

Carpenter and Tommy Polley had that same kind of bond. Polley, a Paul Laurence Dunbar High School graduate who played football and basketball at Florida State, is still influencing the lives of young people as a football coach at Althoff Catholic High School in Belleville, Ill. 

"We always thought about the people who helped us, so we wanted to give back," said Polley, who played in the NFL with the St. Louis Rams, Baltimore Ravens and New Orleans Saints. "Sometimes I'd get discouraged, but Keion always told me to keep fighting. Every time I needed him, he was there."

The Next Stage

Following the end of his NFL career, Carpenter began to have an even greater impact. A difference-maker on the field, Carpenter sought that same role away from football. The founding of The Carpenter House in 2005 was his next step.

"He wanted everybody to have a better life and to bring hope to their situations," Polley said. "He was grounded and well-respected in the community. I told him that he could be a pastor, because he spoke so well."

Carpenter channeled his commitment to others in establishing The Carpenter House, whose stated mission is to "strengthen and empower families from disadvantaged backgrounds by providing access to resources, activities and structured environments that enable them to reach their highest academic and economic potential."

Staffed completely by volunteers, The Carpenter House gives children ages 5-17 from lower-income homes the chance to interact with mentors and participate in a variety of activities. It is an agent of change for boys and girls who need positive direction in their lives.

Although his primary residence was in Atlanta, Carpenter had a strong desire to help the young people of Baltimore. 

"Keion felt that he wanted to come back and do it in his hometown," said LaTisha Chambers, the executive manager of The Carpenter House. "I once asked him, ‘Why do you keep coming back here?' He said to me, ‘If I don't come back, who's coming back? I had coaches and mentors who helped me, and I want to be that same person.'"

Helping In Many Ways

Keion Carpenter was a multi-purpose football player. The Carpenter House is even more versatile.

Within The Carpenter House organization, which is headquartered at 19 E. Fayette Street in downtown Baltimore, are five programs designed to serve various areas of the community. 

For My Kidz is a mentoring program that works with local school systems. During its early days, the program benefited from the friendship between Carpenter and Polley, who helped set up an important meeting with Tracey Estep, the chief of recreation operations for Baltimore City. 

"Keion had started the For My Kidz program, but he didn't have any place to hold the sessions," Estep said. "We had a space that was available at one of our recreation centers."

The mentoring program, which originally operated two days a week, has expanded to a six-day-a-week program. 

"Keion was able to engage these young men and change their lives," Estep said. "We had one youngster who missed 110 out of 180 school days one year, and he ended up graduating from high school with a 3.0 grade point average and going to college.

"It was all about Keion's commitment to the whole child. He wanted to make sure that kids had access to schools, quality housing and sports."

The Special Delivery program also fills a critical need, providing toys, food and clothing to hundreds of needy families. Carpenter House Communities addresses one of Baltimore's most pressing problems: the lack of affordable housing for low-income and single-parent families. Carpenter House Communities has also partnered with Baltimore City Public Schools to identify, train and hire teachers' aides for special-needs classrooms. 

Commitment 4 Change is a summer camp for youngsters age 7-17. It provides football instruction, financial education and leadership classes at area recreation centers. 

Shutdown Academy, which was founded in 2010, is a signature Carpenter House program that has affected many lives. Shutdown Academy teaches its participants how to reach their full potential through the core values of integrity, honor and respect. 

Carpenter wasn't alone in the creation of Shutdown Academy. His co-founders were Aaron Maybin and Bryant Johnson, two local athletes who were first-round NFL Draft picks. 

Maybin, a Baltimore resident who grew up in Ellicott City, Md., was a standout linebacker at Mount Hebron High School and Penn State and the 11th overall selection by the Bills in the 2009 NFL Draft. Maybin spent two seasons each with the Bills and New York Jets and one year with the Canadian Football League's Toronto Argonauts, before retiring in 2014.

Johnson, a wide receiver from Baltimore's City College and then Penn State, was taken by the Arizona Cardinals with the 17th pick in the 2003 NFL Draft. Johnson spent five seasons with the Cardinals and also played for the San Francisco 49ers, Detroit Lions and Houston Texans before his career concluded after the 2011 season. 

"That bonded us together," said Maybin, who runs his own foundation and works with the Mayor of Baltimore's Safe Arts Spaces Task Force. "Keion told me that this was a marathon that we were running. I was amazed by how he connected with people. He would engage and listen to their problems, and everyone in the room knew how generous he was. Keion taught me how to change the trajectory of young people's lives."

