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Sammy Watkins' great escape

FORT MYERS, Fla. – Sammy Watkins’ parents stood in the middle of Barker Boulevard and bickered the way a couple might quibble whether that’s the same actress from that thing they saw on TV that one time.

“Right here is where Willie Fletcher was shot and murdered,” Nicole McMiller said, pointing to a spot near a speed bump.

“Nah,” Mike McMiller said, “you’re thinking of Michaud Mitchell. Left the big blood stain they had to wash off.”

“No!” Nicole shot back. “That wasn’t Chaudie. Wait ... Where they dragged the body from back there across the sidewalk?”

They stood there, hands on their hips, mulling all the homicides they’d seen while raising a family in Fort Myers’ notorious Dunbar area. The heat was oppressive under the high afternoon sun. Sweat began to soak through their clothes, Mike in a Buffalo Bills T-shirt and gym shorts, Nicole in white pants and a V-neck displaying her son’s No. 14.

Mike guessed he’d watched seven or eight men get killed. Shootings, stabbings, beatings. Some died at the hospital. He watched a few draw their last breaths.

“Barry, that’s one,” Mike started. Then, in a tone reminiscent of a co-worker recounting what he did during his vacation, the McMillers checked them off. Let’s see ... Willie Fletcher ... Michaud ... the white kid ... Lonnie Young ... Mr. Man, as he was known ...

“Mr. Man lay right there in that yard,” Nicole said with pity. She’d watched the paramedics cut Mr. Man’s clothes off his body. She was pregnant with Sammy.

“There was JoJo,” Mike added. “Everybody thought he was a midget, but he wasn’t. Great athlete. Hell of a little running back. What a waste.”

One man died directly in front of Sammy’s boyhood home. As drizzle fell, Nicole ran outside with pillows to comfort him until the ambulance arrived.

Neither Mike nor Nicole can remember his name.

Tarver or something.

Fathom witnessing so many homicides you forget the name of a person who died at your address.

In the historically segregated Dunbar neighborhoods, that’s not peculiar.

Most know Watkins as the breathtaking-when-healthy wide receiver General Manager Doug Whaley used two first-round draft picks to acquire.

Watkins has a contentious relationship with Bills fans on social media. They have bemoaned his injuries and most recently slammed his stance on San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s right to protest the pregame national anthem. Watkins doesn’t shrink from his critics.

But to have a shot at understanding Watkins, folks should know he comes from a place he doesn’t care to visit. And that was his home.

Watkins isn’t proud of Dunbar, but he’s proud to have emerged from there. Dunbar helped make Watkins the man he has become, the place that horrified him enough to live as straight as someone could from such serpentine streets.

“I don’t know nobody from growing up that was a doctor,” Watkins said. “I do know people that came from where I’m from that played in the NFL.

“The first thing you go to is sports because that’s the easiest way out of it.”

The path out of Dunbar is a Hail Mary even for those with talent and supervision. Watkins has more than a prayer of becoming one of the NFL’s transcendent receivers.

The uncharitable 33916 ZIP code covers a little over 10 square miles from Colonial Boulevard, northward to the Caloosahatchee River, from I-75, westward to the old Seaboard Coastline Railroad tracks. Roughly 20,000 live there; 56 percent of them are black.

The area has produced a remarkable number of NFL players, the inspiration for David A. Dorsey’s “Fourth Down in Dunbar,” a book that juxtaposes gridiron greatness against the austere backdrop. Hall of Fame cornerback Deion Sanders and three-time Pro Bowl pass-rusher Jevon Kearse are Dunbar’s biggest stars so far.

Watkins, however, was drafted higher than anyone from Dunbar. He went fourth overall in 2014, one slot ahead of where the Atlanta Falcons selected Sanders in 1989.

Sanders was recruited to Florida State by assistant coach Brad Scott, who later recruited Watkins to Clemson.

“Not since Deion had I seen a kid from Fort Myers who could totally dominate a game the way Sammy could,” Scott said.

“Dunbar has produced a long string of players, but it’s an area in Fort Myers that a lot of young men don’t make it out of either. A lot of kids get lost in there.”

The 33916 is a war zone so wickedly afire the locals have nicknamed it Little Pakistan. Deep in Dunbar’s unforgiving heart is the Harlem Lakes subdivision, where Watkins grew up and seems to have made it out.

“You’re going down there?” Watkins asked incredulously during a sit-down interview at Bills training camp. “I don’t even go back there, man.

“Make sure you’re out of there before it gets dark.”

Watkins wasn’t trying to be funny, although the time of day doesn’t matter for tragedy to strike in Dunbar. Last Sunday, at 1:55 p.m., an 18-year-old Dunbar High senior was shot dead about a half mile from where Watkins grew up.

