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My dream is to play on Sundays

"I haven't lived a white picket fence type of life," Sedale Threatt Jr. says.

The 2006 Lehigh football season was just over five quarters old and already looked lost.

After getting upset in their season opener by unheralded Albany, the Mountain Hawks dug themselves a 14-0 hole just 1:27 into the second quarter at Villanova, not exactly the script that first-year Lehigh head coach Andy Coen had in mind.

As if the two-touchdown deficit on the road weren't bad enough, Lehigh's offense was headed in reverse after holding calls on back-to-back plays had the Mountain Hawks facing first down and 31 -- or "first and the state of Pennsylvania" as one of the TV announcers on the regional broadcast aptly put it -- at their own 17-yard line.

As quarterback Sedale Threatt Jr. brought the Mountain Hawks to the line of scrimmage, the color analyst, former NFL fullback Jon Ritchie, told viewers:

"Down 14-0, Lehigh will either fight back or pack it in."

Packing it in isn't part of Threatt's makeup.

Never has been. He led his team down the field, capping the drive with a screen pass that running back Marques Thompson ran in for an 18-yard touchdown. Threatt went on to turn in one of the finest performances of his college career -- confounding Villanova's defense with his arm (223 yards passing and two touchdowns) and his feet (77 yards rushing) -- to deliver Coen his first head coaching victory in a wild 31-28 comeback over the Wildcats.

For the season, Threatt earned first-team All-League honors, after completing 61.4 percent of his throws for 2,008 yards, 14 TDs, and just five interceptions, while running for 310 yards and eight additional scores. Threatt's passer rating of 144.66 ranked 17th nationally and was tops in the Patriot League, as the Mountain Hawks finished 6-5 overall and -- as a result of a tough, season-ending loss to rival Lafayette -- had to settle for being co-champs of the Patriot League with a 5-1 mark.

Not surprisingly, the ultracompetitive Threatt isn't resting on his laurels. Not satisfied with individual honors, co-championships, and sitting home while another league team, especially Lafayette, played in the I-AA playoffs, Threatt says his goals for his senior year are to win every time he steps on the field, to get his finance degree, and then to hear his name called at the NFL draft next spring.

Sure, playing pro ball might seem like yet another "first and the state of Pennsylvania" long shot. But if you knew everything that Threatt has already overcome in his young life, you wouldn't bet against him.

"Just like everyone who puts on a pair of shoulder pads, my goal is to play in the NFL," Threatt says. "And people might think that because I'm playing at a Division I-AA school in Lehigh that it's impossible. But I definitely think that I can do it."

He's not alone. One veteran NFL scout, who agreed to talk about Threatt on condition of anonymity, says: "NFL people do know about Sedale and in all likelihood he will be a solid prospect, if he has a highly productive senior season. NFL quarterbacks are not always at USC and Notre Dame, so you've got to beat the bushes to find them. Look at Steve McNair, who played at Alcorn State. Or Tony Romo, who played at Eastern Illinois. They're both Division I-AA guys who have made the leap, so it is possible.

"If he stays healthy, Sedale will be a two-and-a-half-year starter in college. That's rare, to find college quarterbacks with that much starting experience," the scout adds.

Plus, overcoming the odds is in Threatt's DNA. His father, Sedale Threatt Sr., played college hoops in the Land that ESPN Forgot (West Virginia University Institute of Technology). But he became the 139th player picked in the 1983 NBA draft, and went on to play 951 NBA regular-season games. Threatt's mother, Nadine Jackson, was a two-sport star at the University of Massachusetts who has overcome poverty, a devastating house fire, and even gunshots to provide Threatt with the tools necessary to succeed in the biggest game of all -- the game of life.

"I'm sure years ago, they were telling my dad the same thing: Who comes out of West Virginia Tech and plays 14 years in the NBA? And my mother loves to compete. She ran track and played hoops at UMass. She overcame so much to give me a better life and the opportunity to chase my dreams.

"And my dream is to play on Sundays. I'll do everything in my power to make that dream a reality."

One NFL scout describes Sedale Threatt Jr. as "a solid prospect."

Late in the broadcast of the Villanova game last year, the station put a photo and stats of the Lehigh quarterback on the screen side-by-side with a photo and stats of his famous father. The announcers noted the obvious facial resemblance between father and son, and talked about the fact that both were gifted athletes blessed with never-say-die attitudes, and that both wore the same uniform number: 3.

What the announcers didn't mention is that Sedale Threatt Sr. is virtually a stranger to his son. That he initially contested that he was the boy's father, even though paternity tests determined it was 99 percent certain. That he didn't even meet his son until the boy was about 5 or 6 years old. That he made only sporadic child-support payments, forcing Sedale to grow up in poverty despite the fact that his father made more than $10 million during his 14-year pro career.

The announcers also failed to mention that in 2000, the former NBA player pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of failing to pay child support to his six children around the country and was sentenced to six months in prison. Today, the elder Threatt avoids future financial responsibility for his kids by living in Australia (where he runs basketball camps for the sneaker company And1 and where one of his sons, also named Sedale Threatt Jr., plays pro basketball for a Melbourne-based team).

