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From homeless and heartbroken to a shot with the Bills

Now, this is a sleepless night.

Marquis Lucas is 13. He’s sweating. Confused. His mind races through the uncertainty of tomorrow: Where’s the next meal? Will friends find out?

Lucas is sprawled across the last row of seats inside a 2004 Chevy Suburban — windows cracked, praying for a breeze to cut through the Miami humidity — knowing he won’t be able to shower before taking two buses to school in the morning.

For 3½ months, his entire family is homeless. They live out of their car.

No, wait. This is a sleepless night.

Lucas is now 18 and his Dad is dead. Lucas, a freshman at West Virginia, he stares at his dorm ceiling for hours, questioning why he’s here, why he cares, why to even press on.

“You’re trying to sleep, close your eyes, but you toss and turn,” Lucas said. “You lay down at 11 o’clock and the next thing you know it’s 4 o’clock in the morning and you have workouts at 6.”

Inside the weight room the next day, a coach asks “What’s wrong?” Lucas shakes his head. He doesn’t broadcast personal anguish because that’d be a sign of weakness and weakness is not in his nature.

Lucas is now 23 years, 6-foot-4, 318 pounds of pride.

On a drive from his Orchard Park apartment to Spot Coffee in downtown Buffalo, Lucas is stone-cold quiet. Only small talk about the early NBA Finals (“The Warriors couldn’t miss”), moving from South Beach to the boonies of Morgantown (“Big change”) and his linemen teammates here in Buffalo (“A great group”) break up long stretches of silence. Dreads pouring from a backward Bills hat, Lucas ambles inside the café, takes a seat and that steely exterior softens the moment he’s asked about his upbringing.

Lucas is no fool. He gets that he’s an undrafted rookie. His chances of lasting here are Powerball-long.

But then he eyeballs that massive “Lucas Family” tattoo on his arm. He leans in.

“I’ve been a long shot my whole life,” Lucas said. “A kid coming out of Miami. Rough living. Rough environments. Being homeless. There’s not much that can shake me. That’s why I worry about it, but I don’t really worry about it. I’ve been through so much, to the point where ‘Man, I can do this.’ I’m built for this. I’m made for this.”

The pressure’s on. Players can’t hit a soul at padless minicamp and three other UDFA’s get cut loose, something like accountants being fired when they’re not allowed to use calculators. His roommate, fellow offensive tackle Keith Lumpkin, is sent packing two days after this interview.

Coaches are issuing written tests of Greg Roman’s offense, the most brain-freezing amalgam of X’s and O’s Lucas has ever encountered. But Lucas doesn’t complain — hardly blinks, really — because he never had time to complain before. He was, quite literally, thrown into the streets.

Because of those homeless nights, because of dad’s fight, because of everything his family endured, Marquis Lucas believes.

His voice lowers.

“When it got rough, it got rough.”

Evicted

This was a day for celebration, renewal.

Dad, finally, was coming home.

Diagnosed with kidney failure, Willie Lucas had spent two grueling months in the hospital. He needed to learn how to walk all over again. But now, from their home on 95th and 12th streets in Miami, the Lucas family would fight together. As one. The kids couldn’t contain their excitement on the drive home, hooting, hollering, hugging their father.

They pulled into their home, Marquis and his brother helped dad out of the car and Marquis rushed ahead to unlock the front door. One problem: The door was already cracked open.

“I was like ‘Whoa,’” Lucas said. “I had to do a double take like ‘What? You can’t be serious right now.’”

He walked in and it looked like a hurricane ripped their home.

Everything of value was stolen. Money. Jewelry. TV sets. Computers. Police never found the looter and, for the Lucas family, a surreal perfect storm brewed. Right when dad needed to quit his job as a longshoreman, right when mom was ready to watch over him in addition to the four children, they had zero steady income, next-to-zero savings and no place to turn.

The entire Lucas family — mom, dad, Marquis, two younger sisters, one older brother — was evicted.

Willie Lucas used whatever money was left to live out of hotels, usually choosing a Studio Plus in Durrell, Fla. But those $80 and $120 nightly fees dried all wallets quickly.

“So where do you go,” Marquis Lucas said, “when you don’t have anywhere to go. The only place you can.”

“Home”

The math doesn’t add up. How does a family of six live out of a Suburban? How does a family of six, including three giants, realistically fit?

It’s a joint-aching, muscle-cramping, migraine-inducing game of human Tetris.

“That’s the only choice,” Lucas said. “It had to go down like that.”

The homeless shelter was not an option. Nor was his grandmother’s house because Tammy Lucas didn’t want to burden her mother.

So dad and mom sat in the front seats. Even with dialysis zapping Dad’s strength, he was still 6-foot-6, 350 pounds. Marquis’ brother extended his 6-foot-2, 300-pound frame on the second row of seats with the two little sisters. Marquis took the third row, laying on top of the family’s luggage.

And for most of four months, this was night-to-night life.

Some mornings, a family friend would let the kids shower before school. Marquis learned to truly appreciate that squeaky-clean shine. Every morning, he’d hitch two different buses to school — 45 minutes away — and then try to hide his exhaustion from peers, from teachers so they wouldn’t ask questions.

