Kroner: Hedrington's tale is a moving one
CHAMPAIGN — Some stories you read or hear about are heart-wrenching sagas about families torn apart by a divorce, then losing their home to foreclosure with a single mother on disability left behind to raise a teenage daughter.
The perception is these stories come from afar, not in the community or the neighborhood where we live.
The reality is these incidents occur anywhere and everywhere. Sometimes, varsity athletes whose careers have been documented in the newspaper for years are individuals who've spent a majority of their time in high school without a permanent place to call home.
The "before" and "after" view of Cheyenne Hedrington would paint a picture of stark contrasts.
The Champaign Central senior will be one of the showcase players in today's inaugural News-Gazette/Parkland College All-Area All-Star basketball games in the Cobras' gym.
The girls' game starts at 1 p.m. The boys' game will tip off at 3 o'clock.
Getting there, for Hedrington, has been a massive challenge.
A struggling start
Her parents divorced when Hedrington was in eighth grade at Franklin Middle School. Her father returned to the Virgin Islands. Cheyenne Hedrington and her mother, Rhonda Overcast, stayed in Champaign.
"Mom lived paycheck to paycheck," Hedrington said. "Mom cried almost everyday."
Within a year, their home was foreclosed and the Centennial High School freshman was on the move.
"Me and my mom moved from family member to family member," Hedrington said.
A few friends knew the full details, but Hedrington said, "most stuff, I tried to keep inside. I didn't want anyone to know what was going on. I didn't want them to worry."
The stability in her life — besides a caring mother and other supportive relatives — was basketball. It was a time Hedrington craved.
"When I'd step on the court and play, it seemed like nothing else in the world mattered," Hedrington said. "It made me push harder. I'd take my anger out on my opponents."
Hedrington and her mother — officially homeless — took up residence in different locations for more than three years.
"We bounced around from my sister's to my nephew's to my daughter's house," Rhonda Overcast said. "We'd stay a bit and move on because we were interrupting someone else's life. Cheyenne has overcome a lot, and kept her head up."
Rhonda Overcast encouraged her daughter to not dwell on the negatives surrounding their transient lifestyle.
"I told her if you think you have it bad, there may be someone else who has it worse," she said.
Overcast looked for the sunny, cheerful side of the situation. Hedrington, however, had an attitude that made it difficult to see anything positive.
Acting out anger
"In eighth grade, I didn't want to come to school. I didn't want to be around people," Hedrington said. "When I came, I took my anger out on kids and teachers. I was in trouble a lot."
There was a particular on-court outburst during Franklin's quarterfinal state tournament game in 2008.
"I threw a temper tantrum and took myself out of the game," Hedrington said.
The Franklin coach was Staci Starkweather, who became Hedrington's high school coach the past three years after she transferred to Central, which was within walking distance of her aunt's house.
"I would play for myself," Hedrington said. "She (Starkweather) got that attitude out of me. She said I had the potential to play in college, but if I kept that attitude I wouldn't go anywhere."
Starkweather said keeping Hedrington on the bench for the remainder of her final eighth-grade game was a tough decision.
"In coaching, you want to win, but it's like a double goal," Starkweather said. "You hope kids become better people."
Benching Hedrington, she said, was "not to punish, but to help her realize there's a right way of doing things."
In retrospect, the decision looks good. Hedrington became a two-year varsity captain at Central and Starkweather said, "I've seen her grow into a respectful and responsible young person."
A part of Hedrington's anger as an eighth-grader was directed toward her father, whom she last saw around Christmas.
"Things happen for a reason. He's still my dad and I will love him regardless, but the situation could have been handled differently," Hedrington said. "If you don't care where your daughter is living or how she is eating, that's heartless."
Starkweather realizes there is often a very fine line between disciplining an athlete and breaking their spirit.
"She could have gone either way," Starkweather said. "It could have defeated her and she could have chosen a different path. She surrounded herself with good people and her mom has been very supportive and encouraged her to do the right things. I'm happy to be one of the fortunate ones to have been a part of her life."
Before the pre-high school Hedrington could slip into a permanently rebellious funk, the strong influences lifted her up.
"My brother (Kenya Overcast, who is 16 years older) stepped in as a father figure to me," she said. "He used to braid my hair. He was the first person who put a ball in my hands when I was 7.
"He said, 'I don't want to see you as one of those people (who turn to drugs and alcohol and drop out of school),' and I listened."
Her sister, Amber Overcast (who is 17 years older), has always been a role model, too.