With three NFL players as its founding members, it's no surprise sports play an important role at Shutdown Academy. The football teams play at Baltimore's Hanlon Park, and the organization also uses Calverton School and Collington Square Recreation Center for its sports programs. Football was the first sport to be offered, and the Shutdown Academy lineup now includes baseball, boys' and girls' basketball and boys' lacrosse. 

Chambers was also involved in the creation of Shutdown Academy. She met Carpenter nine years ago, at a time when her then-teenage son needed some guidance. Carpenter referred Chambers and her son to the For My Kidz mentoring program. 

"They helped my son with homework and helped him in football," Chambers said. "Since my son was already playing football, Keion reached out to me and asked me to help him start a football program."

A few months later, the Shutdown Academy was underway. 

"We started by introducing Keion to youth football coaches in Baltimore City," Chambers said. "He went to league meetings, talked with the coaches and decided that this is what he wanted to do. During the first year, we were just a travel team. He took the Shutdown Academy team to Atlanta to play against teams that were coached by Hall of Fame cornerback Deion Sanders, former Ravens running back Jamal Lewis and Hall. After that first year, Keion was so excited that he wanted to develop a full-blown league in Baltimore."

Issue 231: Keion Carpenter

During the past several years, the Shutdown Academy program has expanded beyond its Baltimore roots. Due to Carpenter's vision and energy, Shutdown Academies are now established in Virginia (Manassas and Newport News), Washington, D.C., and Atlanta. 

The Shutdown Academy isn't just about athletic training and accomplishment. Attendees also have to work hard on the academic side in order to participate.

"From the door, we stress the concept of ‘student-athlete,' and the student comes first," said Terrence Wheeler, president of Shutdown Academy. "We tell them that in order to get to another level, you have to get an education. These kids need to reach a weekly academic requirement in order to even play that week."

Wheeler, who works full-time as a Behavioral Specialist for the Baltimore City Public School system, met Carpenter through a mutual friend. He was immediately inspired by Carpenter's caring nature. 

"Keion and I developed a great business relationship, but we were like brothers," Wheeler said. "I don't know when he slept, because I'd get texts at 3 o'clock in the morning from him. He was a ball of energy and had the heart of a true servant. All Keion wanted to do was make the people who society said didn't have a reason to smile, smile."

Gone Too Soon

In December 2016, Carpenter, his wife Tonia and their four children were on a post-Christmas vacation in south Florida. On the afternoon of Dec. 27, Carpenter was running to his car when he slipped and hit his head, knocking him unconscious. He fell into a coma and died two days later at a Miami hospital. Carpenter was 39 years old. 

"We just wanted to make sure that his family was taken care of," said Cassandra Vaughn, who directs the publicity efforts for The Carpenter House. "The one thing that Keion cared about more than these kids was his own family. He lived and breathed for every person in his family."

The shock of Carpenter's sudden death was felt in many quarters, but it has deepened the resolve of the people of The Carpenter House whom he touched. 

"When he first left us, there were times where we didn't want to do anything," Vaughn said. "But I'm not going to quit. I feel like Keion put people together for a certain reason."

The Mission Goes On

Those who helped Carpenter improve the lives of young people have vowed to not only maintain the mission but to expand it. 

"We're definitely moving forward with everything," Chambers said. "At this point, nothing has stopped. With Shutdown, Terrence Wheeler and I are working on building new relationships and continuing the relationships that Keion already had in place. For My Kidz, which is run by Jerel Wilson and Marshawn Gibbs, has expanded. Special Delivery will move forward."

Maybin, who helped build Shutdown Academy, understands the commitment of the organization's volunteers will be essential, especially at this time.

"If you live in Baltimore or Atlanta, he probably affected your life in some way," Maybin said. "It will take an army of people to fill that void. It will require the dedication of people who want to see the work continue. Keion was so passionate about the work, and he dedicated his life to the cause of bettering people's circumstances."

The Carpenter House will have no shortage of volunteers, even from out of town. 

"Keion put himself and his career on the back burner to make sure that these kids had the opportunity to be successful," said Hall, who lives in Atlanta during the offseason but helped get the Shutdown Academy off the ground. "I will take the opportunity to keep his legacy going. To hear the success stories, to see kids get the proper coaching, and to see kids go to college that might not have had the chance is the best part about it."

Wheeler has also pledged to ensure Carpenter's legacy lives on. 

"I believe that there will eventually be a Shutdown Academy in every major city across the country," Wheeler said. "I'm excited to see where God is going to take us."

Vaughn will continue to be inspired by Carpenter's "infectious and contagious love for people."

"I miss him every minute," Vaughn said. "Keion was born to make sure that everything was OK. That's who he was to all of us. He had so much more that he wanted to do. We can't let his legacy die by letting our strengths be idle." 

Issue 231: March 2017