When you end up in a place where you’re sure you don’t belong, sometimes you are right, sometimes you’re wrong.
Sometimes you get cut, sometimes you get healed.
John Steele knows both.
The former Miami University defensive lineman grew up on Cleveland’s east side, along Kinsman Road in the Fourth District, one of the most dangerous sections of the city.
“Both of my parents are drug addicts,” he said. “My mom would be gone for weeks, sometimes months. My father was MIA. He was in jail for quite some time and when he did return, our lifestyle exacerbated dramatically.”
He said he and his older sister and younger brother were homeless for a while, living in an old van with their mom. Then she moved them to a cheap motel, followed by a crack house. Other times, he ended up in foster care.
When he was 10, Steele said he stopped going to school for nearly a year. Back then, the street corner resonated more with him than the classroom.
“I knew a lot more felons than I did college graduates,” he said.
In that kind of environment it’s easy to end up in the wrong place, something Steele and his brother, Jordan, learned one day when they went to get a haircut.
“There’s a long street — Union Avenue — that divides two neighborhoods,” he said. “One of them we couldn’t traverse because we were from the other side of the street. In order to get our haircut, we’d catch a bus to get through that area.
“That day we did it on the way over. And we had bus fare to get back, but instead we bought McDonald’s. We figured it was the right time of day and we’d be OK.
“Still, we were kind of hustle-jogging down the street ‘cause we didn’t want to get caught. But my brother and I were really big, so we weren’t gonna outrun anybody, and sure enough a bunch of guys came running up on us.
“There were five or six of them, but we decided we’d fight it out and we held our own until some guy pulled out a knife and cut me here and here.”
As he recounted that teenage battle — pointing out scars on his upper chest and lower side — the 26-year-old Steele was sitting in his room at the Marcum Hotel on the Miami University campus the other day.
In a few hours he was catching a flight back to Boston, where he’s a student support specialist at the high-performing Match Charter Public School.
The day before he had given a no-notes, from-the-heart speech at a national fellowship recognition breakfast in the adjoining conference center that had elicited rousing applause, admiration and even tears from the crowd.
And that proved that sometimes, when you’re at a place where you think you really don’t belong, you don’t end up bleeding, you blossom.
In 2009, when the 6-foot-3, 280-pound Steele showed up at Miami — with all its venerable brick buildings, the fraternity and sorority houses and the often-preppy vibe — he knew he was far from Cleveland’s Fourth District.
He had a large tattoo across his chest, a sleeve of colorful inkwork covering his left arm and those scars, some physical, others mental.
He admits he lacked confidence, trusted almost no one and had anger issues.
His first football season — because he was an NCAA partial academic qualifier — he couldn’t play for the RedHawks.
The second year, as he was working his way up the depth chart, he suffered a devastating, early-season injury that ended his football career.
In the classroom, in part because of reading deficiencies, he had trouble keeping up.
Yet, thanks to several mentors, tutors and counselors at Miami — people like learning instructor Connie McLain, athletic academic coordinator (and now assistant athletics director) Craig Bennett, and especially associate sociology professor Dr. Othello Harris — Steele was able to overcome those issues.
“Being here was by far the most transformative experience I ever had my life,” he said.
He ended up a Dean’s List regular, was part of the school’s prestigious “Inside Washington” study program that allows students to rub elbows with key figures in Washington D.C., and graduated in 2014 with a degree in social justice.
On May 18, he’ll return to D.C. as the first Miami graduate awarded a much-sought-after Charles B. Rangel International Affairs Graduate Fellowship.
His grad school at George Washington University will be paid, and with a pair of internships in D.C. and abroad, he will be trained for the U.S. Foreign Service.
But before all that, he wanted to return to Miami to say thanks.
“I know it sounds cliché, but it’s true,” he said quietly. “It really does take a village to raise a kid. I had an entire village of people at Miami work with me and make sure I was OK.”
Finding his identity
As a teenager, Steele was struggling at Garrett Morgan Cleveland School of Science Academy and ended up taking summer classes at a public school, the now-closed South High. That’s where a security guard who had played college football at Jackson State spotted him lumbering down the hallway and called him over.
“Hey you big (expletive)!” Steele said, mimicking the guard’s deep Southern accent. “Man, you play ball?’”
As he recounted that conversation, Steele shook his head:
“I’d been big all my life and heard the same song and dance over and over. But we didn’t have a football team (at Garrett Morgan) and I had no desire to play.
“But he goes, ‘You too big not to be playin’ ball. You’re wasting your time!’ He convinced me to come to practice just once and see what I thought.”
Steele did and said that for the first time in his life he found he was good at something. For the first time, he got positive reinforcement and he liked it.
He ended up transferring to South and as a senior led the Flyers with 65 tackles and 11 sacks.
“Football was a natural fit,” he said. “It became my identity.”
That prompted him to get the chest tattoo that reads: “Football Made Me Who I Am.”
He said he got scholarship offers from Michigan State, Minnesota, Cincinnati, Colorado, most Mid-American Conference schools and several from Division II.
“But then I had a problem with the (NCAA) Clearinghouse,” he admitted. “I took the ACT five times for a composite score of 17. Quite frankly, I just didn’t make the grades.”
While some schools shied away, then-Miami coach Michael Haywood saw something and stayed committed. In turn, Steele was impressed with Haywood: “He was a coach of color who could relate to me.
“ Even though when I came to Miami my entire perception of reality was really off, when I couldn’t play that first year I focused enough that I ended up getting a 2.6 (grade-point average). No one expected that.”
Sophomore year he had shown enough in preseason practice that he was sure he’d see action in the opener at Florida. But he said he messed up in pregame drills because he didn’t hear a call and that drew the wrath of a defensive coach who then refused to play him.
