THE DAILY ORANGE

‘MY ESCAPE’

How football saved Antwan Cordy’s life

Sometimes Antwan Cordy gets caught up reflecting on his life.

He thinks about growing up in a three-bedroom, one-bathroom house packed with six people in a high-crime, low-income area near Miami. He thinks about old friends, either in jail or dead. He thinks about the bad decisions he almost made, the ones he easily could have made and the ones he actually did.

Then he looks down at the gold football hanging at the end of the chain around his neck.

“Football,” Cordy said, “that was my escape.”

Football saved Cordy from what his father calls a “war zone,” where he says teenagers roam the streets with AK-47s and other guns shoved down their pants.

The sport carried Cordy away from his hometown of Naranja, Florida — a small town in Miami-Dade County with a poverty rate (37.9 percent) almost triple the national average, according to 2015 American Community Survey data — and moved him more than 1,230 miles north to Syracuse, where he’ll likely start at safety for the Orange in the fall.

The redshirt junior, one of SU’s best defensive players, missed all but the first two games of last season with a fractured left forearm. It was an emotionally excruciating experience for a player who’s relied heavily on the sport and the people and resources it’s brought into his life.

“Without football,” Cordy’s father Tony Mcghee said, “I don’t think he’d want to live.”

• • •

The first words that come to Cordy’s mind to describe his hometown are profanities, which he refrains from saying. Then come the others: dangerous, rough, a struggle.

Usually, he elects not to talk about it all.

Naranja is the type of place where you get shot if you look at someone the wrong way or step on their new shoes, said Mcghee, who’s lived in the area his entire life. There are hardly any jobs in the area and most are minimum wage, he continued. Mcghee dropped out of school in eighth grade to get a job and help his mother support his siblings.

Crime statistics aren’t available for Naranja because it’s too small and doesn’t have its own police department.

The neighborhood he was born into left Cordy with three potential paths, he said: football, jail or an early death. Just once, he strayed down the wrong one.

He had been playing football for a few years. He had already listened to and understood speeches from his coaches and parents about how football was his ticket out. But he still hung around the “bad crowd” with which he had grown up.

An eighth grade graduation celebration at Universal Studios in Orlando, which included schools from the Miami area, was approaching and Cordy had nothing to wear. All of his clothes were ripped or dirty. His family couldn’t afford a new outfit.

In the Miami area, Cordy thought his reputation rested on whether he had new or nice threads. He tried to steal a pair of pants and a shirt from a Macy’s store.

A mall security guard caught Cordy and pulled him into a back room, then noticed Cordy’s T-shirt emblazoned with the logo of his youth football team and the football necklace around his neck. The security guard let Cordy go because of the promise with the sport he thought the young athlete had.

When Cordy returned home and told his mom, Pamela Cordy, she “cried for days.” She feared he was doomed to the same fate as the rest of the kids on the block.

“I can’t go this route,” Cordy remembered thinking as he watched his mom cry. “I can’t do this to my mom. Even though she’s struggling, I got to make something better out of this.”

Cordy continued, taking a deep breath and holding back the tears forming in his eyes. “It taught me a lesson. Everybody makes mistakes. I made a big mistake, so I will never do that again.”

Jessica Sheldon | Staff Photographer

• • •

Hanging on the wall of Cordy’s apartment in Syracuse is a photo of his late aunt, Belinda Waters, who died in 2009. Before he leaves each day, he taps the picture and says “thank you.” She gifted football into Cordy’s life.

Cordy was a self-described mama’s boy who rarely left the house. He bothered Waters, who he lived with at the time, by playing video games all day. His dad was fine with keeping that situation staying the same, but Waters forced Cordy to try out for the Doral Broncos at about 8 years old with her own son.

The first practice left Cordy in tears. He got run over a few times and wanted to quit. A coach pulled Cordy off to the side to yell at him.

“F this. I’m done,” Cordy said before taking his helmet off. “I’m ready to go home.”

His aunt and mother weren’t amused.

“You’re going back out there,” they told him. “You ain’t no P.”

Cordy tried to hide when a coach came to pick him up the next day, but Waters found him and sent him off again.

None of the offensive coaches wanted Cordy because of his size — he stands at just 5-foot-8. He struggled to comprehend the playbook, too. But he found his spot at cornerback, where he only had one play: man-to-man.

During a scrimmage a few days later, Cordy finished with about four interceptions and eight tackles, by his estimation. He ended the season with about 13 picks.