“People are wondering why you’re tired and moody,” Lucas said. “I’m not going to go around telling people my situation. We were always real prideful of holding our situation down. We knew that one day it’d all be over with.”

He’d nod himself awake and plug along because mom refused to hear any excuses. No way could he bring a “C” back “home.” A devoted stay-at-home mom became an even more devoted stay-in-car mom.

Most nights, the Lucas family parked at a Marriott Double Tree lot near the beach to catch gusts of wind off the Atlantic Ocean. Every penny was essential. Very quickly, dad realized he couldn’t let the engine run all night for AC. So he’d turn the key for 15 minutes here, 20 there and everyone prayed for a cool blast off the water at night.

Until one night, Lucas had enough. He told his dad he needed to pee and stormed into the hotel. Inside, upstairs, around a corner, he found a couch and his eyes lit up.

“You would’ve thought I saw a million bucks just laying there,” Lucas said. “Like, ‘Man, I’ve got to have some of this!’”

He nestled into a much softer mattress, closed his eyes and, first, prayed to God.

What concerned Marquis more than anything those nights in the Suburban wasn’t the grime, the insomnia, the hijacked childhood. No, it was his dad’s health. Willie Lucas was the proud breadwinner for so long, a 400-pound rock of reliability. Now, he appeared defeated. Helpless. So on that couch, Lucas clasped his hands together before dozing off.

“God,” he said aloud. “Please help us get out this situation.”

Lucas crashed for about 4-5 hours and hustled downstairs to catch his first bus.

Not too long after, his prayers were answered. The Lucas family’s Section 8 request was approved by the government. Under Florida’s Housing Choice Voucher Program, they were finally cleared to move into a duplex on 91st and 20th streets with government assistance. This wasn’t a safe area but they didn’t think twice.

Laughed Lucas, “When you’re coming from a car, shoot, you could’ve moved me into a teepee and I would’ve been satisfied!”

Dad still wasn’t able to work but was now receiving disability checks. Out of the car, his health steadied. An “awesome” feeling, Lucas repeats. “Awesome.” Then, here at Spot, he starts referring to his father in the past tense.

Awesome only lasted so long.

Family

Don’t let the beach and nightclubs fool you. The city has its dark, dismal pockets where crime runs rampant.

“When people think of Miami, they think of South Beach,” said Bills right guard John Miller. “They think of the night life. The other side of the bridge is not necessarily like that. That’s where the black kids are growing up in the inner city.”

Miller? His dad was a former drug dealer once shot in the leg in a brawl. He remembers his mother not even eating some nights so her kids could. During hurricane season, they’d lose power for a week and think nothing of it.

“That was just common in my neighborhood,” Miller said. “We were brought up hearing gunshots and seeing dead bodies.”

Lucas? One block from his house, he once saw a dead person’s brains splattered across the street. Many of his childhood friends were killed, in large part due to the lack of a father figure steering them elsewhere.

Maybe Lucas and Miller didn’t have a lot. But both Bills offensive linemen did have loving parents supplying constant life lessons. “Prison” or “death,” Johnnie Green told his son, Miller. Follow his old lifestyle and those were the only two outcomes.

Lucas remembers wanting to quit football as a sophomore when Carol City’s Corey Henry, one of the best defensive ends in the state, used and abused and embarrassed him. Mom wouldn’t allow it. “You’re going to quit on your teammates right now?” she sniped. “In the middle of the season?” No way. He couldn’t. He didn’t even dare to mutter the q-word to his dad.

Dad didn’t quit. Willie Lucas received dialysis treatment every Monday, Wednesday and Friday with each session lasting four hours. Countless friends didn’t have dads in their life. He did. And Willie Lucas so often tried to step up as their guiding voice, too.

“He gave me the blueprint,” Marquis said, “of how to be a solid provider.”

So Lucas didn’t quit. He started the rest of the season for Miami Central and the family mailbox was soon inundated with 25 scholarship offers. Auburn, Florida State, West Virginia, Cincinnati and South Florida all wanted him.

Yet when he looked into the stands before Miami Central’s state semifinal game, he didn’t see his parents. Lucas was puzzled. “Angry,” even. They always sat in this exact same spot. Miami Central won that December 2010 game, but Lucas didn’t care. Couldn’t care. He rushed into the locker room, checked his cellphone and his worst fears were confirmed.

Dad was in the hospital.

Again.

“He’s in there,” Lucas said, “and it’s just terrible.”

Ready to quit

The next seven months were a blur of emotions.

First, Willie Lucas had a stroke. Then, his heart became infected. Then, when doctors performed surgery in March, they needed to partially cut his throat, which eliminated his ability to speak. Dad could no longer verbalize words of wisdom to his son. Frustration swept over Willie Lucas’ face as he gritted through scratchy, inaudible grumbles.

His son knew exactly what dad was trying to say.

“What he always told me my whole life,” he said. “He’d always explain to me how he wouldn’t be around all the time and he wanted me to take care of the family when he’s gone.”

