A Bond Deeper Than Blood

ESPNAPI_IMG_NO_ALTEXT_ValueKolman Rosenberg for ESPN

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's August 22 College Football Preview Issue. Subscribe today!

Dartanyon Crockett was?a powerfully built but legally blind high school wrestler from Cleveland. His best friend and teammate, Leroy Sutton, who had lost his legs in a train accident at age 11, went to wrestling practices and matches on the back of Dartanyon. Former ESPN producer Lisa Fenn read a story about the boys in 2009, then spent years investing in their lives, forging a connection that endured long after her first TV segment on them aired. In this excerpt from her upcoming book, Carry On , Fenn recounts Dartanyon's improbable quest to medal at the 2012 Paralympic Games in a sport in which he had little prior training: judo. Cramming years' worth of lessons into months of preparation, he would confront his fear and doubt with the help of two steadfast allies.


LONDON'S EXCEL CENTER was filled to capacity, and legions of raucous European nationals were cheering on their own athletes. They would soon root against Dartanyon.

"My heart is pounding, and I don't even have to fight," I said. "How are you feeling?"

"Not gonna lie," Dartanyon said. "I'm a little bit scared."

He had no business being here. His coach, Ed Liddie, said it was akin to a walk-on making the starting five of the Miami Heat when LeBron was their king. "And I don't mean like a college player walking on," he said. "I mean like some guy just walking in off the street."

Back when Liddie realized he was about to send a green belt to the Paralympic Games, he had quickly thrown more skills at Dartanyon and tested him for a brown belt -- a milestone that suddenly felt insufficient.

"Who goes to the Games as a brown belt?" Liddie wondered. I had one secret weapon, though, who could love louder than any European: Leroy. ESPN and I agreed that none of this felt right without him, and so the day before Dartanyon's scheduled matches, we flew Leroy over. I had picked him up at the airport and hid him behind a plant outside the venue. Now I lured Dartanyon outside by telling him a fan wanted to meet him. Instead, Leroy rolled up from behind him.

"Hey, you bringing home gold?" Leroy called out.

Dartanyon turned. It couldn't be, he thought.

"I said, 'You bringing home gold?'" Leroy repeated, his booming laughter giving him away.

Dartanyon jumped into Leroy's embrace. Nearly two years had passed since they last saw one another.

"Dude, nothing could ever keep me from being here," Leroy said. "You're my brother."

With that, Dartanyon's posture relaxed, and his smile returned.


DARTANYON STOOD IN the tunnel beside his first opponent, Olivier Cugnon de Sevricourt of France. Olivier was one of those technically proficient judo pedigrees, fighting since the age of 6. He won bronze in the 2008 Paralympic Games and was coming off a silver medal in the last European Championships.

Dartanyon pounded his chest as U.S. Paralympic head coach Scott Moore barked last-minute reminders into his ear. But Moore's words were drowned out by the two voices already sparring within Dartanyon. A whisper of doubt slithered around his mind like a viper, taunting him -- You have no business being on this world stage. And that voice was right. He was a judo infant, the only brown belt in London. Dartanyon walked toward his mat, until he heard another voice.

"You can do this, Dar!" Leroy yelled, leaning over the padded wall.

Dartanyon pointed as he passed, relieved to know his friend was once again alongside the mat, where he needed him most.

Dartanyon worked quickly and walked confidently until halfway through regulation, when Olivier shot for a drop seoi nage and yanked Dartanyon's arm awkwardly. Dartanyon returned to center, clutching his left shoulder. Sensing weakness, Olivier immediately attacked, and though he couldn't get Dartanyon on his back, he did get into his head.

Each time the groundwork stagnated, it forced the official to call them back to center, eliciting a theatrical response from Dartanyon: He rolled on the ground, holding his shoulder, then his knee, struggling to stand straight.

"Come on, Dar, you gotta want this!" Moore yelled.

The referee pulled Dartanyon upright; he slumped back over. She gave him a penalty for not attacking. Dartanyon huffed in disbelief, as though he had expected a hug instead. After five minutes of regulation, the match was deadlocked and headed into the golden score -- the sudden-death overtime of judo, where the first person to score a point wins.