“One day to the next day, it was that shocking,” Cordy said. “I never knew I had it in me. … I just took it and ran away with it. Ran away with the talent.”

• • •

There’s a handful of people whom Cordy credits with having vital effects on his life. He speaks about them as if the absence of just one would have allowed his life to spiral off track.

In elementary school, Cordy lived with his aunt, Waters, for about two years. He’d spend the weekends with one of his youth league coaches, Fabian Guerra.

In high school, he lived with South Dade (Florida) High School football coach Nathaniel Hudson for “long stretches of time … when things got bad” and when his mom struggled to pay rent. Hudson did not return four phone calls to be interviewed for this story.

“(They) put clothes on my back, put shoes (on my feet), put meals on the table for me and everything,” Cordy said.

When Cordy was a child, his mom sometimes struggled to pay the bills. Once, he considered doing “something really bad” before Guerra intervened and helped Cordy’s mother.

“Whatever I could do, I did it to not let him get into any type of problems … just try to make his life a little easier since I know how hard it was and is,” Guerra said.

“Don’t do anything stupid for money,” he always told Cordy. “Come talk to me.”

Guerra sometimes took Cordy out to eat before and after practices, knowing he hadn’t eaten anything all day. He wasn’t the only one. Coaches bought Cordy cleats when they noticed him wearing the same ones for several years.

Cordy’s naturally shy and quiet disposition left him with few friends. It perpetuated as he matured, in part, as a defense mechanism to stay out of trouble.

He formed a trusted inner circle consisting of Tyre Brady, Doyle Grimes, Tadarius Wilson, Jamal Carter and Jesus Wilson. All five went on to play Division I football. “But everyone else (from Naranja) either got killed, murdered or got locked up,” Carter said.

Together, they constructed a safe haven on the football field and Naranja Park. The latter was just a 15-minute walk from his home, which he navigated by putting on headphones and keeping his head down.

Eventually, Cordy’s reputation as a football player became a signal for old friends and acquaintances into drugs, gangs and violence to stay away. They knew he’d be one of the few to make it out.

Cordy’s signed and framed high school jersey now hangs on the wall at the Buffalo Wild Wings near his house.

“I could have been in jail doing bad things or selling drugs or something like that,” Cordy said. “I could have easily did that. But I had the support … I had everybody behind me. If I didn’t have that behind me I would have took the wrong route.”

• • •

Sitting in the end zone at MetLife Stadium with linebacker Zaire Franklin before Syracuse played Notre Dame on Oct. 1, 2016, Cordy questioned why he even came to the game.

The safety was three weeks removed from injuring his left arm when Franklin delivered a hit on Louisville wide receiver James Quick that snapped Cordy’s forearm and sent him jogging immediately to the locker room.

“Every time I go to the game, like, it’s hurting me every time,” Cordy told his teammate.

Some days Cordy was overcome with anger about his injury. Other days, having the sport ripped away made him cry.

He didn’t want the surgery that eventually repaired his arm. He just wanted it to heal on its own and speed up his return to the field. It was supposed to be his breakout season, he told his parents, not one spent on the sideline.

Rehab meant 7 a.m. sessions with Dr. John F. Fatti and his staff at Syracuse Orthopedic Specialists every day for weeks. Cordy texted his close friend and trainer Randy Scoates before winter break, asking if they could replenish the grip strength zapped by his time in a cast when he came home.

As a high school junior, Cordy broke his leg, hurried back onto the field and broke it in the same place again. The pain and loss of the game was difficult to bear. He asked his father to teach him how to pray.

Last season, with the fractured arm, Cordy and his father agreed not to rush it. Cordy could’ve played the final three games of the season, Mcghee said, but took the medical redshirt instead.

Each day during winter break, Cordy skipped breakfast for a run at about 6 a.m. He returned at about 9 a.m. and then left to train with Scoates at Idolmaker Physique and Performance Gym at about 11. Cordy’s family didn’t see him again until after 6 p.m.

Mcghee urged his son to take one day a week to rest. But Cordy never misses a day, Scoates said.

Cordy’s father often hates when he comes home because of the danger — he was nearly robbed because he wore his gold chain in public during winter break. His mother cries when he leaves, sometimes compelling Cordy to stay a few extra days.

The father and son talk on the phone for usually a few hours each day while Cordy is at school. Mcghee asks Cordy about class, football and anything else to keep his mind off home.

Inevitably, though, Cordy’s thoughts always circles back.

He’ll pull out a black marble composition notebook that he uses as a journal and he’ll jot down what he’s thinking.

Football saved my life.

Comments