Tears filled Lamel Matthews’s eyes as he tried to say goodbye to his now-22-month-old son, Lamel Jr., on one of the first days of school earlier this fall. Matthews stood inside the UPO Day Care center in the basement of Dunbar High School, and Lamel Jr. began crying hysterically when his father turned his back to head to first-period English class.
Matthews, an 18-year-old Dunbar senior, always had been comfortable in these hallways, as the Crimson Tide’s star quarterback and one of its most popular students. He was a strong student and he always could attract a girlfriend if he wanted to.
But on the first day Matthews brought his son to the school’s day care, the supervisor, Renee Burroughs, remembers seeing the faces of two scared boys — two boys who carried the same name and who were still trying to learn from one another. She watched as Matthews told his son he loved him, and that he would be back after class.
“Lamel was kind of emotional,” Burroughs said.
Matthews often wonders what will become of his future. Not much has changed for him on the football field this fall. For the third straight season he has starred under center, and Thursday morning at Eastern High, Matthews will lead the Crimson Tide into their third consecutive Turkey Bowl, against Anacostia. But in the past 22 months, football — and the interest from college programs such as Temple and Marshall — have become an afterthought.
In that span, Matthews has fathered two children with two women he met at Dunbar, one of whom he still dates. He has wandered in and out of the limbo between adulthood and life as a high school student, and has seen a once-promising future in college football become more questionable by the day.
Fatherhood got off to a rocky start for Matthews. He nearly slept through the birth of his first child, Lamel Jr., born to his former girlfriend Stormi Sheffield in January 2011. Sheffield’s text messages and phone calls initially didn’t wake Matthews that evening, but he eventually made it to Howard University Hospital in time for the delivery. The night spoke to the crumbling relationship between the young parents.
“I wasn’t ready to accept it, being a father,” Matthews said. “I had so much ahead of me at the time, thinking about my future. . . . It hit me hard.”
A challenge from the start
Matthews was terrified the first night his son stayed with him at his mother’s home in Northeast. Lamel Jr. cried for much of the night, and he watched his young father learn how to change his first diaper. He and Sheffield now split Lamel Jr.’s time between his football schedule and her work hours.
Matthews thought fatherhood would be easy, since he grew up in a household with four younger brothers and a younger sister whom he was expected to care for in a house devoid of a father figure.
But it wasn’t. Matthews started seeing a new girlfriend at Dunbar, Donica Dowery, which strained his relationship with Sheffield. Some nights, he struggled to get sleep, staying up late with Lamel Jr. while trying to balance homework and football practice. His friends often asked him to come out and socialize, and at times Matthews grew angry with his mother, Tyvice, when she refused to look after Lamel Jr., forcing her son to accept responsibility for his own son. She was out of work at the time, having left her job as a cashier at a frozen food retail store a year earlier, and was trying to make ends meet by running a day care out of her three-story home.
In April 2011, during Matthews’s younger brother’s birthday party at the house, Dowery told Matthews she didn’t feel well. He ran to a nearby CVS to buy a pregnancy test and threw the box away coming back. Two lines appeared on the strip, but neither of the teenagers knew what that meant, so Matthews ran back to the pharmacy to look at another box.
Matthews waited two days before he and Dowery, 19, handed Tyvice the positive test. They didn’t need to say anything else. Dowery considered having an abortion.
“The doctors visit . . . I couldn’t do it,” said Dowery, who was 18 at the time. “When they showed me, like, the little picture of him, he already had, like, a little body, little arms.”
Matthews’s second son, Aiden, was born last December, and although he was worried about what all the kids at school would say about him having another child, Aiden’s birth gave him a renewed focus. He got a job at an Indian restaurant near his home and worked out a schedule to watch Aiden every weekend while Dowery worked long shifts at a local hot dog restaurant and caught up on her criminal justice homework from classes at the University of Maryland.