Two boys are born three years apart to drug-addicted mothers living on the East Side.
Both grow up in the shadow of street gangs.
And both move to Amherst as teenagers, enrolling at Williamsville South High School to gain a fresh start.
One makes it to college. The other winds up dead.
Chaquiel Nettles had a lot of help. Now 22, he looks forward to graduating from the University at Buffalo next year and plans to enroll in graduate school to become a teacher.
Curtis Byers didn’t get enough help. At age 25, the former Williamsville South wrestler returned to city street life and was shot to death on Sherman Street three weeks ago.
Nettles knew Byers and recognized the life Byers led was similar to his own, and similar to the path taken by his older brothers. But while Nettles clearly had support that Byers didn’t, he said in the end, a single-minded determination to break free of his old life is what ultimately made the difference for him.
“It does fall back on you,” he said from his seat in the UB Student Union. “There’s only so much people can do to help you.”
Talent and temperament
In 2012, a Buffalo News story recounted Nettles’ rough childhood, how as a homeless student he transferred to Williamsville South, how teachers and suburban soccer moms helped cut through school red tape for him, and how he became a football star courting college scholarships.
The News also wrote about Byers, as early as 2009, recounting his history of armed robbery and arson before his transfer to Williamsville South, his assault on a wrestling teammate. His murder on Oct. 1 prompted questions on how someone given chances for fresh starts could still be failed by the community, public agencies and some in his own family.
Neither Nettles nor Byers had a biological father supporting them. Their mothers were addicted to crack. Both were taken in by their aunts.
But despite difficulties and resentments, Nettles said he found ways to compartmentalize his anger in high school.
“I zone things out,” he said last week. “I look straight ahead and don’t listen.”
His personality and talent helped him make and keep connections with peers and adults beyond his immediate family. The older he got, the more fearless he became about seeking their help. Several adults took notice of his desire to improve – despite some academic missteps – and took it upon themselves to expose him to new opportunities.
His middle-school mentors entered him in a chess tournament, for example.
He was intimidated going up against jacket-and-tie-wearing youngsters – he called them “poindexters” – who looked better off than him.
Nettles won third place wearing a football jersey. His finish gave him a better sense of self-respect.
But Nettles wasn’t always easy to help, especially as he grew older. Heidi Rotella, the former head of Pinnacle Charter School, fondly describes Nettles as “hard-headed.”
“In the beginning, people helped Chaquiel because it’s easy to help someone who you know is a good kid. That was Chaq for a lot of people,” she said. “But when Chaq got difficult to mentor, not everybody stuck around. And he latched onto people who would just not stop helping.”
Unlike Byers, Nettles avoided the foster system. His mother gratefully placed her children into the care of others able to look out for them.
Nettles’ two older brothers also looked after him.
His oldest brother, A.J., taught him how to play football and urged him to take a different path than his. A.J., a gunshot victim and repeat drug offender, is currently in prison.
His second-oldest brother, D.J., was a standout football player at Sweet Home High School and seemed destined for a full athletic scholarship to a Division 1 college. Many touted his NFL prospects. But his repeated academic failures cost him those chances.
Nettles said he watched D.J. soak up the hype and praise only to see him lose it all. After dropping out of colleges and coming home, D.J. now plays as a wide receiver for the South Buffalo Celtics semi-pro team and is the father of two children.
“That other life still follows him,” Nettles said of his brother’s connection to street life.
D.J. was best friends with Curtis Byers, a member of the gang 31. Nettles and his siblings grew up in the shadow of city gangs like that one.
When Nettles thinks about his brother’s fate, he comes back to his mantra of personal responsibility – the idea that you have to fight for opportunities and make the most of every one you’re given.
Despite the academic assistance D.J. could have received, Nettles said, his older brother thought his athletic talent was enough to elevate him from his roots. That mistake burned in Nettles a commitment to his own education, his ticket to a better life.
“You have to reach out for it,” Nettles said. “You have to want it.”
Over time, Nettles developed and maintained an extensive network of friends, coaches and mentors who helped keep him on the right path and opened doors for him. His ability to sustain relationships separates him from other young men who wanted the same things as Nettles but were unable to get them, said Rotella, now an adolescent-and-family therapist.
“One of things that makes Chaq successful, that I also see in other successful kids, is he maintains friendships with kids that have seen all parts of his life,” he said. “He has people in his life who know him and have only seen him succeed. They hold him accountable. But he also has close people who have seen him when he was not so successful. There’s value in us saying to him, ‘Look at how far you’ve come. This feels really hard, but you’ve been through worse.’ ”
Nettles leveraged his talent on the basketball court and football field to cultivate a network beyond his immediate surroundings.
For instance, while Nettles was good at basketball, he didn’t love it nearly as much as football. But he stuck with it because as a boy, he quickly realized his basketball skills got him a ticket to a bigger world. He played in travel teams that took him beyond the city for the first time in his life, he said.
