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February 11, 2014

Beating the Odds: Kendall Sawyer

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You've heard the story before.

A raw deal is dealt to a kid. One that would normally break the life that could have been, the dream of a successful story into a thousand pieces.

Then there's the one chance in a million.

While it may not be a one-in-a-million situation, the story of East Lee County defensive back Kendall Sawyer is something out of a movie script.

Sawyer was playing basketball in middle school. He was playing a lot of basketball. So much that his grades declined. For the fourth time in his life, he was asked to leave his home.

He was - in fact - homeless at the age of 14.

One of the people he played with in middle school suggested to his father, Peter Gooden, that Sawyer would make a good addition to the travel basketball team Gooden was coaching.

"When he showed up at our door, he had nowhere else go to go," said Carolyn Gooden. "We had to take him in and give him a chance."

Sawyer's mother died in a car accident when he was 18 months old. His father was incarcerated for most of Kendall's life. He lived with his grandmother, friends - anywhere he could find a place to sleep.

And his grades were suffering.

"He had a 0.9 GPA when we met him. He was failing 7th-8th grade classes that they had combined," Carolyn Gooden said. "We wanted to help him, but we wanted him to want us to help him."

Kendall Sawyer isn't the type to ask someone for help. Bouncing between relatives, foster care and the street, Sawyer developed a distrust of people in general.

But the Gooden's persisted and went to court to become Kendall's legal guardians.

"They've helped me so much, I was having problems in school and in life," Sawyer said. "If they hadn't taken me in, I don't know where I'd be."

It's likely that Sawyer knows where he might be. With no academic foundation and no home life to speak of - Sawyer easily could have become 'just another statistic,' said Carolyn Gooden.

"We knew we had to help this young man," Gooden said. "He wanted to learn, but didn't have anyone helping him."

Sawyer settled into the household, becoming the third son for Peter and Carolyn Gooden. He became close to the family.

Tragedy strikes - and Sawyer stands firm

Sawyer has worked very hard to get his academic and personal life turned around. His sophomore year was the difference that Carolyn. Gooden saw in Kendall's life.

"His sophomore year, my oldest son (Bryan Hettrick) passed away in a car accident and that hit him hard," Carolyn Gooden shared. "It hit all of us hard."

Carolyn Gooden is used to dealing with tragedy. She's a registered nurse and sees death every day.

This was different. This was up close and personal. She was afraid the tragedy would cause Sawyer to become reclusive again, to slip in his academic work. Afraid that her own process of grieving would adversely disrupt the hard work in the classroom that the Goodens and Sawyer had put in.

But something unique happened.

"I have to give Kendall all the credit in the world - I was there when he needed me - and he stepped to the plate when I was in the totally worst place in the world of my life," said Carolyn Gooden. "When everything was at its worst, he stepped up to the plate and became the man he is today." "Not only has he overcome the issue with his parents, but when he came to us he didn't have the academic foundation he needed," Carolyn Gooden shared. "When we first met him - he needed us, now we need each other and that's the way it should be."

Sawyer chose to stay close to home and has pledged to play football at South Florida. His recruiting coach - Raymond Woodie - met with the family and left an indelible impression on Sawyer -and the Goodens.

"I have to give coach Woodie a lot of credit. His first comment was that he wanted someone who was academic and strong character - and football was not the priority," Carolyn Gooden said. "That's a man who I can trust Kendall with. He made us feel like he was becoming a part of our family also."

Sawyer committed after the visit, but Woodie wasn't quite sure yet.

"When the story first got out (of Sawyer committing), he (Woodie) called and said he wanted to make sure that we followed the protocol and that we agreed with Kendall committing to USF," Carolyn Gooden said," "I give him a lot of respect for that. He treated Kendall like his own son."

In fact, that's one of the reasons Sawyer chose USF.

"They're just like family."

The family that plays together… stays together

Family values are stressed in the Gooden household. If not for sports, Kendall Sawyer may have never met Carolyn, Pete and Peter Gooden.

But sports has a funny way of bringing people together and creating inseparable bonds.

Pete Jr. is also a football player, playing fullback and linebacker for East Lee's Jaguars. But the offers haven't been coming in.

When USF Defensive Coordinator Chuck Bresnahan met the family in January during an in-home visit, he was impressed with Peter Gooden Jr. So much that he asked for a tape. Pete plays linebacker and fullback.

"He told us that USF was likely to offer Peter (Jr.) preferred walk-on status," said Carolyn Gooden. "He has some offers from NAIA and NCAA Div. II and III schools, but it would be great if Pete and Kendall could stay together."



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