Zedrick Gardner, Jahrie Level using football to make it in life
Oct. 25, 2013
Stony Brook, N.Y. -
Note: This feature appears in the October 26 football gameday program.
The two student-athletes have struggled through personal tragedy and life’s difficulties. A part of that has to do with where they’re from, and that’s okay, because Gardner and Level are a work in progress and are trending upward.
Gardner and Level are working toward making something of themselves despite coming out of one of Miami’s roughest areas. Beyond the glitz and glamour of Miami, the neighborhoods surrounding some of the most luxurious areas in the world are well known -- Allapattah, the Grove, Carol City, Little Havana, Little Haiti, Overtown and Liberty City, where Gardner and Level grew up.
To say people struggle to make it in Liberty City is a huge understatement. The neighborhood is filled with a lot of hardship. When a crime is committed or a shooting happens, both are quick to say, “Here we go again.” But Gardner and Level also are quick to point out that the anger they feel when a tragedy occurs gives them the hunger to succeed.
When Gardner and Level are asked what life is like there, they ponder what to say, then simultaneously blurt out, “It’s crazy.”
Gardner adds, “I thank God he blessed us with the talent for football. Football is the way out.” Luckily for Gardner and Level, they were blessed with strong morals and values. “My mother is my biggest inspiration,” Gardner said.
When Gardner and Level tell you who’s made it from Liberty City, the list reads like the Pro Bowl. Willis McGahee, Santana Moss, Antonio Brown and Kenbrell Thompkins to name a few.
Liberty City is home to Northwestern High School, a school that has churned out plenty of Division I talent, from Marvin Jones and Melvin Bratton to Jacory Harris and Sean Spence (Gardner’s teammates) to Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater, Eli Rogers, Michaelee Harris and Corvin Lamb (Level’s teammates).
The Bulls had All-American talent all over the field in 2007 during Gardner’s senior season. But with Gardner’s mother, Shirley, struggling to provide for her family, he decided to put his promising high school football career on hold to help her, because as he’s quick to point out, “I love my mama. I just wanted her to know how much she means to me.”
So he left school to work full-time. No problem, Gardner thought, the college recruiters will find him. It didn’t work out that way, but his goal of going to college never waned. “Times got really tough, but my mother told me when she gets a better job and gets back on her feet, she wants me back in school,” Gardner said. “That’s what I did.”
In Florida, students can’t be in high school once they turn 19, so Gardner, a junior safety, went the alternative route and eventually earned his diploma. He continued to play football, suiting up in local flag football tournaments. In a charity tournament hosted by and filled with NFL players and local celebrities, a friend of the community, coach Pete Monzon, saw Gardner and asked him if he wanted to play junior college ball with the hopes of playing at the Division I level.
Monzon knew the coaching staff at ASA College in Brooklyn and Gardner earned a partial scholarship, taking out loans to cover the rest. He persevered and earned a full scholarship just before the start of the season. “I didn’t do anything other than simple hard work,” he said.
Gardner, who had never heard of Stony Brook, verbally committed to Old Dominion, but the ASA coaches voiced their opinion. “My coaches kept telling me about Stony Brook,” he said. "‘They’re a growing program, and you can be successful there.’"
When Gardner went to SBU on his official visit, he loved the look of the defense, specifically its aggressiveness and its ability to play fast. Gardner points to coach Chuck Priore, who touched on a few things that led him to de-commit from ODU and sign with Stony Brook.
Gardner, a sociology major, respects the rigorous academic curriculum at Stony Brook. “I try to stay on top of my studies,” he said. “Academics has been my Achilles’ heel, so I’m putting in extra time. This is important to me. I don’t want to disappoint my mother.”
Level’s route to Stony Brook wasn’t as direct.
Despite playing with big-time talent in high school, he didn’t receive a scholarship offer. “I only had limited interest from a couple of schools,” he said.
Florida junior colleges do not sponsor football, so Level headed west to El Camino College, the junior college attended by former SBU All-American Kevin Norrell. “California junior colleges do not offer scholarships, so I took out loans,” Level said. “My family already was in debt, so my focus was to get a scholarship and earn my degree.”
Level initially committed to UTEP but ultimately chose Idaho because it accepted all of his El Camino credits. The other reason? Kenny McRoyal.
McRoyal, a New Orleans native displaced because of Hurricane Katrina who settled in California, preceded Level at both El Camino and Idaho. “When I arrived in California, Kenny was the first person to show me love,” Level said. “We just bonded. He asked me if I wanted to have Thanksgiving at his house because I didn’t have the money to go home.”
On a visit home to Los Angeles, McRoyal was at the wrong place at the wrong time and was shot and killed at a party. “I visited Idaho and they treated me just as well as they treated Kenny,’’ Level said. “I knew this was where I wanted to go.”
Level had seniors ahead of him but still cracked the starting lineup. Even the big games, such as the one in front of 93,000 at LSU’s Tiger Stadium, weren’t much to Level, who caught a touchdown pass. “We had played in so many hostile environments in high school,’’ he said. “Honestly, the environment wasn’t any different.”
Idaho’s struggles led to the firing of the coaching staff, but even more difficult for Level were the stares and racial comments. “I didn’t enjoy the lifestyle anymore,” he said. He was ready to come back home, and Idaho gave him his release.
The University of South Florida was interested in him, but although Level’s family members were happy to see him, they wanted him to stay away from the negativity of the streets of Liberty City.
Level, who always had stayed in contact with his friends from the neighborhood, reacquainted himself with Gardner. “Zed asked me why I wanted to leave,” Level said. “I told him things weren’t working out here.”
Gardner, who came to Stony Brook in the spring of 2013, put the coaching staff in touch with Level, who bonded with Priore just as Gardner had.
“The conversations with Coach P. were great," Level said. ‘’He called me every day, asking how I was and how things were going. USF wanted me, but Stony Brook needed me. I saw Zedrick again and it made me feel great. We got that bond again. Now let’s make it happen."
Both are proud of where they come from and the people who have paved the way. When they talk about their hometown and neighborhood and high school, they smile.
What’s most impressive? The names of their friends and acquaintances -- NFL All-Pros, college All-Americans and music moguls.
Both point to influential figures in their lives. Gardner’s cousins, Tolbert Bain and former Giants cornerback Kenny Phillips, come to mind, as does Pastor Dawkins, a community leader.
Level mentions his Liberty City Optimist coach, Luther Campbell, the former frontman for 2 Live Crew, whose own life has changed because of football. Level also says his uncles and grandmother are his biggest fans.
When they take the field Saturday against New Hampshire, you’re certain to hear Gardner lifting his teammates’ spirits and see Level smiling. They’re playing football and they’re happy, but most of all, they’re representing Liberty City the right way.