A Father's Awakening

Early fatherhood turned out to be the driving force for Tydreke Powell's maturation and for his football career.

This article is from the December 2010 Issue of the Inside Carolina Magazine. To learn more about the publication and how to subscribe, CLICK HERE.

A Father's Awakening

Inside Carolina Magazine
December 2010
WORDS: Andrew Jones
PHOTOS: Jim Hawkins

ydreke Powell reached a crossroads by the time he entered the ninth grade that is usually reserved for young adults. Although it wasn't like Powell was living a normal life to that point, anyway.

So one day at the tender age of 14, Powell, who had spent the previous few years looking for answers in all of the wrong places in search of manhood, learned he was going to be a father. He was barely a teenager, though his activities led him to believe he was older and wiser than his classmates.

Directionless and in search of guidance that never came from his absent father, Powell turned to the older crowd—the "bad guys," as he now calls them—to climb the ladder of manhood. But all it brought him was trouble, bad grades, and angst from his mother.

Manhood was about being tough, he thought. It was about silly things like representing, and keeping a façade of ruggedness, which was surely a cover up for the pain that churned deep inside.

Asked to dictate an opening paragraph about his life to that point, Powell replied:

"Tydreke, he was a real lost kid before he found the game of football and met Reniyah. Before high school, he was this kid who didn't know himself or what he wanted to do with his life. He wanted to hang with the older guys and was a kid who was lost, always in trouble and couldn't get his grades right. He was a lost kid."

Powell, a starting defensive tackle for North Carolina, gained some discipline through football, but it was more the birth of his daughter that was so profound that it literally changed every day of his life thereafter.

Two years before he could drive, and just months after finishing middle school, the strapping boy welcomed Reniyah Powell into this world, and he's not been the same since.

"I wasn't even going to play football in ninth grade, but that's when I had my daughter, as a freshman in high school," he said. "And when I had her and when I would hold her, I couldn't do anything but get better for her. Football became an avenue for that."

Not only did Powell discover he was pretty good at football, he also realized he could achieve some life goals through the sport that could allow him to provide for his daughter. When his peers were thinking about ways they could dominate in video games, Powell was learning to live the life of a role model.

That was quite a turnaround from rolling with the "bad guys" just months earlier.

He was handed an opportunity to do for his daughter what his father never did for him. Embracing it didn't come overnight, although it came pretty quickly, with the aid of some solid guidance from his mother.

"I talked to him about it and basically said, ‘It's here, and it's something you have to deal with. I will always be here for you, but you have to do the right thing as well,'" Rita Powell said she told her son.

Tydreke hasn't let her down.

"He didn't really have a father in his life growing up, but when he had his child he said, ‘Mom, I want to better myself,'" Mrs. Powell recalled. "He saw me struggle as a single parent and said he wanted to make something out of his life."

Born and raised in Ahoskie, N.C., Tydreke spent many days in his youth digging for crayfish and racing sticks on rainy days along the side of the unbalanced road in front of his house. It was a pretty typical rural upbringing, one that some might associate with the small-town South.

Sports were important to young Tydreke. He became an avid St. Louis Rams fan in 1999 when they won the Super Bowl (in Jan., 2000). Powell vividly remembers the last play of that memorable victory over the Tennessee Titans, and the argument with his cousin that ensued.

They re-enacted the final play that ended with the Titans a foot from scoring a game-winning touchdown. They were boys being boys, and the memory will never leave Powell.

But an early indication that Powell was indeed a bit different than most of his classmates was revealed when he discovered Oprah Winfrey's television show. Yes, that Oprah Winfrey. How many sixth-graders even know who Winfrey is, much less boys who race home to catch her show instead of playing ball outside with friends?

"When I was in sixth grade, my teacher would always talk about Oprah," Powell recalled. "I never watched Oprah until she talked about it. And somehow, I was just flicking through the channels one day, and I thought about what my teacher had said and I've been watching Oprah ever since sixth grade. I just love Oprah."

Winfrey's shows often deal with her interviewing people who have overcome great struggles to find peace in their lives in various ways. From financial to spiritual, she enjoys focusing on the feel-good story, leaving her audience warm-hearted when the final credits roll.

"It's just the stories that she brings to a show every day, and how involved she is in things," Powell said. "There's a lot of depth to what she does."

Powell didn't know it at the time, but a seed was planted somewhere within. He may have acted out in manners he now rejects, but the real Tydreke Powell was not the gang-banging wannabe that he projected. He was attracted to Winfrey's show because he wanted to know good was triumphing over not-so-good.