Fort Myers made international news July 25, when a gunman opened fire on teens leaving a party at Club Blu. Two were killed, including an 18-year-old basketball player. Coaches expected him to receive Division I college scholarship offers this season.

“There’s probably nothing I haven’t seen,” Watkins’ half-brother, Jari McMiller, said. “When we were in middle school, we saw people get shot and bleed out, people trying to help, people screaming.”

Watkins was blessed with world-class DNA. Vapor-trail speed, majestic leaps and cradle-secure hands brought a full scholarship to Clemson and his ticket to the NFL.

But escaping Dunbar requires appreciably more.

Commitment, yes. Sound judgment, yes. Guidance, yes.

After even all that, lucky breaks – and lucky avoidances – are crucial to surviving Dunbar’s clutches.

Watkins’ former high school teammate, Hudson Boyd, was a Minnesota Twins pitching prospect. The Twins drafted Boyd 55th overall in 2011 and gave him a $1 million bonus. Major League Baseball suspended Boyd 50 games in January 2015 for multiple drug violations. The Twins cut him in November. He couldn’t make it past low-level Single-A.

Jari provides a more striking example. Nicole and Mike McMiller had Jari 15 months before she gave birth to Samuel Watkins IV. She was 17 with two boys when she and Mike reunited; Sammy was 2 months old. The family, including two younger girls, has been together ever since.

So Jari and Sammy grew up in the same little house, in the same neighborhood, within the same family dynamic, with the same rules, hearing the same advice.

By all accounts, Jari is smarter than Sammy. Jari didn’t study or do his homework, but would score A’s and B’s on his tests.

Sammy would bust his spleen for B’s and C’s. Fort Myers South High coaches such as Joe Hampton and Anthony Dixon rode Sammy when it came to qualifying for college academically. Sammy wasn’t too ashamed to seek tutors.

Jari attended Miles College in Fairfield, Ala., to play basketball. That didn’t last.

Sammy (or “Bug” as his family called him) would pick up a job at the local Boys & Girls Club to pay for his sprinting clinics. He was the type of kid who wouldn’t go to bed until his parents returned home safely from date night. Sammy was content to hunker down at his Grandma Lulla Belle’s on Dupree Street and play spades past dawn.

Jari was too enamored with Dunbar’s outlaw culture.

He wasn’t nearly alone. There’s the Dunbar kid who was headed to a college football program before bullets mangled his hand. Now he’s working at the Waffle House. Common, those tales.

Jari has served prison time for resisting an officer with violence, multiple counts of carrying a concealed weapon, battery and leaving the scene of a crash, to name a few. Jari was arrested again in March for misdemeanor marijuana possession and felony fleeing.

“I can’t tell you if he’s shot or murdered anybody,” his mother said, “but he hangs around those dudes who’ll get mixed up in a beef, guys that are getting shot.

“The life Jari has lived, he either has to stay away, or he has to protect himself. There are people that will see my son and kill him on sight.”

Sammy wants to evacuate his entire family from Fort Myers. He has a nervous streak within him, to the point he’s petrified of lightning and thunder. He already has moved his parents, Jari and two sisters into a gated development with a security checkpoint 17 miles away from Dunbar.

Sammy doesn’t announce when he’s returning to Dunbar; he lives in Orlando, near his biological father. (The Watkins and McMiller factions don’t get along, but Sammy has maintained a close relationship with both families.) He’ll sometimes slip through Dunbar to see his grandmothers, aunts, uncles and cousins still in the old neighborhood. He’ll rent a car so people won’t identify him.

“I don’t want my kids to ever go back there or see anything like I saw,” Watkins said. “I go back and I’m always on watch, scared for my life because you don’t know what’s going to go down.

“They’re shooting at each other on the next street, robbing a guy right while you’re watching. I was immune to it, but I’m not comfortable with that anymore.”

American Avenue

Mike McMiller eased his black Kia Cadenza sedan into the family’s old Harlem Lakes subdivision that stifling August afternoon. A reporter rode shotgun; Nicole McMiller was in the backseat.

Mike imparted a warning as he turned onto Davis Court.

“This is a street you do not want to go down,” Watkins’ stepdad said. “These are some of the meanest mothers you’ll find.”

Harlem Lakes won’t be pictured in any Fort Myers golf or beach brochures.

The ranch duplexes, trailer homes, chain-link fences, boarded windows, cars in the yard and beware-of-dog signs weren’t images Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone savored when they wintered in Fort Myers.

The Fort Myers News-Press recently began “Surviving Dunbar,” a series of articles profiling people trying to get an edge. Stories so far include a woman who installed hurricane shutters to keep bullets from zipping through her house, a mother who won’t drive at night for fear her car will be targeted by mistake and a teen with tips to prevent social-media activity from turning into bloodshed.