But Dartanyon wasn't thinking about winning. He was thinking about how to explain himself if he lost. And so he punctuated every action with a melodramatic reaction -- dragging his head along the mat, letting his leg give out, clutching his shoulder -- as if to preemptively say, "See, I wasn't afraid. I was hurt." Certainly he entered the Games with nagging injuries -- torn ligaments in his foot and ring finger, limited range of motion in his shoulder, screws in his ankle -- but every judoka lives with bone shards and shredded joints.

"Get up, Dar!" Moore screamed, pounding his fists on the coach's table. "You gotta want this! Let's go!"

A section of French fans booed and brandished their flags. Leroy tugged on his lips. I pulled my knees to my chest and buried my head in my elbow. If he lost here, he went home.

Then, after 28 minutes on the mat -- 23 minutes more than he had ever spent in a match before -- Dartanyon showed a flash of aggression, using his right leg to drop Olivier on his side for a yuko. He thereby earned an advantage point -- and the win -- in a most unconvincing fashion.

Dartanyon hobbled back to the athlete warm-up area, which was off-limits to me. I thought back to the day I met him and the first competition of his I ever watched -- the high school wrestling match he was supposed to win easily. But the camera and the ESPN name put a pressure on him for which he wasn't prepared, and when he faltered, he explained it by limping and staggering and heaving over the trash. I had seen this drama before, and I could not let those lessons go to waste.

I phoned Ed Liddie, who was with Dartanyon in the athlete holding area.

"Coach, I don't think Dartanyon's hurt. At least not as badly as he made it look," I said. "I think he is nervous."

"The trainers are assessing him now, so we'll see," Liddie said.

I told him what I remembered from three years before and how the next day he'd bounced into the gym with Leroy on his back. "I think this may be what he does when he feels overmatched."

"I saw a similar thing with him in Mexico," Liddie said.

Dartanyon emerged from the training room. "Coach, my knee is really -- "

"Come here, son," Liddie interjected. "You got a decision to make. You've gotta decide if you came here to win or if you are content to leave here with a nice pat-on-the-back-you-tried-hard-too-bad-about-the-leg kind of thing. Because you can either go home with sympathy, or you can go home with a medal. The choice is yours."

Dartanyon limped through the warm-up room to consider Liddie's words, surrounded by a sea of world champions and Paralympic coaches who were sizing up this new kid as he passed.

Their stares reminding him that this was no place for rookies.

But he had fought tougher rounds in this life, he thought. He walked back to Liddie -- this time without the limp -- and said, "I want some hardware, Coach."


IT SEEMED THE entire arena was chanting for Dartanyon's next opponent -- hometown hero Samuel Ingram of Great Britain. Sam was the reigning European champion and stood a full head taller than Dartanyon.

Sam went after Dartanyon like a street fighter. He quickly commandeered control of the match, securing the inside position on faceoffs and maintaining a vise grip on Dartanyon's right sleeve to nullify his dominant throwing arm. But Dartanyon fought to shake free, convincing us all that he no longer wanted an excuse. He wanted to win. Gone was the limp. Back was the warrior.

Dartanyon staved off all of Sam's attacks for the first 90 seconds and got in a few of his own. But his inexperience showed against his veteran opponent, and Sam picked up on how Dartanyon preferred going to his left. With a de-ashi-barai, Sam swept Dartanyon's right foot and planted the square of his back onto the mat.

Victory Ingram, by ippon.

"Even though Dartanyon lost, we're happy because he fought better than he did in the match he won," Liddie said. "He didn't give up. He didn't give in. He just got caught."

Dartanyon still had a chance for bronze, if he could win his next two matches. "One match at a time still gets this done," Liddie told him.


DARTANYON ATTACKED Brazilian powerhouse Roberto Julian Santos, immediately trying to throw him. Roberto didn't budge. "He was the strongest guy I had ever faced," Dartanyon later said. But Dartanyon remained comfortable and focused, finally believing he belonged there. He also knew it was win or go home. So he attacked off every faceoff, keeping Roberto on the defensive and unable to set up his own moves.

Halfway into the match, Dartanyon worked Roberto on his side and earned a half-point waza-ari. The strategy shifted. He no longer needed to throw Roberto. He needed to eat time off the clock by keeping the action on the ground.

