First in a series on heartbreaks and hopes of unsung Detroit area athletes in 1995.
“A person like me needs all the support he can get, because of all the things that happen to me.”
— From a 10th-grade English paper by Dewon Jones
The first gun in his life was a gift from a relative, a rifle that had been snapped in half. “Let the kid have it,” his step-grandfather said. So Dewon Jones took it and fixed the trigger and the barrel, and soon he had a weapon instead of a toy. One day, he was playing with his best friend James. Dewon put the gun in his pocket and danced like a cowboy. The gun went off.
“I’m shot!” he yelled. “I’m shot!”
At the hospital, doctors used tweezers to remove the bullet. Dewon and James made up a lie to police. They said they were on the porch when someone drove past and fired four random shots, and one hit Dewon’s leg. The police wrote this down. It was not so unlikely, not where these kids live. No one was arrested. No one was charged.
Dewon Jones went home the next day, wearing the unofficial tattoo of his city: a bullet hole.
He was 10 years old.
The second gun came two years later. It was a starter’s pistol, which belonged to an older kid named Cisco. Dewon, by this point, had been kicked out of several schools, his father was not around, so he looked up to older kids. When Cisco said, “We got something going down, you want in?” Dewon said yeah. He didn’t even ask about his share.
A few days later, on a warm autumn night, Cisco brought a girl to a Coney Island near Eight Mile and Fleming. His crew — which included Dewon and James
— jumped out and demanded the girl’s money and car keys. One kid waved the pistol. Cisco acted frightened, which was part of the plan. Dewon, the youngest, was the lookout. He checked both ways, then jumped into the stolen car with the others.
A week later, when the police figured it out — Cisco wasn’t too bright; he parked the car in front of his house — the helicopters flew overhead, beaming
down spotlights. It was like something out of a movie. Dewon was scared. He hid in the attic. When the police left, he packed a small brown suitcase, planning to run away.
“Where you gonna run?” his uncle said.
“I dunno,” Dewon said.
He went to a friend’s house. An hour later, the police picked them all up. Armed robbery. Dewon and James — who pretty much went along for the ride — were considered accessories. They were fingerprinted. Put in a holding cell.
James got probation. Dewon was not as lucky. He was sent away to Starr Commonwealth, a residential treatment program for juvenile delinquent males — in Albion, 100 miles from home.
Dewon calls it “getting locked up.”
He was 12 years old.
The third gun — we can only hope the last — came when Dewon returned from that treatment program three years later. He had calmed down. He had learned a lot. Out of the city, in a place where you can see trees and lakes and men without weapons, he had become a young adult, a certified lifeguard and a promising athlete, playing flag football and lifting weights. In group therapy, he spoke about his problems — no father, working mother, no money, no discipline — and he was even looked up to as a leader. One time, a kid named Darnell ran away. The whole class went looking for him, but it was Dewon who found him, hiding in a barn, sitting on a tractor behind bales of hay. Instead of turning him in, Dewon told the kid he should come back on his own.
“Where you gonna run?” he said, the way his uncle had once said it to him.
“Where you gonna run?”
That night, when everyone was asleep, Darnell crawled back into his bed. Later he thanked Dewon for “saving him.” Dewon felt good.
But good only lasts so long. When Dewon came back to the city, things were just the way he left them. Drugs. Guns. He had been home less than three months when, on a Saturday afternoon, he walked over to James’ house to get a pair of pants. The same James who had been with him for the biggest trouble in his life.
“I got a heater,” James said, greeting him at the door.
“Whose is it?”
“You better give it back.”
“You wanna see it?”
They went to James’ room. They checked out the gun. It was a .22-caliber pistol that Ray, their friend, had gotten for protection.
“You should give it back to Ray.”
“I’m telling you.”
James started twirling it, spinning it on his thumb. “I’m Robocop,” he said.
Pow! The gun went off, a small blast followed by a ping. The two teens instinctively covered their faces. But Dewon felt something weird beneath his fingers. Warm. Then sticky. He couldn’t open his left eye.
“I’m shot!” he yelled, for the second time in his life. James grabbed a towel to stop the blood. His mother screamed. Someone called an ambulance, and the police came, too. As he ran downstairs, Dewon glanced in a mirror. His face was already swollen and bruised. Everything he saw was red.
“Where else are you hit?” the ambulance people yelled. They were ripping off his clothes, searching for wounds.
“What are you doing?” Dewon asked, stunned. “Why are you ripping my clothes?”
“Where else are you hit?”
He was in a hospital for 10 days. They took X rays, gave him IV’s. The shot had ricocheted off a wall and entered just above his left eye. It had cut through several arteries and nerves and was lodged somewhere near the nasal cavity. They couldn’t remove it without risking blindness in both eyes. The doctors shrugged. He would have to live with it.
Dewon went home with a bullet in his head.
It is still there today.
He is 16 years old. Guns, guns, guns
Everyone should have a gun. That’s what some people say, right? Protect yourself? It’s in the Constitution? Dewon Jones, sitting now in his football coach’s office at Mackenzie High, shakes his head and says those people “are fools. What you need a gun for? You ain’t the police.”
