The US paralympic judo team comes to Wakefield for a training camp this month for its last tune-up before the Olympics is held in August in Rio de Janeiro.
One of the team’s brightest stars is Dartanyon Crockett, a legally blind athlete who won a world championship in 2014. Once homeless in Cleveland, the 25-year-old college student has effectively become part of the family of the Beverly woman who first brought his remarkable story to the world.
Crockett first met Lisa Fenn seven years ago. A high school wrestler at the time, he’d become best friends with another disadvantaged wrestler at his school, Leroy Sutton, who was being raised by his grandmother. Sutton had a handicap that was something else entirely: At age 11, he’d lost both legs when he was run over by a train.
Fenn, 42, a former ESPN feature producer who grew up in Cleveland, heard the story of the two disabled wrestlers from her father, who read about them in a local newspaper. She quickly persuaded her boss at ESPN to let her go to Cleveland to meet the boys and tell their story on camera.
The resulting 20-minute SportsCenter feature, “Carry On” — named for Crockett’s habit of carrying his friend on his back — was hailed by USA Today as “the most inspiring thing ESPN has shown in years.”
After the footage was cut and the program aired, Fenn found that she couldn’t just leave her subjects behind, as members of the news media typically do. Responding to an outpouring of support, she established a fund for the boys and began helping them find jobs and living arrangements. Then she quit her job, in part to care for them and also to raise her family.
Though she resisted for several years, Fenn has decided that now is the time to tell the tale in a book. “Carry On: A Story of Resilience, Redemption, and an Unlikely Family,” will be published in August. Even before publication, the book has been optioned for a feature film, with Nate Parker writing the screenplay. He’s the former college All-American wrestler whose breakout film, “The Birth of a Nation,” portrayed Nat Turner’s 1831 slave revolt in Virginia.
Sitting on a couch in the spacious Beverly home she shares with her husband, Dr. Navid Mahooti — a graduate of Gordon College in neighboring Wenham —
Now, when they’re all together at one of Crockett’s tournaments or for a holiday in Beverly, strangers wonder “who goes with who,” Fenn says with a laugh. People assume that Saxon must be Crockett’s son, not his little brother.
When Crockett stays in Beverly, he takes over the kitchen, turning up the music and cooking big breakfasts. “He calls himself the Bacon Whisperer,” Fenn said.
In his spare time, Crockett recently taught himself to play the saxophone. Now he plays “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Olympic Training Center events in Colorado Springs, where he lives. He recently surprised Fenn by posting a video of himself playing a flawless rendition of Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely,” one of her favorite songs.
His judo training has inspired Saxon to take up the sport. The boy takes classes at Pedro’s Judo Center in Wakefield, where the Olympic teams — both the Paralympians and the Olympians — will train from July 11 to 22. Owner Jimmy Pedro, who was an outstanding wrestler at St. John’s Prep in Danvers and won bronze judo medals at the 1996 and 2004 Games, is the US Olympic team coach.
With his uncommon strength and agility, Crockett has a good chance to medal in Rio, Pedro said. But he warned there are no guarantees in judo.
“If you’re the best in track and field or swimming, as long as you get a fast start, you’re probably going to win,” he said. “But if they threw a tornado at everyone or made you run through sleet and snow, you might get a different outcome. That’s what combat sports bring.”
The “Carry On” film is set to be produced by Mark Ciardi, who has also produced the sports films “Invincible,” “The Rookie,” and “Miracle.” Fenn’s next job will be trying to ensure the integrity of the film for the sake of Crockett and Sutton.
“It’s quite a burden to protect their images,” she said, noting that NFL star Michael Oher hated the movie about his own rocky upbringing, “The Blind Side.” But it might be difficult for Sutton to complain about the movie: Given his disability, he’ll likely get to play himself.
In the book and in person, Fenn admits she’s always been exceptionally attuned to the needs of others.
“My dad used to criticize me that I was oversensitive,” she said. It’s one of the main reasons she was hired at ESPN, despite the fact that she’s never been a diehard sports fan.
These days, though, she’s seeking her inner stoic.
“I’m not nearly as emotional as I used to be,” she claims. “Who has time?”James Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.