Roberto kicked it into a new gear, one fiercer and faster than Dartanyon had the stamina to defend. With 30 seconds on the clock, Dartanyon wondered if he had enough to grind it out. But just as his will was starting to wane, a familiar voice echoed.

"Let's-Go-Crock-ett!

"Let's-Go-Crock-ett!"

Though Leroy was the only one chanting, everyone in the arena, including Dartanyon, could hear his booming voice. Dartanyon gathered himself, channeling the kindred spirit of his best friend. I joined Leroy, clapping rhythmically. "Let's-Go-Crockett! Let's-Go-Crockett!"

Then, to our surprise, a legion of Japanese fans behind us joined in, waving their national flag and cheering "Let's-Go-Crockett!" Spanish fans were next, followed by a group of British children. And though it was probably only a few dozen people, it felt like a movement, as though Leroy had sparked the whole world to unite in cheering Dartanyon back to life.

Renewed, Dartanyon shot straight for a side pin, trapping Roberto between his arms. He squeezed him for 10 seconds.

Fifteen.

Twenty.

Twenty-five seconds.

Pin.

Dartanyon was headed to the bronze-medal match, and as he strode off the mat, he pointed, gratefully, to Leroy. I had flown Leroy over as a surprise. He turned out to be a savior. This time, Leroy carried Dartanyon.


OLEG KRETSUL WAS a hulking Eastern European brawler who moved with the stealth of a cat. He began his career as a sighted athlete, breaking onto the scene at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. A year later, he married, and one week after his wedding, he suffered a serious car crash. His new bride was killed in the accident, and Oleg lost both of his eyes. The accident forced him to rebuild his life and his judo career. Oleg reemerged as the silver medalist in the 2004 Paralympic Games in Athens and the gold medalist in the 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing. He bore a resemblance to Shrek, with a square nose on a square head, planted atop square shoulders that could have doubled as bookshelves to hold his four world championship titles.

"Listen, you can handle him," Liddie told Dartanyon, while looking up at this mountain of a man and hiding his own sweaty palms behind his back. "It's just another round."

Oleg couldn't see Dartanyon, but his coach, Vitaly Gligor, could. He had watched Dartanyon compete in Finland earlier that year. "The American is strong, like a bodybuilder, but he doesn't have much technique," Gligor told Oleg. "He doesn't move like a judoka."

Dartanyon strutted out of the chute like a prizefighter, like he had grown 10 judo years since his morning match against France. Both Dartanyon and Oleg attacked off the hajime, with Oleg gripping so aggressively that he reached over Dartanyon's shoulder and held him by the back of his gi. Oleg yanked him. Dartanyon yanked back. But it was no use, like trying to drag a tree stump out of the ground. This guy is stupid strong, Dartanyon thought about a minute into the match.

And that's when his body overruled all other voices, his bones rattling with the early words and techniques coach Shane Hudson had drilled into him: Go toward the energy, don't resist it. And then it happened.

As Oleg jerked at Dartanyon's sleeves, Dartanyon changed gears and exploded toward Oleg. Minimum effort, maximum efficiency.

With Oleg stumbling off balance, Dartanyon used his right leg to sweep both of Oleg's legs out from under him. Oleg crashed to the ground in a moment that both moved in slow motion yet passed in a blur. Dartanyon had defeated the decorated Russian with a most perfect and basic ouchi gari -- the very first throw Hudson taught him as a white belt and insisted he make his own.

Dartanyon leaped around the mat in disbelief, pointing up to his mother, pointing to Leroy, pointing to me.

The overhead screen flashed: "Winner, Crockett," sweeping us up in a staggering miracle that had quietly begun on a beat-up wrestling mat in an inner-city high school in Cleveland. Minutes later, in the media zone, Dartanyon and I stood before each other, thunderstruck.

"I did it, Lisa," he cried, letting his head fall onto my shoulder.

"You did it. You did everything," I said as I wept. "I am so proud of you, Dartanyon."

He had encountered every style of fighting, from the Frenchman's stubborn persistence to England's street style to Brazil's technical proficiency to the Russian's brute strength. Dartanyon had risen above them all with a style of his own: indomitable spirit.


From the book Carry On: A Story of Resilience, Redemption, and an Unlikely Family, by Lisa Fenn. Copyright ? 2016 by Lisa Fenn. Reprinted by permission of Harper Wave, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Buy the book here.?

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