“Right on the side of my house, people would fight dogs,” Watkins said, referring to the vacant lot next to their home on American Avenue. “You might see six or seven a day. That’s normal.”

Watkins didn’t learn until he was in high school that his great-grandfather was shot and killed in 1977 while delivering bundles of the News-Press in the early morning darkness. The case never was solved.

Of all the mayhem that made Watkins numb, one incident resonated with him forever.

Watkins, a month from his 15th birthday, wasn’t allowed to attend the Barker Boulevard block party on Mother’s Day 2008, but he heard the gunshots. From his front yard, he saw the crowd disperse and what happened next.

Willie Fletcher, a squandered commodity from local football and basketball teams, had been shot at least four times. He lay on the asphalt, then arose and tried to walk. Fletcher was a zombie, expressionless. He dropped again and died at the scene. He was 20.

“He was basically on the streets,” Watkins said, “and it caught up with him.”

A 5-year-old boy, buckled in a car seat, was shot in the face by a stray bullet but survived. Police estimated there were 100 people at the block party when gunfire erupted and 40 still there when squad cars arrived.

Nobody offered any information that led to an arrest. Fletcher’s death remains unsolved.

Mike and Sammy stayed up well into the night and discussed the lesson that unfolded in front of them as explicitly as a coroner’s sheet.

Long before then, Mike and Nicole knew Dunbar offered little and would snatch the tiniest morsel away in an instant. They are transparent about their imperfect pasts.

“I was selling dope, toting guns, having kids at a young age,” Mike moaned.

Mike dreamed of being a prizefighter, but gave up the sport in part because his workaholic father wouldn’t bother to see his amateur bouts.

Once Mike and Nicole reunited, he was motivated to become a provider, he said.

He moved into her family’s home on American Avenue. He worked as a day contractor and later drove trucks.

“I know what it’s like to say, ‘I have no skill. I have no trade. I have no job,’ “ Mike said. “I wanted to find blame for this. The cops need to be better. The teachers need to be better. The church needs to do more.

“No, it comes down to you.”

Nicole drove a school bus and a cement truck, handled medical billing and delivered newspapers.

She also shoplifted. Sammy, about 8 at the time, was with her when she got caught stuffing T.J. Maxx merchandise into her oversized purse.

“Me and Mike struggled,” Nicole said. “We did what we had to do. Do I regret some of the things I did? Yes. But I’m not ashamed of what I had to do for my kids.”

From that moment on, though, Sammy and Jari forbade their mom from carrying large purses. Nicole insisted she didn’t shoplift again.

Accountability seems a family virtue.

Mike looped his car up Davis Court, took a quick right around Fairview Avenue and headed down Simon Court. On the left, a gleaming, white 1999 Cadillac Deville with tinted windows came into view.

“That’s the car Sammy was driving when he got pulled over at Clemson,” Mike said, referring to Watkins’ 2012 arrest for marijuana possession.

Watkins conceded his freshman year at Clemson was overwhelming. He scored a touchdown 26 seconds into his college career and became only the fourth true freshman to be voted a first-team Associated Press All-American, joining Herschel Walker, Marshall Faulk and Adrian Peterson.

“I was going to parties, people wanting me to pose for pictures out of nowhere, teachers treating you different,” Watkins said. “I was famous and thought I could get away with things.”

Upset with Watkins’ judgment, Mike seized the car back to Fort Myers. Watkins apparently hasn’t gotten into trouble since.

Boys will be boys

Out on American Avenue, from the mailbox in front of their house to the mailbox that lines up with Barker Boulevard, “burners” provided the hottest action.

Sammy and Jari invented the game, pitting a receiver against a defender with Mike the all-time quarterback. “Four hard downs to score a touchdown,” Mike described it. The battles went back and forth past dusk.

“Those were the best days,” Jari said. “Everything we did, we competed, even just racing to the bus stop.

“I still feel like I’m one of the only guys that can probably guard Sammy because I know him so well.”

Had they been around when Mike and Nicole visited Harlem Lakes in August, the boys wouldn’t have dared reprise their rivalry. The temperature reached 94 degrees. Humidity was an obnoxious 87 percent, yet it didn’t rain. The average wind speed was 2 mph.

Across the street, though, on the vacant lot at the corner of American Avenue and Mitchell Court, a beaten-down man sat outside and watched the world pass.

Willie Moses Curry, 57, is there every day. His parents’ modest house used to stand at 2139 Mitchell Court. It was his birthright.

Curry’s mother died while he was in prison, as Mike told it. Curry returned to find the house condemned. He tried to live in it anyway, but the city tore it down.