The plan all along was to attend Florida State, his dream school. But after receiving an offer, the team’s offensive line coach, Rick Trickett, told him point blank he’d need to cut his dreadlocks. That was his policy. No if’s, no but’s. Taken aback, stunned really, Lucas chose to follow past Miami natives to Morgantown.

After a second surgery, it appeared his dad’s health was steadying yet again. He couldn’t talk, but he was happy so Marquis flew north at peace for summer workouts.

Then, at 11 p.m. on July 7, 2011, Marquis’ phone flashed inside his dorm room. It was his cousin.

Willie had succumbed to renal failure.

“I went into shock and hung up the phone,” Lucas said. “I cried all night.”

Lucas stared at his phone until 7 a.m., waiting for someone to call and assure his father was OK. Nobody did.

On the spot, Lucas was ready to quit football, quit school. He flew south for the funeral with no plans on flying back.

“I just didn’t have much motivation,” he said. “My mom and dad were together since they were 14 years old. She lost her soul mate. I had never seen her like that before. I was more so worried about her. It just came to a point to where she was like ‘You’ve been here long enough. You know he wouldn’t want you to lie down like this. Go back to school and handle your business.’”

A month and a half passed and Lucas willed himself back to Morgantown in the physical sense. Mentally, he was still a wreck. He felt trapped in that Suburban all over again, only worse. He didn’t have his best friend to talk to.

The man who bounced back from everything — kidney failure, robbery, dialysis, a stroke, losing his voice — could bounce back no more.

Up at that ceiling, Lucas stared.

“You can’t help but think of somebody who you love so much and been through so much with,” Lucas said. “Not being there anymore, it’s just … I still have those nights.

“I think about him.”

Two people snapped Lucas out of his haze. First, the hiring of Ron Crook as West Virginia’s offensive line coach was, in Lucas’ words, “clutch.” Crook became a de facto father figure available 24/7.

Lucas told the coach and the coach’s wife everything. Crook could relate.

“Any man losing their father in life, it’s hard to go through,” Crook said. “I lost my father at a much older age but you still go through it and ask ‘Why?’ Things haven’t been quite the same in my life since then. You view things differently and take on different approaches. Everything changes. And what happens for someone like him at a younger age is it forces you to mature earlier.

“It forces you to make some tough decisions earlier and do things you probably shouldn’t have to do at that age.”

Then, unexpectedly, Lucas had a son. The birth of Cameron Lucas “lit a match” inside of him. He didn’t lollygag through workouts … he attacked them. He didn’t wallow in pity … he watched more film. He didn’t ask why his dad wasn’t here … he paid tribute.

Lucas would start 2½ seasons at West Virginia, graduate with a general education degree and earn this NFL shot in Buffalo.

Whenever he did stress through during OTA’s and minicamp, Lucas interacted with his 15-month-old son on FaceTime. As the two “goo-goo and gah-gah’ed it up,” all inner pain dissipated.

“I look at him,” he said, “and I’m so happy that I’m able to be a father and lead by example like my father did.”

Rebirth

Hands in his pockets, head high, Marquis Lucas circles the 85-foot Civil War monument at the heart of Lafayette Square. He studies the lime-green stone soldiers that honor infantry, artillery, cavalry and naval servicemen who died.

Dedicated on July 4, 1884, by Grover Cleveland, this monument is practically unscathed. Each soldier emanates the stoic demeanor Lucas embraces.

One missed block, one sack, one error is all it takes for an offensive lineman to lose his job. Such pressure can drown an undrafted rookie.

“You need to stay level-headed,” said Lucas, holding his hand out, palm down. “You need to stay right here.

“Not too high, not too low.”

He’ll treat training camp exactly as he treated those four months in a Suburban.

No complaints. No signs of weakness.

Before players broke for vacation, Lucas and Miller spilled their guts to each other.

Last year, Miller lost his mom. He felt the same numbness Lucas did. So the teammates vowed to play for their deceased parents.

“Honor them,” Miller said. “It’s something you have to deal with on a daily basis. You don’t forget about it. You have to learn to live with it and give it to God. At the end of the day, like Tupac says, ‘Life goes on.’ It does. You just have to live with it, pray about it and know that they’re in a better place smiling down on you.”

Even if the spark could be extinguished any moment.

Bills offensive line coach Aaron Kromer is frank. He doesn’t know Lucas’ game too well. For now, this is “an athletic guy who tries hard.”

Asked point blank if he’ll make the team in August, Lucas’ voice sharpens.

“After all I’ve been through, why not? You come this far — I don’t think He brought me this far to just fall off. I don’t see it happening. It’s really almost time to show the world with training camp coming up and the preseason. It’s surreal.

“I feel like I’m prepared for anything.”

Buffalonians pass by Lafayette Square, glancing at this large man on a wooden bench as a curiosity. Who knows how long Marquis Lucas is a Buffalo Bill? Who knows if the team views him as a mere camp body?

Lucas will get a full night of sleep tonight, and that’s more than enough.

email: tdunne@buffnews.com