BEAR, Del. - Dalila Newman grew up learning to fend for herself. We all learn some tough lessons along the way but nearly every lesson along her path was hard-learned as she navigated her way through childhood without much parental guidance.
Blackson is a big, physical defensive lineman.
She became a mother at 14 years old, bearing a son named Rashaan, and was still a teenager when she had her second son, Raheem, and a daughter, Darjaan.
There’s was very little in her past, her upbringing, that would give any indication that Dalila could become an exceptional mother, the kind that loves without condition and metes out discipline in measured amounts.
In the summer of 2008, associate head coach Dwayne Thomas is in the weight room at Red Lion Christian Academy when a tall, gangly transfer student walks in. He’s hanging out with some friends on the football team and decides to join them in a workout.
Before long, Angelo Sierre Blackson V, who still considers himself a basketball player, is working out with the football team every day.
“He started training and got around me and I’m high intensity and always challenging people and I think he longs for something like that in his life. We kind of sprung a relationship from there,” Thomas said.
Thomas is naturally drawn to kids like Blackson, who come from a background not so different from his own.
Blackson and his sister/mom Dalila.
It’s a typical hot and sticky summer day and the Red Lion players are running conditioning sprints. Even in high school, playing football is becoming a year-long commitment.
It’s normal for the skill players to finish first in the sprints with the linemen, who often weigh 100 or more pounds than the receivers and defensive backs, taking up the rear.
But Angelo wants to win every race. Even the summer conditioning sprints become a competition, a test of his will. Is it just a race for Angelo or something more?
“He’s a young man, if you challenge him, he responds to it,” Red Lion head coach Eric Day said. “We used to joke around, ‘Are you going to go play in the SEC or are you going to play in the Big East, or MAC?’ Then he would run his sprints a little harder.
“The neatest thing to watch, he’s one of our largest guys, and when we run sprints, he’s first. If he’s not first, he’s angry. And then he’ll run again, and again and again.”
Off the field, Angelo’s coaches describe him as soft-spoken, quiet, caring, a big kid with a bigger heart. But on the field, he transforms himself. He plays with anger. He intimidates and dominates his opponents.
Maybe for a couple of hours every Friday night in the fall he can unleash some inner demons, the anger that can accumulate in 17 years of an imperfect childhood.
That drive got the attention of a coaching staff far away. At Auburn, where Gene Chizik was heading into second season, Angelo soon became a recruiting priority.
Coach Thomas has been a mentor for Blackson.
“He’s an angry, angry player,” Thomas said. “Coach Chizik asked him about that and he said, ‘Because I don’t want to go back to my community, I play like I don’t want to ever go back there.’”
It’s the beginning of the 21st century and the country is still basking in the afterglow of the 1990‘s technology boom. But Wilmington, Del., is far from Silicon Valley. Crime and violence are interwoven in the inner city as permanently as the dust and grime that cling to an old carpet.
Angelo Sierre Blackson IV spends his final days on earth in Wilmington, his mind taken by crack cocaine and his body wasting away from AIDS.
All the Blackson men are tall and well-built, one of the few gifts Blackson was able to leave for his son. That, and a determination.
Because as much as the father was determined to destroy his life and his family, his son is determined to make something out of his life and lift up his family.
“It’s just the drive. I always wanted to make it,” Angelo said. “I was always big. It don’t look right to see this big dude walking around on the streets so I really started pursuing a dream.
“I wanted to get out of that kind of atmosphere and that environment. I want to move my family out too. That’s really one of the biggest things I want to do.”
Angelo’s mother was also swept up in the crack epidemic and hasn’t been a part of his life for more than a decade. Angelo grew up in that same neighborhood that swallowed up and destroyed his parents.
The same temptations are right outside his front door today.
“It’s just a tough, tough community,” Thomas said. “Selling drugs, rolling dice, gambling ... these are things he would see on a daily basis in the community he’s grown up in.
“But for some reason something in him says, ‘I don’t want that. I don’t want to be a part of that. There’s something else out there and I’m going to strive for that.’”
Dalila already has two sons and a daughter but she’s about to take responsibility for two more children.
Angelo is six years old. He and his older sister, Bianca, have been taken away from their mother and are being put into state care. But Dalila, their older sister, convinces the authorities to grant her custody.
Now Dalila is a single mom with five mouths to feed and no parents to rely on for help. That’s a lot of responsibility for a 25-year old. She didn’t have a plan. She just knew it had to be done.
“There’s wasn’t nobody else. I didn’t want them to be raised in state care,” Dalila said.
She began working nights, 11 to 7, so she could care for them during the day.
“I had to continue to work because I knew if I didn’t stay strong, we didn’t have no family members to pull us up,” she said. “I didn’t have anybody to look over my shoulder besides God and know that it would be okay.”
It’s 2009 and Day and Thomas, who both coached at the college level before coming to Red Lion, have put together an impressive junior highlight tape of Angelo and sent it out to a number of schools.
The feedback has been positive but nobody has stepped up with a legitimate offer.
“We had made phone calls to the people we knew and their first responds was, ‘Well, who else is recruiting him?’ Our response is, ‘Look, we’re telling you the kid can play,’” Day said.
