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DALLAS -- It’s game night in Texas, and the Adamson High Leopards are ready. They have been practicing. They have a plan. They are wearing uniforms, but not the ones bearing the usual colors of blue and white. Instead, players are adorned with purple ribbons and T-shirts with the message “Be A Man” emblazoned on the front. On this night, rather than taking the field, this group of high school football players will fan out across Sprague Stadium at Kimball High for Molina High’s matchup with Spruce High, some manning a table near the home grandstands, others climbing into the bleachers, all armed with markers and papers that read, “I pledge to help stop domestic violence because …” Fill in your own reason.
They want to know: Will you take the pledge?
Since last fall, long before domestic violence and football became intertwined in the public consciousness, Adamson players have engaged in an anti-domestic violence movement, collecting pledges from fellow players, students, parents and community members and posting them to Twitter. The campaign went viral in the Texas high school football community last season and spread to a handful of college programs across 10 states this year. A women’s group from Bangladesh, where domestic violence became a crime just four years ago, even visited the team this September to find out how to launch a similar project. But this evening -- during the Leopards’ bye week -- allows the players to bring their campaign to rival high schools. Before the night is finished, they will collect some 600 pledges from the crowd. By the end of the week, they will have attended eight other games, working up a sweat under the Friday night lights without playing a down.
One Adamson player canvasing the bleachers is especially determined. He is just 17, but he knows the horrors of domestic violence all too well. He knows it’s a learned behavior, and that it’s up to people like him to break the cycle. His personal pledge reads: “Because I have experienced it.”
Josh Derrough-Harvey, the Leopards senior tailback and leading rusher, worked hard to make varsity this season -- no small feat in a city and state where football is king. He had only previously played freshman ball at the high school level, returning to Adamson last spring after spending his sophomore and junior years at nearby Kimball High. “I joined football because I was really looking for something to do,” Derrough-Harvey says. “Every day was really the same. I had already played when I was younger, so I kind of missed it a little bit.”
Derrough-Harvey not only made varsity, but was also added to the leadership council, a group of hand-selected upperclassmen who lead team projects like Adamson’s campaign against domestic violence. He is more of a grinder than a flashy scoring machine, but he showed from the get-go that he plays with a sense of purpose. Josh Ragsdale, Adamson’s athletic director and eighth-year football coach, utilizes a wing-T offense and estimates Derrough-Harvey was involved in 80 percent of this year’s snaps. “He rarely goes around people, he goes through people,” Ragsdale says. “Three yards and a cloud of dust.”
Derrough-Harvey carries a 3.0 GPA and his favorite class is theater, where he is studying Shakespeare. The oldest of three, his mother, Melissa Derrough, calls him a “Mini-Dad” for constantly checking up on his younger brother and sister.
Melissa had Josh when she was 16. His father, Kamau Harvey, had been her sweetheart since seventh grade. They split when Josh was four. His dad had been in and out of his life ever since, but this fall father and son had grown closer. “When I was younger, he wasn’t really around a lot,” Josh says. “But when I started playing football I invited him to come to my games. We got closer over that course of those weeks. He would cut my hair every Sunday. And whenever I needed a ride, he would take me to school.”
Derrough-Harvey’s first varsity game was astounding. He ran for 248 yards with three touchdowns to help Adamson trounce Diamond Hill-Jarvis High 56-0. College scouts began to inquire about the Leopards’ new 5-foot-8, 200-pound tailback. But tragedy struck before his next game. Three of his friends were killed in a single-car accident. The driver of the vehicle lost control and slammed into a tree. (Police said alcohol was not believed to have been a factor.)
Adamson’s rivalry game against Sunset High loomed on Sept. 6, and Derrough-Harvey could barely bring himself to suit up for practice. He ultimately decided to dedicate the game to his former classmates. With the score tied in overtime, Ragsdale knew his star was feeling pressure to live up to his debut. “I just pulled him aside and told him he knew who he needed to be playing for,” Ragsdale says. Derrough-Harvey rushed for a 10-yard score that lifted Adamson to a 20-14 victory. “We were struggling in that game and I remembered [my friends],” Derrough-Harvey says. “That gave me the strength and courage I needed.” He burst into tears as his teammates rushed to form a dogpile.
It was the first time football would provide him with a sense of normalcy and lift him up in a period of deep sorrow. It wouldn’t be the last.
Two days after Derrough-Harvey’s heroics against Sunset, on Sept. 8, TMZ leaked the now-infamous video of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice knocking out his then-fiancée and now wife, Janay Palmer Rice, in an Atlantic City elevator. It was the landmark moment in a domestic violence scandal that became an ongoing national storyline.
The NFL suspended Rice indefinitely. In Dallas, Ragsdale’s phone lit up with messages from players. “I got 30 texts like, ‘Coach, can you believe this?’” Ragsdale recalls. “Had we not done this project, when this Ray Rice incident happened I don’t think it would have meant much to my guys. It would’ve just been another football player getting in trouble."
Derrough-Harvey couldn’t have known then that the issue of domestic violence was about to hit far too close to home.
