Reggie Rucker never had his suspicions, not until the child's mother began dropping hints shrouded in denials, not until friends and family started noticing the physical resemblance. Only then did Rucker begin to wonder: this darling little girl, this vibrant child with the nose just like mine, could she be my daughter?
The need to know became overwhelming. Rucker stashed away paychecks from his part-time job, saving the nearly $600 needed for a DNA paternity test. He visited his estranged father in Florida, showed him a picture of the child, told him he might be about to become a grandpa. And the father said there was no maybe about it. I'm a grandfather. She is yours.
The test results came in, providing concrete confirmation, instilling Rucker with a profound sense of responsibility. He journeyed from Buffalo back to his hometown of Rochester whenever possible, visited little Alanah at every opportunity. What he saw appalled him.
"I remember an instance when I'd go there and people would offer me [to buy] drugs," he said. "There was a guy sitting in a wheelchair, he had like a deep dish for storing cupcakes and stuff. He had a dish full of marijuana. Just out in the open. Like it was legal. Like it was nothing."
This was no way to raise a child, no way to raise his child. Rucker, a student at the University at Buffalo, a member of the track team, petitioned the court for custody. He acknowledged that caring for Alanah would be a formidable challenge, place heavy burdens on his time, strain his finances. But he'd do all he could, certainly provide a more wholesome environment. And when the mother failed to appear at the trial, Rucker's wish was granted. He was awarded custody and since then lives have turned in ways no one could have imagined.
Rucker's father, Leroy Woods, relocated to Buffalo to be close to the son he'd abandoned at 5. Woods has kicked his vices, married, opened two businesses, become a doting grandfather, seized his second chance to figure in the development of a child.
As for Rucker, he enrolled at Erie Community College in the fall, foregoing his last year of eligibility at UB, from where he'd already earned a degree in African-American Studies. A job as a dental technician awaited him once he acquired the requisite knowledge.
And so the story might have ended except that on Dec. 27 Rucker entered a track meet in Rochester as an independent, ran the 60-meter hurdles, an event he last trained for earnestly in high school, and blew away the field in national-caliber time. Coaches told him that with the right instruction he could qualify for the NCAAs, which prompted Rucker to reclaim his scholarship at UB and resume training under Perry Jenkins. Tuesday he was named the Mid-American Conference Male Track Athlete of the Week for running a 7.89 at Saturday's Penn State National Invitational and provisionally qualifying for the NCAAs with the nation's 15th-best time.
Rucker's life is a flurry. He's taking four classes this semester, working the overnight stock shift at Wal-Mart three nights a week, getting Alanah, 4, on the bus for preschool every morning, picking her up, honing his rediscovered and immense talent in the hurdles and offering eternal gratitude to the family and friends who help care for Alanah and somehow, some way make it all work. His fuel is the knowledge he has done the right thing.
"From the standpoint of me not having a father, I know if I wasn't there for her, especially in the situation she was in, she would not have a chance in life at all," Rucker said. "I had to make a decision: be in this life for myself or be in it for her."