"I always saw good in him," Rita Powell said. "He used to get in trouble, always wanted to fight. Then, when he had his child, he stopped hanging around with the wrong people. He didn't go out, he stayed home and accepted his responsibility."

And he started developing into a fantastic high school football player. And in time, recruiters flocked to Ahoskie to watch Powell destroy offensive linemen and ball carriers every Friday night.

It was as if he'd taken the anger and disappointments that once drove him to seek refuge with the wrong crowd earlier in his life, and channeled it toward opposing football teams in high school. It proved a perfect match.

But Powell didn't totally do it on his own. A mentor finally appeared in his life, and Willie Brandt was only too happy to offer words of advice when needed, and even a verbal slap on the wrist when duty called.

Brandt married Rita when Tydreke was in ninth grade. The new step-dad knew the task at hand and he embraced it. He showed Tydreke how a man can love and lead a child, even one who is already a parent.

"Willie knew what to say to him," Rita said. "And one day I sat back and cried because Willie talked to him and gave him the right advice about something, and it was something Tydreke needed. And I am so thankful to God that he brought Willie into our lives. Tydreke needed him as much as I did. Willie now goes to all of his games."

And within a few years, Powell earned a scholarship to apply his trade at North Carolina. Offered by the likes of Florida, Florida State, and Penn State, among others, Powell chose UNC because it was close to home, and "I always loved the Tar Heels."

Four years later, the redshirt junior is a leader on Carolina's defensive front, with a likely future in the NFL waiting upon graduation.

"I still have a long ways to go," he said about the NFL. "I'm getting stronger, faster, more flexible, and just learning football every day. I love getting in there and watching film, meeting with the defensive coordinator, Coach (Everett) Withers, and to just get more involved in football. And when that time comes, I will be ready."

UNC coach Butch Davis can't say enough complimentary things about Powell.

"Tydreke has shown great leadership this season and has really become the rock of that defensive line group that has so many young and inexperienced guys," Davis said. "He's worked extremely hard to put himself in this position and has played well in every game this year. He's a mature young man and a proud father of his two kids."

Powell's second child was born two years ago. Tydreke Powell, Jr., lives with his father and mother in Chapel Hill. Reniyah lives with her mom in Ahoskie, and is in regular contact with her father and grandmother.

The whole group attends every UNC home game and some on the road. Powell sees his daughter often in the offseason, even if it means meeting halfway between Chapel Hill and Ahoskie for a visit.

Football used to be a game for Powell, but now it means more than that. He doesn't like to think about what might happen in a couple of years, and his mother swears she never talks to him about it, but Powell is preparing for the business side of the sport, and for good reason.

"Everything I do now, having my two kids is making me a great football player," he said. "Every time I strap up or do anything, I'm doing it for my kids, not really me anymore."

Classes at a prestigious university, football under the spotlight, and the challenging task of being a parent. How does a 22-year-old do it, especially after a long, trying day, which many Tar Heels have faced this season?

"When I go home, I can hear him before I open the door, and he goes, ‘Daddy, daddy' and he'll jump in my arms," Powell said, smiling. "We will go outside and play. That's a great thing."

Moments like that, or when he awakens before rooster's call because Junior is tugging at the bed saying, "Oatmeal," make facing the kind of adversity that afflicted UNC's program this season more manageable.

And as Powell sees the value in serving as a father he has decided that when his playing days are over, he wants to reach out to all fatherless kids. It is the biggest driving force in his life.

"I didn't really have a father in my life, and that almost destroyed my life," he said. "I would love to set up a foundation and go into homes with kids that don't have fathers and pull them together and open up a youth center to teach them about life and growing into being men. I want to give them what they are missing from their fathers."

Too many kids allow that misfortune to lead them down the wrong paths, often using it as an excuse or a crutch to fall deeper into an emotional and legal abyss. And even more, sadly, run from the responsibility of parenthood, especially young fathers.

This major problem exists in many communities, including the one where Powell was raised. But he'd like to change that as much as he can. And for Powell, he knows that first begins at home.

It started years ago when his daughter was born, and he strengthens in the process as each day passes.

A ferocious football player who dares anyone who crosses his path, Powell also has a soft grace about him, which is why he's handling the delicate balance of academics, being a scholarship football player, and a father of two so well.

"Sometimes I sit back and cry because I am so proud of him," his mother said. "And it's not even the football, it's the kind of man Tydreke is turning into."

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