So Curry returns each day and sits vigil in a plastic Adirondack chair beneath a patio umbrella. An overgrown bush provides more shade. He has a footstool, a garbage can and a rusted-out grill for whatever meat he comes across. He sleeps across the road in the St. Mary’s Missionary Baptist Church, where all of Nicole’s kids were baptized.

Mike brings Curry a cold can of beer whenever he passes through and lets him use the hose at their old family home. Curry, overheated and dehydrated one day this summer, collapsed in the driveway. Mike happened to be there and hosed him down until help arrived.

Curry is a neighborhood fixture, a soft-spoken fellow with a weary smile. He was shirtless until company stopped by, the visit stirring up swarms of dragonflies from his tall grass. He pulled on a grungy white T-shirt with a ripped-out collar, shook hands and chatted.

He looked harmless, thin as a rake. Florida records show Curry was convicted of second-degree murder in 1980 and 1988. He has served time for concealed weapons, drug trafficking, possession, selling to children and myriad misdemeanors.

Even some of Dunbar’s nicest guys have committed evil acts.

Watkins’ favorite Dunbar restaurant is the Speedy Two Sandwich Shop on MLK Boulevard. He feasted on owner Angelo Ruth’s grilled cheese, fried chicken and wings for years.

Two months ago, enhanced forensics led to Ruth’s arrest for the 1993 murder of his then-girlfriend, with whom he had a daughter. The very hands that made

Sammy’s food allegedly killed another human and left a child motherless.

Watkins laughed at the idea that folks in Williamsville or Orchard Park would consider his college marijuana arrest and his two daughters with different women “a checkered past.”

To escape Dunbar with such a short list of baggage? A triumph.

New home, new hope

Nicole McMiller took the steering wheel for the 17-mile trip from Dunbar back to their new home in Estero, a village with a 1.1 percent African-American population.
She drove past the fountains at the development’s entrance, waved to the security guard at the gate and went down a road adorned with palm trees in a grassy median. The landscape was impeccable. She approached a rotary, where people walked their dogs, and a gargantuan clubhouse with orange Spanish tiles and tennis courts.

What a change from the neighborhood where she once heard gunshots, couldn’t find Sammy and bolted barefoot out of the kitchen until she found him to hug.

“Just look at this! Compare this to where we just were,” Nicole said. “For the first few months, I used to wake up in the middle of the night and say to myself, ‘Are we really here?’ "

Sammy would prefer they hurry up and move to the Carolinas. Mike has designs of opening a sports bar near Clemson, and Nicole has been exploring an online clothing business.

The McMillers remain in the Fort Myers area because their youngest daughter, Myke’Lah McMiller, is a junior at Watkins’ alma mater, South Fort Myers High. Mike and Nicole don’t want to squelch a track scholarship opportunity for her by moving now.

In the meantime, they hold their collective breath as they have for decades.

“Right now, I am terrified,” Nicole said. “I’m praying God can cover us and protect us until we can get out of here.

“It makes you wonder, ‘I don’t know where I’m going to go or how I’m going to start,’ but just pack up your things and leave. But when that’s all you know, people just stay.”

Sammy has badgered Jari to spend the Bills season with him in Western New York, to get away from Dunbar’s tentacles. Jari, who has a 5-year-old son, said last week he will make the move soon.

Other than a curio cabinet in the corner of the McMillers’ dining room, nobody could tell a high NFL draft pick bought their home. Watkins shares space with his siblings. On his side are his helmets from high school and Clemson, a key to the city, some football cards, a stuffed Watkins doll.

Boxes upon boxes of Watkins’ trophies are stacked in the Estero garage. The McMillers won’t unpack them until the family moves into their permanent home.

Watkins never was interested in hardware. Some pieces have been glued back together because he has a habit of tossing the stuff in a locker.

Watkins’ parents worked menial jobs, the kind of “y’all little jobs” he alluded to last year in his infamous Instagram response to Bills fans who scolded him for taking one of his daughters to Disney World two days after being scratched against the Jacksonville Jaguars in London.

“I made it,” Watkins said, sitting in the shade at St. John Fisher. “I’ve beat the odds, if anything, to play in the NFL. That’s a blessing.”

He paused a couple of seconds.

“But I haven’t made it,” Watkins continued. “I don’t set goals anymore because that’s just putting limits on yourself.

“I still have areas in my life I got to improve at. I can be a better dad. I can be a better - hopefully - husband. I can be a better son. I can be a better brother. I can be a better football player. I can still grow as a leader.

“But if I die today, I will be happy with the type of kid I am and was and the man I was becoming.”

email: tgraham@buffnews.com

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