God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
– Prayer of Serenity, Reinhold Niebuhr
The giggles started as soon as South senior Davontae Harris pulled his 3-year-old cousin to his lap on the living-room couch. Soon, a 6-year-old cousin crawling on his back created more laughter.
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Antonio and Kristy Baker smiled at Davontae, Jayla and Devin. This is their family. It says so above the fireplace in big letters, directly under the pictures of mom, dad and three kids.
Harris isn’t the Baker’s birth child. He has only lived with his cousins and their kids since his sophomore year. But he is their son, and Antonio Baker is the closest person to a dad that Harris has had.
“He’s my guardian, but he’s more of a father figure,” said Harris, one of the state’s top sprinters who has signed to play football at Illinois State. “In the three years I’ve lived with him, I’ve learned truly how to be a man, and the morals that he holds trickles down to me and molds me to be a man.”
It was Baker who introduced Harris to the Prayer of Serenity.
“Me and him talk all the time,” Harris said. “Pretty much every time he talks to me, he leaves me with some type of quote to think about and listen to and play back in my head. The main thing he always says is the serenity prayer. It’s something I refer back to all the time.”
Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change
Harris couldn’t change a devastating injury he suffered during football season. He chased down a West player in South’s opener, and as he made the tackle, the player’s cleated foot smashed into Harris’ stomach.
Harris initially thought he was fine, and even went back into the game, hiding his pain.
But he vomited on the field and left the game. He was in such pain that Antonio Baker took him to Via Christi St. Francis, where Harris threw up at least 20 more times as doctors discovered he had torn his large and small intestines.
The first night after surgery, Harris figures he nearly broke the button to give himself morphine because of the pain.
“We very much consider him my son, and it’s the scariest thing to have one of your kids go through that,” Antonio Baker said.
“When I heard about it, I didn’t know if it would kill him,” Harris’ birth mother, Sandra Baker, said. “It was a very, very serious injury.”
Harris was in the intensive care unit for 48 hours. His recovery was slow. He couldn’t eat for four days and, for about three weeks, he couldn’t stand up straight.
College coaches who had shown interest in the speedy defensive back disappeared.
Except for Illinois State.
Grant me the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
Harris knew he didn’t have the kind of life he wanted growing up. He watched his brothers make poor decisions and go to jail.
“My living with my mom wasn’t the best,” Harris said. “I didn’t really feel I had a comfortable future staying at home.”
The realization especially hit him hard when he’d spend time at Antonio Baker’s house on the weekends during his freshman year at North.
“I’d see something different,” Harris said. “I’d see something I wanted. The things I had at my mom’s house, something I grew up around, it wasn’t something I wanted in the future. Being around (Baker) and his family, I wanted something different. I didn’t want to be stagnant.”
Harris talked to Baker, who, along with Kristy, a history teacher at South, asked the then-sophomore to move in with them.
“I knew what I wanted,” Harris said. “ I knew at that point, there was more to life. At his house, there was more to life.”
Asking his mother was not easy. He was a professed mama’s boy who remembers being 10 years old and sleeping in her bed.
“I knew it was best for him, but it was hard,” Sandra Baker said. “He was my baby. I’m close with the other boys. Me and him were a lot tighter. It was hard to let him go.”
It was a tough decision for Harris, but he firmly believed it was the right move for his future.
“Even now, that’s probably the biggest decision I’ve ever made. It wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t easy to tell her it’s what I wanted,” Harris said.
There were stipulations with the move. The only acceptable grades are As and Bs – in honors classes. He currently has two Cs, but promised those would be where they need to be in a day or two. Harris also has chores such as mowing the lawn and taking out the trash.
Harris continued to make changes after his move. He got a job and he’s focused on academics, football and track.
He also made himself into one of the state’s top sprinters. He only competed in jumps as a freshman and sophomore because he consistently got beat at North and South in sprints.
In the summer of 2011, Harris set out to change his future. He went to football workouts in the morning, to the YMCA for two hours for another workout, home to nap, then to the Y for a third workout.
“I’m not the type of guy who will do something and do it halfway,” Harris said. “When I go in and do something, I want to do it good, do it flawless and try to win. It took extra time, but if you want to be better than someone else, I try to work twice as hard.”
Harris, who was third in the 100 meters in Class 6A last May, set two South records early in the track season, running 10.46 seconds in the 100 and 20.3 in the 200.
He refuses to have his name attached to those records because they were wind-aided.
Enjoying one moment at a time
There’s a set of three family pictures above the fireplace. The first is of Kristy and Antonio, the second of Davontae, Devin, 6, and Jayla, 3. The third is of the whole family.
Harris knows his place in the family — he is Antonio and Kristy’s son, he is Devin and Jayla’s big brother.
He accepts the teasing about his prom date and being crowned prom king. He accepts the teasing about the time Devin beat him in basketball, gently noting, um, he moved out of the way for Devin’s winning basket. He accepts the mini battles he and Jayla have, and he merely laughs when Antonio and Kristy laugh about the state of his bedroom.
His dad calls him the “most popular nerd I know.”
“Honestly, we used to have to tell him on Friday and Saturdays, ‘Why don’t you hang out with friends?’ ” Antonio Baker said. “He’s a homebody. He’s a very-family oriented kid. He puts family first.”
Harris made the change, he had the courage to make that change, and his life is better for it.
Harris’ future is bright. He’s got a college scholarship to play the sport he loves and he will be able to get a free education.
He made the right choice. He still has goals at South, such as winning the 100 and the 200 in the Class 6A meet on May 25.
But right now there are a few grades to improve, a bedroom to clean and two young cousins — no, siblings — who need to be tickled.