The morning of Sept. 25, 2014, began like any other. Derrough-Harvey awoke around 7 a.m. and ate a bowl of cereal. His father showed up to give him a ride to school. “When I got out of the car he said, ‘Son, I’m real proud of you,” Derrough-Harvey remembers. “I had been on the local news a lot for our domestic violence project. I got out of the car and he gave me a couple of bucks for lunch money and I said, ‘See you later, dad.’”
He never would. According to records obtained from the Cedar Hill, Texas, police department, at 11:05 a.m. officers in the nearby Dallas suburb responded to a caller who said her boyfriend -- Derrough-Harvey’s father -- was “trying to kill her.”
According to the report, “during a dispute between the suspect and the victim, the suspect produced a handgun and began firing at the victim as the victim ran away from the suspect through the alley. The victim was struck by several rounds of gunfire. The suspect then turned the gun on himself and took his own life by a self-inflicted gunshot.”
That evening, as his team prepared for warm-ups before a game against Samuell High, Ragsdale’s phone rang. It was a school security officer who broke the news about Harvey. Shaken, Ragsdale called Derrough-Harvey into the trainer’s room.
“He was like, ‘Um, what’s your dad’s name?” Derrough-Harvey remembers, “And I thought, ‘Whoa, why does Rags need to know that?’”
“It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do as a coach,” Ragsdale says of telling Derrough-Harvey about what his father had done. “Nothing prepares you for that. There’s no school, there’s no college that prepares you to have to break that news to a young man.” The two hugged, cried and prayed together and then Ragsdale offered his tailback ride to the school.
Without skipping a beat Derrough-Harvey said, ‘No coach, I’m playing.’ He added: “Football brought me and my dad back together, so I’m going to play tonight.”
At first, knowing his dad had turned to domestic violence gave Derrough-Harvey pause about continuing with the team’s campaign. But an invitation to a pancake breakfast held by Dallas mayor Mike Rawlings (an anti-domestic violence advocate) impacted his decision. That morning actor Victor Rivers spoke about growing up in an abusive household and Hall of Fame Dallas Cowboys receiver Michael Irvin told fathers and sons in attendance never to tolerate even a single act of abuse against women.
“Listening to those stories inspired me to keep going and not to give up on the project,” Derrough-Harvey says. “I realized I would have a bigger platform to promote what is right versus wrong.”
Derrough-Harvey’s mom had doubts about her son continuing with the initiative, but Josh quickly put them to rest. “Initially I was nervous,” she says. “Like he was going to get some kind of backlash. When I talked to him about it, he said, ‘Mama, I love my daddy, but I am not my dad’s mistakes. My daddy made his own choices, his own decisions. I’m Josh. I have to make my own choices and decisions.’”
His choice was courageous. Derrough-Harvey had once seen an argument between his mother and father turn physical when he was four. At age 10 he saw his cousins get into what he called “a really bad altercation” with each other.
“Before, I thought it was OK because we’re all family,” Derrough-Harvey says. “But now I know you shouldn’t let it happen. When I joined the team, the cause wasn’t really close to my heart. Sure, I had experienced it, but I didn’t really understand what had happened until I learned more about domestic violence.”
Melissa says she is proud of her son’s stance. She knew what Josh had witnessed that time when he was four, and she didn’t let it go unacknowledged. “I had to let him know it’s not right, it’s not what you should do,” she says. “You just don’t hit women. There’s no other way to put it. It’s clear-cut. Dry.”
All these years later Melissa knows she did the right thing. “When [the shooting] happened,” she says, “there was a fear that could have been me.”
The Leopards went 4-6 this fall and missed the playoffs. Still, the team knows there was more to the season than wins and losses.
Senior offensive tackle David Banda told Derrough-Harvey he dedicated the rest of the season to him after seeing his brave display the night Adamson played Samuell, a 28-0 loss. “For something like that to happen to a teammate, that doesn’t happen in real life. That happens in a movie,” Banda says. “I told him that I respected him for what he did. Not a lot of people would [play on]. It showed him as a man, not just as an athlete.”
Offensive guard and middle linebacker Joseph Taylor says: “People look at him and think, if he can smile through all this pain, why can’t we?”
Derrough-Harvey hopes to play football in college. A lingering ankle injury hampered his statistics, but he is considering attending junior college. Ragsdale believes Derrough-Harvey will succeed in whatever he chooses to pursue. “He has willpower, he has heart, he has drive to be successful. If I’m ever blessed enough to have a son, I hope he has those traits,” says Ragsdale, the stepfather to 10-year-old twin girls.
“Have I coached better football players? Yes. Have I coached better people? I don’t know that I have. “
During this night at Sprague Stadium, Derrough-Harvey offers a simple smile to each person he greets as he makes his way through the bleachers asking spectators to sign the pledge and stand up to abuse. “Whenever they say yes, it’s a really rewarding feeling,” he says. “Whenever they tell me no, it’s heartbreaking.” Still, he doesn’t share his painful connection to domestic violence with the people he meets in the stands, not even the ones who decline to participate.
Today, though, is different. He is telling his story to the world. Derrough-Harvey wants to know: Will you sign the pledge?
To join Adamson in taking a stand against domestic violence, print and fill out a pledge sheet. Then tweet a photo of you with it to @AdamsonLeopards and @SInow with the hashtags #DallasISDAgainstAbuse and #SIhighschoolathlete.