Lavelle Hawkins, the All-American wide receiver from Edison High of Stockton, Calif., and probably one of the top 10 college wide receivers prospects this year in the nation, is one of those athletes. He lives in the south part of Stockton with his grandmother, Janet Curley.
"My mom is doing better now, and she's going to get her own place soon," said Hawkins when asked about his parents. "It's drugs........ My dad? He's passed away....... He was shot (pointing a finger to his head)..... At least that's what my mom told me."
With that background, it's been Curley who has been the primary parent figure for Hawkins. She's also helped with Lavelle's brother and two sisters.
Curley, 65, goes to Edison's games and sometimes just can't believe she's watching the same person who started to live with her when he was only two days old.
"To see where he's come from and what he's doing now makes me want to cry tears of joy," she said, just moments before Lavelle took off on a whirling dervish 34-yard touchdown run while playing quarterback.
"He was a sickly baby, because he was born when his mother was on drugs, and all I could do was just hold him real close. That baby just got stronger and stronger."
For 13 years of Lavelle's life, he lived in a two-bedroom apartment with several other family members. As his grandma recalls, the kids had to rotate sleeping on couches. But through all the difficulties, Curley maintained a firm hold on all the kids around her.
"It was tough, but we were together," she said. "I made sure to teach them about school, about going to class, and to mind the teacher. Just be something so you can make something of yourself."
Curley has been like that for countless other children who've also grown up in the Sierra Vista housing project in South Stockton. They hang out around her constantly and at a recent Edison football game she was surrounded by many friends and neighbors.
"She's one of the best people to talk to," said Rudy Badillo, a longtime observer of Edison teams. "Everybody knows her around here. She's always smiling."
"Yeah, it is a lot to overcome," Hawkins said. "All this right now is for her. Of course, I'd like to make it someday and buy her a house. But I don't want to use any of that as an excuse."
Curley laughs when Lavelle talks about the house. She'd just like to get some money to help pay for some medical work on one of her sore legs.
Hawkins might have sore legs by the end of the current season himself. He had only eight catches after his first three games, but six of those went for touchdowns. On this particular night, Edison was trailing 12-0 when Hawkins took over at quarterback. He took the Vikings on two scoring drives, giving them a 14-12 lead, and they went on to a 27-25 victory. Hawkins also has been playing as the team's No. 1 free safety and is returning kicks.
Make no mistake about it, though. Hawkins will be a wide receiver in college. He is well-connected to other wide receivers he's met at summer camps and combines and he loves nothing more than to make an acrobatic circus catch or take a short pass in the flat and show everybody what he can with the ball in the open field.
At a recent meal he was having at a local Mexican restaurant, Hawkins was distracted for much of the time looking through a copy of the High School Football annual co-produced by Student Sports and The Sporting News.
Hawkins was ranked as the 49th best player in the Hot 100 recruiting list, but he didn't even appear to see what was written up about himself. He was too busy reading about other players, some he knew about and some he hoped to go up against.
"Cameron Colvin is definitely the man," Hawkins said of the Concord De La Salle wide receiver. "He and I were at the Miami camp together and we're friends. I wonder if he knows about this."
Hawkins reaches into his backpack, pulls out his cell phone, and punches in a number. It's Colvin's.
"Hey, it's Lavelle. Wanted to check you out to see about the sport magazine. Your picture is in there. It's pretty cool. Call me later if you want. Bye."
At that Miami camp, Colvin and Hawkins were possibly the top receivers present, despite the competition from Florida athletes.
A certain glint in his eye was evident when Hawkins mentioned the Hurricanes. It's unclear, though, whether Miami had offered him. He did say that of among 10 to 20 offers that had come in, that the first ones were from Oregon State and Tennessee. Hawkins isn't the first athlete from Edison nor is he the first receiver out of Stockton to be heavily-recruited.
Lynell Hamilton and Chris Henry, both power-packed running backs with major speed (Henry was the 100-meter state sprint champ), were Pac 10 Conference-type prospects from Edison just one year ago.
Hamilton wound up at San Diego State, partly because his parents were upset with what reportedly happened on a recruiting trip to Oregon.
Hamilton is already starting for the Aztecs and already is among the leading rushers in the Western Athletic Conference. Henry, even though he was a back-up to Hamilton, signed with Arizona.
This year's Edison team also includes 6-0, 235-pound linebacker Wesley Mauia, who is generating some major college interest himself.
"I'm definitely going to take all my trips, but hopefully without the problems like the ones with Lynell," Hawkins said. "He just told me to make sure to pick your school, not what somebody else wants."
Hawkins' cousin, Ruben Jackson, was on last year's team and has major college talent. He's now at national juco powerhouse City College of San Francisco and in the summer showed what he could do on a spectacular 71-yard punt return touchdown in the local Lions All-Star Football Classic.
Hawkins mentioned Miami, Tennessee and LSU as among his own college favorites, but added that he "can't rule anybody out."
He also has camped at USC (a favorite destination for many other Stockton players) and said his GPA of 3.1 and results from the ACT (he's still waiting) should make him qualified.
If Hawkins does indeed go on to star in college, he'll be following the likes of Webster Slaughter, Lonzell Hill, Windrell Hayes, James Newson (currently at Oregon State) and others as successful wideouts who've come from Stockton.
One reason some think Hawkins will eventually go somewhere far from home is so he could help his grandma travel out to watch him. Curley, you see, has never been on a plane. She's also lived in the same housing project for 46 years.
Spend a few moments with her and you start feeling yourself rooting for Lavelle Hawkins to make all his dreams come true just a little bit harder.