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Through the front door of a beautiful Perrysburg home last week trudged one of the country’s top high school linebackers, shoulders slumping and feet dragging after an exhausting preseason practice.
Chris Green, an 18-year-old prone to theatrics, released an exaggerated groan to announce his arrival and worked his way into the living room.
Aunt Ginger and Uncle Jeff, who were seated on the couch, are not his relatives. Nor is their son, 10-year-old Caleb, whom Green calls his brother. But this is Green’s house, and these people are his family now. He left behind his old life in November when it bottomed out and his mother was incarcerated in a federal prison.
Overcoming tall odds, Green, who on Monday will begin his junior year at Central Catholic, never succumbed to the pressure of his surroundings. He shunned gang activity for athletics, performing arts, and a positive stable of friends.
That’s why a man, his wife, and their son felt moved to invite Green into their home last fall, introducing him to an existence that mirrors the one experienced by the protagonist in the award-winning book and movie The Blind Side.
“There’s no reason Chris is the way he is,” Ginger Duhaime, his custodial parent, said. “I tell him all the time God has a plan. That’s the only thing that makes sense.”
Like The Blind Side’s Michael Oher, who grew up impoverished in the South, Green is an African-American standout football player living in the suburbs with a white family. There’s also another connection. Oher, who starred on the offensive line at the University of Mississippi, overcame NCAA academic requirements to qualify for college football.
Green, who turned 18 in June and is rated anywhere from the nation’s second to sixth-best inside linebacker in the class of 2015, is crossing his fingers that the Ohio High School Athletic Association will show compassion over his hardships and approve his appeal to participate in football next year as a 19-year-old senior.
“Every person we meet, that’s the first thing they say,” Mr. Duhaime said, exhausted from the big screen comparisons.
The Duhaimes note one key difference between the stories.
Oher’s mother abandoned her son and his siblings, surrendering to a life of drug addiction. Green’s mother, perhaps through her mistakes, groomed her son into a fine young man.
“Most kids who were exposed to what he was exposed to might not have turned out the way he did,” Mr. Duhaime said. “So his mother did something right as far as instilling a quality in him. He’s never been in any trouble, and he should have been.”
Four-plus hours south of Perrysburg, Shareese Norwood is serving a 24-month sentence in Lexington, Ky., for aggravated identity theft.
She passes time playing with a dog, reading the newspaper, and emailing her son and his guardians. Norwood, in a 15-minute telephone interview with The Blade, spoke of her fears as she followed the Trayvon Martin trial, concerned that her son — like Martin, who was killed in a gated Florida community where he was staying temporarily — could be misidentified as a black thug in a white neighborhood.
In truth, those worries were small compared with those she harbored while raising her son. A product of hardscrabble Toledo neighborhoods, Green witnessed a gamut of violence, from a drive-by shooting to domestic abuse that victimized his mother. Gang activity was omnipresent. Frequent moves resulted in Green bouncing around to seven different schools. This year will be the first he has been enrolled at the same institution a third consecutive year.
“Being in a stable, two-parent home has really given him a different insight on how life should be,” Norwood said. “It was a different experience for him, and I wanted to give him a life I thought he deserved.”
Norwood said her life started to spiral downward after her sophomore year of high school when she transferred to a public school from Central Catholic because of family finances. Insistent on not letting her son careen down a similar path, she met with the Duhaimes before leaving for prison and received their assurance the family would keep her son enrolled at Central Catholic.
Green, with the blessing of his mother, chose to live with the Duhaimes — whom he met through Mr. Duhaime’s sister, Green’s fifth-grade counselor — over offers to stay with his aunt, where his 6-year-old sister now resides, and with his biological father.
Norwood, while behind bars, has missed many signature moments in her son’s life. In November, weeks after his mom was incarcerated, Green led a defensive charge in the Division II state title game with a sack for a safety in a 16-12 win over defending state champion Trotwood-Madison.
“I think I did good,” said Green, who needed to be consoled by teammates prior to kickoff. “But I wanted my mom to be there. Hopefully when she gets back, I can do it again so she can see me play in the state championship game.”
In May he had a speaking role and danced the tango in Central Catholic’s production of the musical Anything Goes. Weeks later he landed on the school’s honor roll for the first time with a 3.3 grade-point average.
Mrs. Duhaime rewarded him with a steak. Green has been pestering her to get a bumper sticker touting the achievement.
Green wrote his mother a letter in prison thanking her for making the best of a dire situation.
“My mom is very supportive of me and caring for me,” Green said. “She has tried to keep me away from negative forces. I grew up not in the best neighborhoods, not around the best people, but she tried to keep me away from everything and keep me in school and keep me amped for football. She was like a mother would be.”
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This summer, on the first day of a camp at Hillsdale College, Irish football coach Greg Dempsey walked into a dormitory lobby to find his team huddled around a teammate playing the piano.