Thomas had an ace in the hole, however. Ten years earlier, he was a coach at Tennessee State. Current Auburn assistant Tommy Thigpen was also on the staff and the two were roommates. They became lifelong friends.
All it took was emailing a few video clips.
“Lets say that was 9:00 am on a Tuesday. By 9:15 he called me right back and said, ‘Who is this?’ I said, ‘This is a kid that plays for me, Angelo Blackson.’ He said, ‘We like him,’” Thomas said.
“Thig is a great talent accessor. He knew when he saw the film that this kid is a player.”
Thomas said Thigpen sees exactly what he sees in Angelo.
“He’s an NFL player, no doubt,” he said. “Professional athletes, I believe, are born. His abilities are God-given abilities.
“If you watch Sunday football you see big guys running ferociously with an anger. He has that. You can’t teach any of those things. Those things are innate. His ability to run at 307 pounds is incredible.”
Dalila doesn’t have time for a social life. All her efforts are put toward working and raising her family. But she thrives and so does her family.
They all call her mom now.
“I just try to instill good values and hard work,” she said. “One of my favorite things is hard work builds character. I’ve been through so much personally, that you can’t keep on making excuses You’ve got to pay up, pay the dues.
“I made mistakes along the way. But I had a belief that I could do it if I tried. As long as I didn’t give up I never failed.”
Dalila, Angelo, Thomas and several other Red Lion coaches were in Auburn this past spring for the A-Day game. It’s the first visit for all of them.
“Auburn, I felt like home,” Dalila said. “...I felt so comfortable. I don’t know who had more fun, him or me.
“I didn’t think it was just a sham. I thought that they were truly genuine. I know wherever he goes, which is Auburn, that he’s going to work hard. He’s going to give whatever is needed to be given and it’s always over 110 percent, because that’s all he’s ever been.”
Shortly after returning home, Angelo and Dalila talked and they decided that Auburn was the perfect fit academically, socially and athletically.
“I sat down with my sister and she was like, ‘That’s a great school,’” Angelo said. And it’s only about an hour away from where her friends live so she can attend a lot of games. It’s not really too far from home.
“I want to surround myself with the best people so they can help me when I need help. That’s one of the reasons I committed to Auburn.”
After 18 years of college coaching, Thomas needed a change. He got married, started a family and decided to coach high school football, which would allow him more time to spend with his family and mentoring young people.
Angelo’s athletic gifts were readily apparent, but Red Lion has strict academic standards and it was a tough transition for him when he transferred from a public school after his ninth grade year.
He started out at Red Lion repeating the ninth grade but worked hard enough his first year, going to summer school, to catch back up with his class.
“They push us extremely hard,” Angelo said. “They always say how football is not the whole big thing. You come here, it’s academics, Christ and then football.”
And it’s Angelo’s academic improvement that has meant the most to Thomas.
“He started talking to me about the Pythagorean Theorum and I was like, ‘Oh my goodness.’ I was just holding back the tears, because that’s how I feel about the kid,” he said. “For him to change his vocabulary and to strive for greatness in that way was just a tremendous blessing to me and him.”
There’s a tremendous pride in Thomas’ voice as he speaks about Angelo today
“There are a lot of people in that situation,” Thomas said. “Many young people look for the easy way out and use their upbringing as an excuse. Angelo has never done that. Angelo has always felt, to me, that ‘There’s something better for me and I’ve just got to keep on keeping on.’
“I’m a Christian and I don’t believe any of this happens by accident. I think God orders our steps. Angelo, who could be a victim of his community, chooses not to.”
Angelo has big plans for his future.
He’s watched all of Auburn’s games on television this season and hopes to step in as a true freshman next season and be an immediate impact player.
If he can excel in the ultra-competitive SEC, Angelo knows the next step for him would be the NFL. His motivation for reaching the highest level is more than the determination to be the best that’s driven him this far.
Angelo wants to do it for his family, especially for his sister-mom, Dalila, who has sacrificed so much and been so selfless.
“She expects a lot out of me and she gives a lot. I want to return everything. She did a lot for me,” Angelo said. “I’m going to give her everything. She won’t even have to worry about anything anymore.”
Dalila’s oldest son, Rashaan, is training for the National Guard and her other son, Raheem, works for UPS. Her younger sister, Bianca, works for a microfilm imaging company.
This summer, Angelo will move to Auburn and her youngest daughter, Darjaan, will begin her career as a nurse practitioner.
“It’s so special. I still think about how all this transpired,” Dalila said. “It’s just been a blessing. It’s just teaching me that it really can happen. “It ain’t been easy, but it’s been good.”
Still a young 36, Dalila is engaged to Herman Jones, who also played an important part in the success of their family. But she’s not sure what she’ll do after the wedding, after all her children have moved out.
“They’re worried about what I’m going to do, because for so long I’ve been doing everything for them,” she said. “But it was never about me. I really never thought about myself throughout this.
“I just always wanted to show them through perseverance you can achieve whatever you want. You are your biggest obstacle. Those are the biggest things I have learned growing up and going through a lot of trial and error.
“It wasn’t about what we had. We were a family and that’s what’s important. That was the most important thing that we were family and we were supposed to love each other and care for each other.”