The kid sitting next to him agrees. That kid is James Montgomery, the one who shot Dewon in the eye. Maybe in another environment, you shoot somebody, you are no longer his friend. Not so in northwest Detroit.
“I knew he didn’t mean to do it,” Dewon says. “That’s why I told the police I didn’t want to press charges.
“To be honest, I blame myself for asking to see the gun. I should have known better.”
Dewon Jones is a big, bruising kid, 6-feet-1, 250 pounds, with a broad neck and shoulders thick from lifting weights. He has an impish smile, a rolling laugh, and if not for the way his left eye droops, you would hardly be surprised that he plays football at Mackenzie, a middle guard on the defensive line. It was a guidance counselor’s idea, the football. She thought it would give him direction. She was right. Dewon was depressed after the shooting. He had to wear a patch for six months and apply medication several times a day. His face was bruised and swollen, the left side partially paralyzed.
But football gave him focus. He loves it now. Dreams about it. Wants to be the first in his family to go to college and play ball.
If he has to take the bullet with him, so be it. A hit on the field “What do you see right now?” he is asked.
“I see you,” he says.
“What do you see if you close your good eye?”
“I see a lot of red, and some black. You’re kind of a blur.”
“Doesn’t that make it hard when you play football?”
He laughs. “I know where the quarterback is. And that’s who I gotta find.”
In the first game of this season, against Detroit Western, Dewon, a junior, sacked the passer on the opening play. He had three sacks against Detroit Henry Ford. He finished the season as the team sack leader and was named honorable mention All- Detroit by the Free Press. You have no idea what that means to a kid like Dewon, who has rarely heard a compliment from any voice of authority. Bob Dozier, his coach at Mackenzie, says Dewon’s strength and quickness give him a good chance at a college scholarship. Dewon lights up when he hears that.
“I’m gonna make it out,” he says. “I have no doubt.”
James Montgomery, who shot him, looks at Dewon and nods in agreement. James, 18, is smaller, with a sad, round face. He also attends Mackenzie, when he feels like going. The two young men have known each other for as long as they can remember. They’ve been in church together and in a cell together. One summer, they were swimming in the high school pool when James tried a fancy dive off the board and tore cartilage in his knee. He panicked.
“I came up swallowing water and yelling for the lifeguard. He didn’t hear me. But Dewon saw me and jumped in and came up under me so I could breathe. He pushed me to the side and got me out. . . .
“The fact is, Dewon saved my life.”
Four years later, James shot him in the eye. City can’t be ignored
If this doesn’t sound like normal friendship, well, this must not be your neighborhood. The bullet life goes on every day in Detroit, right under our suburban noses, and so many of us act as if it doesn’t matter, as if the city is just some place we pass on the Lodge Freeway, hit the gas, get it behind you.
But you can’t get it behind you, because we are all in this together, geographically, economically and emotionally. Dewon Jones might have been shaped by his encounters with guns, but he is also a precious resource, a kid who has learned from the horror and wants to graduate and make a better life. He is doing well in school. He is serving as a mentor to some other students. He swears he wants nothing to do with guns, hasn’t touched one since that day, “never want to see one again.” He is adamant about this.
He is also a statistic, one of thousands of black youths to be shot before his 16th birthday. Bullet in his head. A permanent souvenir.
“How big a shock was it,” he is asked, “when you told your friends you’d been shot?”
“Not so big. I know people been shot all over their body and they’re still living.”
“And James, how many guns had you fired before you accidentally shot Dewon that day?”
“Seven,” he says.
Seven? No big deal. Guns are toys, guns are status, guns are everywhere here. Finding them is not the problem; avoiding them is.
“I don’t want a gun,” Dewon says. “I’m sick of guns. You got a gun, stay away from me.”
He blinks hard. Sometimes, he says, his vision goes red, as if gazing through a veil of blood. You wonder if it’s his eye or his perspective. The write way
The bell sounds. School is out for the day. Students race through the halls, some screaming, others laughing. A few wave to Dewon through the open door. He nods.
He has taken to the staff at Mackenzie, especially Dozier, his football coach, and an English teacher named Ellen Harcourt. She encourages him to write, and one day, to her surprise, he gave her a composition called
“Reflection on My Life.”
“My life is moving on and there is nothing I can do about the problem that most changed me around. Guns are not toys, but I had to learn the hard way. That’s the big reflection on my life. Or should I say, my unforgotten picture?”
It is a touching phrase, “my unforgotten picture.” How can he forget? The world he sees every day is not the one shared by many of us. It is bloodshot, literally, but in that way it is much closer to what our city’s children see every day, every night, everywhere. And it has to stop.
You look at these two high schoolers, you hear them talk about police and holdups, and you realize what a war it is for kids today. When Dewon was shot, a female officer told James, “If your friend dies, we’re gonna charge you with some kind of murder.”
“What were you thinking?” James was asked.
“I thought, ‘I’m little, and I’m going to jail.’ ”
I’m little, I’m going to jail.
I’m little, I’ve been shot.
Who’s little anymore?
Dewon Jones and James Montgomery pull on their coats and leave the school building out through the metal detectors and into t