“It was Chris Green being the entertainer once again,” said Dempsey, whose 14th team at Central is expected to contend for a repeat state title.
Green, who two years ago became the first freshman under Dempsey to play regularly, is a magnetizing presence. His Facebook account shows more than 2,000 friends.
A hostess at a Perrysburg restaurant, the Duhaimes said, recognized Green as “that sophomore” football player for Central Catholic. Green likewise was recognized by many during a visit to an ice cream parlor.
He befriends younger kids who live in his subdivision, accompanying 10-year-old Caleb Duhaime to neighborhood football and basketball games. Caleb’s playmates, Green said, treat him like “a big play toy.”
“Everybody knows Chris,” said Irish wrestling coach Tony Guerra, who helped Green capture a 220-pound sectional title last season in his first year in the sport. “He’s very outgoing.”
And, said Mr. Duhaime, Green is “a gentle giant.”
Last season, while celebrating a powerful hit he delivered to an opposing quarterback, Green inadvertently denied the player’s plea for help off the ground. He was so stricken with guilt in the following days, he asked the Duhaimes for help reaching out to the quarterback to apologize. They assured him he was overreacting.
“You have no idea how many layers there are to that kid,” Mrs. Duhaime said. “He’s like a tree trunk. You cut him in half and you see all these different rings.”
Including his inclination to entertain.
The refrain to the song Green played for his teammates at camp encapsulates his life over the past year.
Lean on me, when you’re not strong. And I’ll be your friend, I’ll help you carry on.
Jeff and Ginger Duhaime resent the credit bestowed on them since opening their door to Green.
They agreed only reluctantly to have their photo taken for this story, wishing instead to deflect praise to Green and his mother, and to Central Catholic supporters who stepped forward to donate to Green’s tuition. Green at his former residence qualified for a state voucher because he lived in an underperforming school district. The same is not true in Perrysburg, meaning the Duhaimes were on the hook for about $9,300.
“We literally had people approach us and say, ‘Hey, I heard what you’re doing, let us know if there’s something you need,’ ” said Mrs. Duhaime, who works at Owens Corning as a continuous improvement leader.
The couple’s lone concern when asked by Mr. Duhaime’s sister to take in Green was what effect the move might have on Caleb, their only child.
The relationship, however, has been brotherly. Sometimes the two bicker; other times Green helps Caleb mow the lawn or gather droppings in the yard left by the family’s 130-pound Bernese mountain dog.
“We argue sometimes, but he’s been a really big help to me,” Caleb said.
The transition has not been without hiccups. Not accustomed to spacious living quarters, Green refuses to go alone into the basement of the family’s near-3,000-square-foot home. Chores and studies, once unfamiliar tasks for Green, are daily requirements. The absence of police sirens and car horns was initially odd.
And occasionally Green will do something to upset his guardians. This summer they revoked his driving privileges after he flattened three tires on family vehicles in a two-week period.
“All our goal ... when we brought Chris in was to give him an opportunity to better himself, to nurture him, to give him a safe environment to flourish in,” Mr. Duhaime, a regional director for Mercy Health, said. “I know the best Chris Green is a pretty special person.”
Viewing the OHSAA rulebook through a black-and-white lens, Green has little chance of participating in sports beyond the upcoming season.
He will exceed the age requirement, turning 19 just 35 days ahead of the Aug. 1 cut-off date. An exception is granted to those who were held back in grades kindergarten through third. Green started kindergarten one year late and failed fourth grade in a year undermined by family problems.
A year later, a doctor diagnosed him with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Mrs. Duhaime has gone through pains to ensure that the OHSAA knows all the facts, preparing a 159-page dossier over seven months that details Green’s hardships.
“If they have any sense for what football means to this kid ... I just pray they read that in those pages,” she said. “It’s his life.”
The OHSAA appeals panel is expected by the end of the school year to issue a ruling. Green, if not granted the waiver, intends to stay at Central Catholic next year and train for college.
“Exceptions are made for a reason,” Dempsey said. “I’d like to think this is one of those times there could be an exception.”
The University of Toledo offered Green (6 feet, 226 pounds) a scholarship, as did Bowling Green State University and Kentucky. Others have shown interest, including Ohio State and Michigan. Green, who not long ago legally changed his last name to Norwood, will be known still as Chris Green so as to not throw off recruiters. He has no affinity to the name Green, which he was given at an early age by a boyfriend of his mother.
Norwood, who is scheduled to be released from prison in July, 2014, has indicated to the Duhaimes her desire to let her son live with them indefinitely, perhaps until he leaves for college.
Mrs. Duhaime joked she might relocate to Green’s college town.
“What I’m trying to figure out now is how I am going to let him go,” she said. “Now I’ve brought him into my heart, and I don’t know how to send him back.”
Contact Ryan Autullo at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6160 or on Twitter @AutulloBlade.