The Father Gave Hope To His Son
BY GEORGE VECSEY
AMOS ZEREOUE was furious when his father sent him to a group home where the lights went out at 11 P.M. He was used to running the streets at that hour, drinking and fighting, dangerous pursuits for anybody, particularly a boy of 13.
"I was out of control," Zereoue recalls.
As a result of that group home, he is now in control. Eight years later, Amos Zereoue is the leading runner ever to play football for West Virginia University, which meets Rutgers this Saturday in New Jersey.
Potentially a first-round draft choice for professional ball, this year or next, Zereoue gained 189 yards last week as West Virginia stunned Syracuse for its fifth victory in eight games, below the team's ambitions for this season.
Zereoue might not have had high expectations for his life when his father checked him into the home, aptly named Hope for Youth. Bonde Jean Claude Zereoue (pronounced ZER-oh-way) had emigrated from the Ivory Coast, was raising a boy and a girl by himself, and saw the son slipping away.
"We live in Hempstead, where people get shot all the time," the father said four years ago. "I would tell him that I didn't want him on Terrace Avenue because that's where they deal drugs. But he wouldn't listen to me and I couldn't control him. And that's what I told the courts."
The son was picked up by the police for picking a fight with strangers, and the family court recommended Hope for Youth in Bellmore, a few towns away on Long Island. Founded in 1969 by Nassau County Family Court Judge Elizabeth Golding, the home accommodated seven boys who needed a place to live.
"This is a high-risk population," said David Hegarty, the executive director of six Hope for Youth sites. "We're starting to get crack babies in now, kids who have bounced around, who have many needs, but Amos was unusual. He was a highly motivated young man."
Angry at his father, unhappy with the rules at Hope for Youth, the young man entered Mepham High in Bellmore, going from a mostly black neighborhood to being one of the few non-Whites. In his first days at the school, he tried to join the football team.
"Our experience is, they don't last," said Kevin McElroy, the coach, referring to boys from the group home. "They are in the home because they are undisciplined, they have problems with authority, and if they break the rules at the house, they can't get to practice."
Amos Zereoue accepted the leftover scraps of equipment and went off to practice with the junior varsity. "He looked like a ragamuffin," McElroy recalled. "We don't supply cleats for the kids, so he was running in his sneakers. My junior varsity coach at the time, Brad McLam, came over and said, 'He's running all over our kids in --sneakers.'"
Cleats were found. The freshman moved over to the varsity. The coaches began teaching him the game. Amos Zereoue handled it all.
"I once asked him why he was able to do so well at Mepham," McElroy said. "He told me we treated him with respect; that was all he wanted."
The young man spent some weekends with his coaches, and would visit his father and sister, but they knew it was best for him to stay at Hope for Youth right through high school. He groused about the nightly meetings, the rules, the chores, but he stuck it out.
Zereoue became the first double winner of the Thorp Award, as the best player in Nassau County, an honor that even Jim Brown from Manhasset and Matt Snell from Carle Place had won only once apiece.
He also took a course for the Scholastic Assessment Test and, on his last try, rocketed past the minimum of 700 to 1020. West Virginia had a scholarship waiting.
His high school coach, Kevin McElroy, still tapes every game and calls Zereoue and offers advice that does not conflict with the coaching.
"We lost a few games and he told me to keep my chin up, don't let other people mess with my head," Zereoue said.
The player does not go back to Hope for Youth, but he praises what it did for him.
"We have kids on college scholarships, a lawyer, a police officer," said Hegarty, the executive director. "We have kids who are homeless or institutionalized. Success is relative. Not everybody is going to be the chairman of I.B.M. Amos was looking for structure."
The father still lives on Long Island and attends most West Virginia games. Asked where he would be if his father had not checked him into Hope for Youth, Zereoue paused and said softly, "I probably wouldn't be sitting here talking to you."
The New York Times, November 11, 1998