And when Nettles made the decision to leave Buffalo, after getting pulled into a fight involving his younger brother, he appealed to all his connections outside the city. Though Nettles didn’t have relatives outside the city, like Byers, he sought help from a friend he’d made on the Williamsville South football team, whose mother allowed him to stay at their house for six weeks.
When the school district later threatened to remove him from Williamsville South because he didn’t have legal residency, that same mother and mentor, Barbara Nuchereno, took on administrators and helped him gain legal residency in the district as a homeless student.
She and others also helped him apply to college. He earned a full football scholarship at Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh.
Moe Badger, a youth coach and community advocate, said his heart has been broken by many youngsters he’s mentored and clothed but who ultimately sabotaged their own opportunities. Nettles had the perseverance to endure and the strength to overcome destructive loyalties to his former neighborhood, Badger said.
“I have to say 80 percent was Chaq,” said Badger, who recalled Nettles getting into “hood vs. hood” fights as a youngster at Pinnacle. “A lot of these kids, when they’re growing up, they’re carrying guns at 13 years old in the hood. He got around people who allowed him to be a kid.”
Stay or go?
Nettles said that while he chose to leave his poverty-stricken city neighborhood, it’s not the only path to success. Other young people from the same tough circumstances never left, and they still went to college and now lead productive lives, he said.
But many more, like Byers, don’t beat the odds. Rotella noted that one of Nettles’ former Pinnacle school classmates, William Brown, was fatally shot on Krupp Street in May. And one of Nettles’ basketball teammates at Pinnacle, Jaquan Sullivan, was shot and killed on Parkdale Avenue in December.
Badger, who has mentored many East Side youths, said he’s seen others make it, but they had a strong network of support from others who could assist and encourage them.
“There are many kids who don’t make it who are just as good a kid as Chaq is,” he said. “I know kids who are doing life in prison whom I mentored. It takes a village. You don’t have to leave the hood, but you need that support system. There are support systems in the hood, but everybody doesn’t get into those circumstances to receive that help.”
Byers didn’t have the broad network of support Nettles had. Even after Byers moved in with his sister in Amherst, he regularly returned to his old neighborhood and reconnected with drug-dealing peers, although even some of his city friends encouraged him to stay away.
Nettles took advantage of his distance to avoid what he called “distractions.” He recalled his time at South Park High School, where he did well. He might have stayed there if not for the fact he had to go home to a neighborhood marked by shootings, police raids, funerals and friends sent to prison.
Or maybe he would have stayed if he didn’t find himself pulled into bad situations out of loyalty to his siblings.
“It all adds up,” he said.
In the end, he said, he did what worked for him. But no one should consider his escape route the only way up.
“There is a way, more than just one way,” he said.
Of course, he said, it helps when people in the community are willing to step forward and show another way to live. That’s what he had, he said, and what other kids like him need.
Not only athletic stars can escape poverty and crime, he said.
“You can find something else you have talent in that benefits you,” he said.
Now and later
When last profiled in The Buffalo News in 2013, Nettles had just accepted an athletic scholarship to Robert Morris University. But his college path hasn’t been particularly smooth.
Two years after accepting the Robert Morris University scholarship, he transferred because he felt he wasn’t learning anything new as a player on the football field.
“Now that I think about it, it was kind of stupid that I did that,” Nettles said.
He transferred to Mercyhurst University in Erie, Pa., but left after a semester because his mother fell ill and his oldest brother had just been sent to prison.
“I wanted to come home,” he said.
He enrolled in SUNY Buffalo State, but he said he didn’t feel challenged there, despite the college’s teaching program, a field Nettles wants to pursue. He earned mediocre grades there and transferred to the University at Buffalo this fall.
UB is a better fit for him – close to home and academically challenging enough to motivate him, he said. But he’s a semester behind in school because not all of his prior college credits transferred over. He’s also not playing football but expects to join the university team this spring.
As for the rest of Nettles’ family, his mother Shirley shook her addiction to drugs but struggles with other serious health problems. Nettles visits her often, as well as his younger sister, who lives at home and attends fourth grade at Bennett Park Montessori School 32.
Nettles beams with pride at the mention of his younger brother, DeAnthony, whom Nettles has watched over and protected for nearly his entire life. DeAnthony is currently in his junior year as a criminal justice major at Buffalo State.
“He’s doing well, staying out of trouble,” Nettles said, a wide grin splitting his face.
As for Nettles’ future, he’s currently majoring in psychology. The university does not offer an undergraduate major in education but does offer a graduate-level program. He looks forward to enrolling.
Whatever he ends up doing, he said, it will be in service to other people.
“If I can make a difference in anyone’s life in my lifespan,” he said, “I will be totally fine with that.”
Story topics: poverty