"Me and my sister were always close," Hedrington said, "and she is starting to become one of my best friends."
Rhonda Overcast tried to alleviate her daughter's burdens. When Hedrington volunteered to get a job to help pay bills and buy food, the answer was always the same.
"She said, 'Your job is not to worry about how we are. Your job is to go to school and be like a normal kid,' " Hedrington said.
The teenager wasn't always convinced.
"There were times I felt I shouldn't do a certain sport to get a job," Hedrington said.
Ready to move on
The experiences Hedrington has endured have served to toughen her resolve and determination. Her career path is set and she is ready to enter the next phase of her life.
A basketball scholarship awaits at John Wood Community College in Quincy this fall, but Hedrington is going to start summer school in June.
"I'll try to do school, work on the individual skills I'll need to be ready for basketball in the fall and get a job on weekends," said Hedrington, whose scholarship doesn't cover summer tuition. "I'm very motivated. I plan to graduate (with a bachelor's degree) in 2015 so I can start the master's program early."
She plans to pursue a combined double major in psychology and kinesiology.
"I'll be the first in my family to receive a college degree," Hedrington said. "I've told myself all the time, I'll get a PhD and help my mother. I won't be one of those people who struggled like my mother.
"I'll make something of myself and be there to help my family."
'It's still tough'
Rhonda Overcast has remained upbeat, telling her daughter, "have faith and be patient."
While Hedrington never expected overnight changes, she didn't anticipate that the transition would last nearly half a decade.
"I'd feel like it only happened to me and my mom," Hedrington said. "It seemed like when it would start to get better, it would get worse two times fold.
"We've been waiting for so long. We have our own apartment now and I'm going off to college. We're able to manage, but it's still tough.
"Me and my mom, when we're together, we're happy. I try to make the best of things and not let things get to me."
The upheaval and past uncertainties have taken a toll, in one aspect.
Asked to describe herself, Hedrington said simply, "emotionless."
Footprint of success
Thanks to a strong support group, which includes teachers and school administrators such as Franklin principal Angela Smith, Franklin psychologist Myra Gillespie, Centennial teacher Tina Kunes and retired Central teacher Susan Weber, things are looking up. That person who let her grades slip as an eighth-grader is now an Honor Roll student with a 3.2 grade-point (on a 4.0 scale). She is a Big 12 Conference Scholar Athlete and a Senior Scholar Athlete at Central.
"I had to stop thinking about myself," Hedrington said. "If I didn't go to school, I wouldn't be the person I am today."
Starkweather, in particular, never gave up on Hedrington.
"She would text me every day, ask how am I doing and check on me," Hedrington said.
Without the genuine concern of all the others, Hedrington said, "I would have cared less about school, cared less about a lot of things," she said. "Now, I'm pushing to be the best I can. I want to provide for me and my mother when I'm older."
Starkweather's desire was to make sure Hedrington knew she wasn't just concerned about her as a basketball player.
"You hope you can make a difference," Starkweather said. "Kids have so many things they can choose from. I wanted to encourage her."
Franklin principal Smith said what impresses her is how Hedrington sincerely cares, shows compassion for others and strives to be a role model.
"She has emerged as a leader and she gives back," Smith said. "She gives trophies to other students who may come through some of the same struggles she has. She has said she will give something back every year to make sure she inspires someone else.
"When you see that, you know you have a gem. The focus is not just on her, but on the future and the footprints she leaves in the sand."
Supporting the cause
Hedrington also developed a strong passion beyond the sport that will take her to college. Last year, she joined the Disability Awareness Club (DAC) at Central. On the bracelet she wears is one word: "acceptance."
One of the organization's goals, Hedrington said, is "to ban the 'R' word that is used in society."
With a 17-year-old niece who is disabled, it's a cause that hits close to home.
"That has changed me as a person," Hedrington said. "I want to help others. Accept everyone, no matter if they have a disability."
While she takes delight in her development as a basketball player, she takes greater satisfaction in comments from adults who used to watch her antics as a middle-school student.
"A lot of people remember when I walked around with that attitude and say that I've matured so much from what I was," Hedrington said. "I take a lot of pride in that.
"I've made my family and friends proud, from where I came from, to what I became and will be in the future. I'll be one to make something of myself."
Fred Kroner is The News-Gazette Prep Sports Coordinator. He writes a weekly high school-related column throughout the school year. He can be reached by phone at 217-351-5232, by fax at 217-373-7401 or by email at fkroner at news-gazette.com. Follow him on twitter @fredkroner.