"When people hear that my name is Sedale Threatt, many of them realize that I'm the son of a former NBA player and make assumptions that I've lived a life of privilege," Threatt says. "But I haven't lived a white picket fence type of life."

Like most kids, Threatt learned to compete at a young age in conventional ways, such as Pop Warner football and biddy-league basketball. But he found the best example of perseverance in the face of overwhelming odds at home, watching his mother work as many as three jobs at once (one from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays, a second part-time night job during the week, and a third one from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. on weekends) to ensure a better life for her son.

"My mother taught me that it's possible to ascend," Threatt says. "That, if you're born into poverty, you can fight your way out and forge a better life, if you're willing to work. That no matter what life throws at you, you can succeed."

Nadine Jackson met Sedale Threatt Sr. on the streets of Philadelphia. Threatt was a member of the Philadelphia 76ers at the time, and he chose her to play on his team in a playground pickup game one day.

The two quickly realized that they had much in common. Jackson was quite an athlete herself, so accomplished that her name still appears in the UMass record books in two different sports: women's basketball (her 8.3 rebounds per game in 1980Ð81 is one of the highest by a freshman in school history) and in women's track and field (her 141-feet, 2-inch discus toss in 1981 is still one of the school's five best ever).

Jackson fell in love with Threatt, became pregnant, and then realized a few months into her pregnancy that the NBA player didn't want to be involved with her or their son. On June 3, 1985, Sedale Threatt Jr. was born in Philadelphia.

Having spent all of her savings on prenatal care, Lamaze classes, and the delivery of Sedale, Jackson returned to her native Boston and moved in with her aunt and uncle, Curtis and Marie Bushfan Bond. The powder green, three-story Colonial home had five bedrooms and a fenced-in yard. It seemed like the perfect place for Jackson and her newborn son to begin building a life.

And it was. Sedale slept in the same bedroom as his mom on the second floor. The house was bustling with activity as Jackson's 69-year-old grandmother, a 10-year-old cousin, and Uncle Curtis and Aunt Marie's two infant daughters lived there, too. Within two weeks of their arrival in Boston, Jackson landed a job at an engineering company, and then moved on to a better paying one at the Gillette Company in 1986.

After arriving home from work the evening of Jan. 18, 1987, Jackson was hungry and started to boil water to cook a hot dog. Jackson's 10-year-old cousin came downstairs and said, "Nanna wants to know what you are burning. She smells smoke upstairs." Jackson didn't smell any smoke. So holding 19-month-old Sedale on her hip, she chuckled and replied: "Tell her that the water is still cold ... I'm not burning anything."

A minute later, all the lights went out and flames and smoke started billowing out of the drop ceiling in the living room. As Jackson carried little Sedale out of the house to safety, she called for her cousin to alert her grandmother that there was a fire.

Jackson sprinted across the street and frantically banged on her neighbor's door. As the door opened, Jackson shoved Sedale into her neighbor's arms while yelling, "Fire! Fire!"

She ran back across the street, but the house was already engulfed in thick, black smoke and flames. Still, she went inside and attempted to crawl across the foyer to the stairs, but was quickly overcome by the smoke. So she ran around to the side of the house and began tearfully yelling up to the second-floor bedroom where her grandmother was.

After what seemed an eternity, she saw a glimmer of hope, as her grandmother's walking cane smashed through the bedroom window and then her 10-year-old cousin popped his head out the broken window. Jackson pleaded with the young boy to have the grandmother throw down the two infant girls still in the house. The horrified boy backed away from the window and came back several times, and Jackson finally tried to convince him to jump to safety.

"Remember when you were a baby?" she asked him. "Didn't I catch you when you jumped from the stairs into my arms? Jump honey, I'll catch you!"

Finally, the boy jumped and Jackson caught him. She continued to plead for her grandmother to throw the infants down. What she didn't learn until later is that after the grandmother broke the window with her cane, she fell backwards to the floor, suffering what the coroner determined was a massive heart attack.

The fire trucks arrived in less than two minutes, but firefighters were unable to reach the grandmother and two infants, who perished in the blaze. Still grieving the tragic loss of three family members, Jackson and young Sedale had nowhere to live and nothing but the clothes on their backs. They temporarily moved in with a relative in a three-bedroom apartment in Orchard Park Projects in Roxbury, Mass.

"The city of Boston did offer us immediate emergency housing in the South End/Back Bay cosmopolitan areas of Boston," Jackson recalls. "However, I would have had to quit my job and go on welfare in order to be completely eligible to receive their package. So I turned down their offer and decided I would accept all the consequences of this choice even if it meant working two or three jobs to earn the income I would need to start all over."

Top photo by Douglas Benedict. Bottom photo by Theo Anderson

Click here for Part 2 of 'My Dream is to play on Sundays'

Posted on Tuesday, September 04, 2007

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