After the game — a 34-12 victory by the Gators — he and the coach had another confrontation and he was put on the scout team the following week. Soon after, he suffered a severe leg injury when he was cut-blocked during practice.
He broke two bones in his left leg, partially tore a ligament and ended up having three surgeries that left him with eight screws, two plates, four wires and two button sutures in his ankle.
His football was over.
He contemplated leaving school and returning home, but thanks to the efforts of some people at Miami, he stayed and that decision, he said, saved him:
“It would have been like going back to the Wild West. With my size and those anger issues I had at one point, I would have killed someone or someone would have killed me.”
‘An amazing guy’
“I meant to say it internally, but it just came out loud,” Steele said. “There were probably 40 people in class and they all heard me and turned around and here’s this big black dude cussin’ like crazy. I’m sure they were like, ‘What’s wrong with this kid?’ ”
He was recalling his first sociology class with Dr. Othello Harris a few years ago at Miami.
He admits he initially felt overwhelmed: “Things other kids might read in 25 minutes took me a couple of hours to get through. I really had to work at it.
“And in Othello’s class, he has you write like 25 pages of notes every day. It was hard for me to keep up and that day I was nearly to the bottom of the page when he changed the power point and I missed the end of it.
“I got frustrated and that’s when I blurted it out. And Dr. Harris was like, ‘Aaaah, do you need me to go back?’
“I was embarrassed as all get out and I go, ‘No, I’m fine.’ But when I was walking out afterward, he said, ‘Maybe you should come up to my office and we’ll talk about some of these things.’
“I wasn’t sure I wanted to go, but it turned out to be one of the most impactful conversations I ever had in my life. We spent 4 ½, maybe 5 hours talking about life, careers, academics, girls, my family, his family, you name it.”
In the process he said Harris told him to stay at Miami. He said there was no better place for him. People would help him.
At first, Steele still wasn’t sure:
“I thought, ‘I’m not smart enough to be here. The only reason I’m here is that I played football.’ But Othello was like, ‘John, I’ve been doing this a long time. I wouldn’t tell you this just to make you feel better. You are more than capable of doing the work. You’re just as good as these kids and to be completely honest, you’re better than a lot of them.’ ”
As Harris remembers it: “By the second class I started seeing something special. I started thinking, ‘Wow, this kid not only is brighter than I thought, he has more desire than just about anybody.’
“And finally he got to the point where he trusted me.”
He said once Steele learned how to be a critical thinker, his curiosity came to the fore and, coupled with his work ethic, be made great strides.
The pair talked often. Harris suggested books to read and introduced Steele to new experiences, everything from biking the nearby trails to dining in a nice restaurants.
Steele’s grades began to rise, as did his involvement in the university community.
And then came a job fair at Miami. Steele had never had a suit and asked Harris to help him pick one out.
Harris got it specifically tailored and even taught Steele how to tie a necktie.
“He was going to Washington in January for the Inside Washington program and he called me during the break right before that,” Harris said with a chuckle. “He told me he’d been wearing his suit every day.
“I said, ‘A suit? Over Christmas break? Why?’
“And he said, ‘When I go to Washington, I’m going to be wearing a suit every day. I don’t want to feel uncomfortable, so right now I want to wear one every day.’
“He’s an amazing guy. My line to him has always been, ‘John, one day when your confidence catches up to your talent, you’re going to be dangerous!’”
A stunning message
One Friday night a while back Steele was riding on the Metro in Washington, D.C. when he checked his phone and was stunned to see a message congratulating him for being selected for the Rangel Fellowship.
“I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “I stood up and was jumping and shouting and I literally threw my phone down the train in celebration.”
He laughed as he remembered the moment: “You know what? People didn’t even blink. They just thought it was another crazy person on the train. I don’t know what came over me.”
With a moment’s reflection, he amended: “I knew my life was about to change dramatically.”
There had been over 800 applicants for the fellowship. The list was then pared to 60, all of whom had been brought to Washington D.C. for s series of oral and written interviews. He thought he’d stumbled in the latter portion and blown his chance at being one of the 30 finally selected.
Once he reports 10 days from now, he’ll do an internship with the Congressional Research Service at the Library of Congress. Next summer he interns at an embassy abroad. In between he begins his graduate studies at GW. Similar to an ROTC deal with the Armed Services, he’ll owe a five-year commitment to the Department of State for his schooling.
But before D.C. he’s finishing up in Boston, where he has made quite an impact with the students, 93 percent of whom, he said, are Hispanic or African-American, and some 75 percent are classified as in need, including financially.
“I’m young. I played D-I football. I’ve got the tattoos and I’ve been through similar situations as them — if not more — so I can relate,” he said. “Now I have a prestigious fellowship. I think it’s important for young people of color to see someone similar in a position of power.
“That’s how it was for me seeing Othello at first. It impressed me that he was so smart, so well-spoken, that he had a mastery of his material … and he was black.
“I can’t stress enough what he has done for me. He changed my life. Without him, there’s no way I’d ever have been able to discover how talented I really was. He unlocked it.
“But when I say ‘I owe you so much!’ he’s always like, ‘Get out of here. Just pay it forward. Do it for another kid like you.’ ”
Steele has been doing just that in Boston and that’s why Harris was so moved the other day during his speech.
“I was dabbing tears the whole time,” Harris said. “John’s already paying back and that’s all I could ask.
“I’ve had a lot of other students who have come here and been encouraged and gone on to grad school or law school or medical school. The difference with John is I don’t think very many of them had to come as far as he did.”
He’s gone from street rivals running him down to his confidence, just as Harris predicted, catching up to all that talent.