IT ONLY TAKES ONE BULLETA LIFE, A FAMILY, A CITY SHATTERED

This is how a bullet breaks up a backfield. The quarterback, the running back, the receiver and another friend were together in a white Geo Tracker. It was a Friday night, just before Easter, and they were driving to Canada. They had some beer that they wanted to finish, so just before the Ambassador Bridge, they pulled off the highway, into southwest Detroit, into a neighborhood they did not know. Police say that was their first mistake. They parked by a curb, but left the engine running.

Suddenly, a van backed up in front of them, and its side door slid open. A figure inside made some strange, menacing gestures.

“What’s that guy doing?” one of them asked.

John, who was driving, did not wait to find out. He sensed trouble, so he hit the gas and the Tracker lurched forward, into the worst minute of their lives, through potholed streets they did not know, past darkened houses that sat like mute witnesses. They were trying to find their way back to the bridge, to traffic, to anything lit and safe, but instead they were getting more and more lost, weaving through narrow, icy roads. The van was right behind them. They took a left. The van drew closer. They could see two figures through the windshield.

“John, go faster! Now!”

It was the voice of the quarterback, Luvic Lucaj, who was sitting in the backseat, next to his friend, Mark Juncaj, and behind his friend, Mark Kalaj. Luvic — Lou, as they called him — was studying to be a cop, so he knew better than the others the danger they were in. He cast a quick glance over his shoulder, then looked back at his best friends.

“This,” he announced, “is when you need a gun.”

Those were his last words. A split second later, the rear window was shattered by bullets. The athletes ducked instinctively, pieces of plastic flying past their ears. Pop- pop-pop. It sounded like a woodpecker, or a distant hammer. Pop-pop-pop. John Kalaj drove with his head down, squeezing the wheel. Behind them, the van finally stopped, then sped away.

“You all right?” Mark yelled to John.

“You all right?” John yelled to Mark.

“You all right?” Mark yelled to Lou.

Lou was bent over. Maybe he still was ducking. They jostled him and he fell sideways and his head dropped into Mark’s lap. Mark blinked in horror. There was a hole in the back of Lou’s neck and blood was pouring out.

Tell me again how everyone needs a gun. Tell me how they protect and ensure our safety. Lou Lucaj, a funny, good-looking kid who, in his quarterback days at Clarenceville High in Livonia, used to jokingly say, “You better catch this pass or I’ll throw you out of my huddle,” was now in another huddle, his last, in the backseat. His head was held by his favorite receiver, Kalaj, and his shoulders were held by his favorite running back, Juncaj. They were all Albanian, and sometimes at the line of scrimmage, Lou would yell out a secret Albanian word and that would mean “forget the play, go deep.” He was their leader.

Now the leader lay in his former teammates’ hands, his eyes open but blank, his mouth making a soft gurgling sound. His blood soaked his friends’ shirts and pants, staining them so deeply they would have to be thrown away. They tried desperately to keep him alive with the lines they had shared on more innocent nights.

“Best arm in the state, Lou . . .”

“Throw me a five-yard slant, Lou . . .”

“Hang on, Lou . . .” The family suffers

This is how a bullet breaks up a family. Diela and Prenka Lucaj heard a knock on their door after midnight. It was a stranger, who spoke Albanian, their native tongue. The police had called him by mistake, because he was listed in the phone book under the same name as their son: Luvic Lucaj.

“Your boy has been injured,” is what the stranger said.

Diela and Prenka are immigrants from a small village in a remote, mountainous part of the world where America is still considered a magical place. They raised four children here, with Prenka working long hours as a cook, putting his paychecks into their little white house in Farmington Hills. They lived by the law and paid off their mortgage and watched their young ones blossom into real American kids, video games, blue jeans.

And sports. When Lou wanted to play high school football, his mother said no, it was too dangerous, but he was out back every day throwing spirals and wearing a Dan Marino jersey, and he grew to a strong 6-feet-2, and of course he ended up on the football team. And his mother and father came to see him play at Clarenceville. They beamed with pride when his name was announced over the loudspeakers. They watched him throw for more than 1,100 yards his senior season. Lou, Mark and Mark were captains that season, 1993, and in the tightly knit Albanian community, they were bright lights, immigrants’ children making good in America.

Now this: “Your boy has been injured.”

When they arrived at Detroit Receiving Hospital, no one could give the Lucajs any details. No one could tell them how Lou’s friends had driven frantically until they found a gas station, and how they ran to the door demanding to use a phone — “Our friend is shot!” — and how the guy behind the bulletproof glass wouldn’t let them in, because he was already a prisoner of the city, living in fear.

“Is he alive?” Diela kept asking. “Is my son alive?”

Finally, a doctor emerged. “Who are the parents?” he asked.

Diela began to cry.

Tell me again how taking guns away won’t help anything. Tell me again how we’re making progress on crime. The Lucaj family, mother and father, two brothers, one sister, sit now in their small house surrounded by photos of Luvic in his football uniform, at the prom, at his graduation. Normally, they would have a big Christmas tree and Christmas lights outside. There is nothing this year. No tree. No lights. No holiday. How could they have a holiday? A few weeks ago was Luvic’s birthday. He would have been 21, about to get his associate’s degree, about to head for the police force.

“That night he was killed, he had bought a suit,” his mother says, in her accented English. “I go to sleep early, but he wake me up to show me. He say,
‘Mom, you want to see suit I bought?’ I said, ‘So beautiful, this is beautiful color. Hang it on the door, I will fix hem tomorrow.’ “

She saw the suit one more time.

He was buried in it. The friends wonder

This is how a bullet breaks up a city. One of the men accused of shooting Lucaj — the one they think pulled the trigger — had been arrested at least four times before, including charges of attempted murder and armed robbery. He was still on the streets. He still had a gun. He was all of 22 years old. You know how the cops found him? He was going around bragging.

Bragging? About what? Being such a big man that he shot blindly into a vehicle? This is what our world has come to? You measure your ego by your kill-shots?

Police say this was about gangs. They say the shirt that John was wearing, a black-and-white plaid, might have been mistaken for gang colors. When they interrogated Lou’s friends, they kept asking, “What were you doing down there? Were you there to buy drugs?” They couldn’t believe that they had simply turned off the wrong exit, and that’s how Lucaj ended up dead.

Said one police lieutenant: “That kid was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

That says a lot, doesn’t it? It says this city is unofficially divided into
“their” part and “your” part. It says you better not exit the highway by mistake. It says that we are somehow supposed to accept these borders of fear.

Why should anyone accept this? It’s madness. The Wild West. At a kitchen table in Livonia, the three former high school athletes sit, still haunted by that night in March. John, the driver, says he thinks about it “five or six times a day” — could he have done something else, could he have driven any faster? Mark Juncaj says he sees Lou’s dying face in his dreams.

They are asked what Lou would say if he were here.

Mark Kalaj allows a smile. “He’d probably say, ‘You’re talking to a sports writer? Come on! Tell him how good a quarterback I was.’ “

They laugh, but then the laughter fades, and they each get this faraway look, a look that says how much they really miss their friend, and how he’s never coming back.

You walk away from a table like that and you can only ask “Why?” Everyone has these theories about guns, all these passionate arguments to keep them available. Meanwhile, the bullets just keep flying, pop-pop-pop, taking all the wrong people for all the wrong reasons. You drive down the highway with your doors locked, and you find yourself thinking what Luvic Lucaj must have been thinking the instant before that rear window shattered: This is no way to die.

And it is no way to live.

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