October 12, 2010 in City

Running back for EWU defies foster care’s higher ed record

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Dan Pelle photo

Eastern Washington University football player Darriell Beaumonte is thankful for the help and support provided over the years by his foster mother, “Big Mama” Zena Sturgis. Beaumonte’s Facebook profile includes a picture of himself with Sturgis, right, and Star Sturgis.
(Full-size photo)

The letters arrive on a semiregular basis, sometimes as often as twice a month. Scrawled on each are the words, “I love you.” Occasionally, there’s a reminder to “brush your teeth.”

They come addressed to Darriell Beaumonte, a junior running back on Eastern Washington University’s football team, sent by his mother, Nadine, a diagnosed schizophrenic who was forced because of her disability to give away her youngest son and his two brothers more than 20 years ago.

“She’s been writing me letters since I can remember,” said the 21-year-old Beaumonte, who was 10 months old when he and his brothers were taken from their mother’s Seattle-area home and sent to live with their grandparents. “And she always puts three $1 bills in the envelope when she sends them.

“I usually save up the money and buy gas when I need it.”

The letters are a part of Nadine Beaumonte’s struggle to stay involved, in any way possible, in the life of her son, a product of the state of Washington’s foster-care system who has beaten some incredibly long odds in becoming a model student-athlete and a key member of a nationally ranked Eastern team that is hoping to make the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs for the fifth time in seven years.

According to a recent study, only 43 percent of Northwest foster care alumni who were interviewed received any type of education beyond high school. And only 1.8 percent went on to earn a bachelor’s degree.

Beaumonte was a three-sport standout at Tacoma’s Clover Park High School, where he also performed with the elite choir and step team, served on the school’s leadership council and was elected homecoming king. Now he’s on track to graduate from EWU in spring 2012 with a degree in interdisciplinary studies.

“He’s been a remarkable success story,” Eagles head coach Beau Baldwin said of the 5-foot-11, 205-pound junior who has rushed for 198 yards and two touchdowns this fall as a backup to all-Big Sky Conference running back Taiwan Jones.

No chance to say goodbye

Aside from dealing with the death of his grandfather as a 6-year-old, Darriell Beaumonte never considered his life to be anything out of the ordinary while growing up. He admits to taking his fair share of sibling abuse in a crowded Seattle household that included not only his two older brothers, but an uncle, a cousin and a couple of other foster children.

“There were like six or seven of us living there, and I was the youngest,” Beaumonte recalled. “I got beat up, picked on, taught how to fight … and I got all the hand-me-down clothes.

“But it was nice just being part of a family.”

According to Beaumonte, his grandparents moved their extended family from Seattle to Portland when he was about 4. Nine years later, when Beaumonte was in seventh grade, his comfortable family existence was rocked by an early morning phone call from a social service worker.

“I still don’t know all the details,” he said, “but it had something to do with us still being wards of the state of Washington and we needed to return immediately.

“It was like we woke up one morning and grandma was crying and stuff. She told us to pack our bags because she had to take us back to Seattle. She wanted to keep us, but she was on Social Security and couldn’t afford to move, so we left that same morning.

“I never even got a chance to say goodbye to any of my friends – no handshakes, no hugs, nothing. I just didn’t show up for class after that. They probably think I died or something.”

After returning to the Seattle area, Beaumonte and his brothers, Dominique and Demetrius, were shuffled from one foster home to another. It was a difficult time – especially for the youngest.

“Once you’re in a stable environment for a long time, a place you call home, and then you move into a foster home, it feels like a job or something,” Beaumonte said. “When I was living with my grandma, she’d introduce me and say, ‘This is my grandson; he’s part of our family.’

“But when I moved back to Washington and started bouncing around, it was, like, ‘Hey, these are my kids. Oh yeah, and this is my foster kid, Darriell.’ ”

Finding a home – again

Just prior to starting high school, Beaumonte was assigned to a foster home in Tacoma run by Zena Sturgis. It was a move that returned him to his comfort zone.

“Along with her great cooking, she was this elderly black woman, and that’s what I was accustomed to, having lived with my grandma my whole life,” Beaumonte said. “I was just comfortable with her. She was real welcoming, and I didn’t feel like living with her was a job. She made me feel like family.”

Beaumonte ended up staying with Sturgis throughout high school – a rarity, he claims, in the foster care system.

“There were a lot of other foster kids who came and went while I was there, but I was lucky,” he said. “I got to stay.”

It was Sturgis, Beaumonte said, who first made him realize there might be something for him beyond high school – a concept he hadn’t seriously considered.

“She basically told me I was going to college, no matter what,” Beaumonte said. “Not to sound racist or nothing, but back then I thought only white kids went to college.”

Sturgis was not about to let him rule out higher education.

“When he was in his last year of high school, I asked what his plan was,” she recalled. “He said he didn’t have one, so I told him, ‘You want to know what your plan is? You’re going to college; you have no choice.’

“He did, and I’m really proud of him. It’s satisfying for me that he turned out to be the young man he is.”

A walk-on at EWU

Beaumonte’s college plan did not fall into place as smoothly as he had hoped.

He figured he was capable of playing college football at the highest level. After all, he was an all-Seamount League running back and third-place finisher in the 400 meters at the state 3A track and field championships during his senior year at Clover Park.

“But obviously they didn’t feel that way,” he said.

Not one college or university, at any level, asked Beaumonte on a recruiting visit. So at the insistence of several of his high school coaches and counselors, he decided to enroll at Eastern and give football a try as an invited walk-on.

But Beaumonte struggled with his college entrance exams and at first was denied admission to Eastern.

That was when Tasha Landram, a counselor at Clover Park at the time, began helping Beaumonte with the detailed paperwork involved in the complicated appeals process.

“We appealed for what seemed like forever,” she said. “And then one day, we found out he had been accepted on probationary terms. That was one of my highlights as a high school counselor, telling Beau he had made it.

“I’m just so proud of him. He’s such a personable kid. People are drawn to him because of his personality, and it’s great to see him be as resilient as he’s been. He’s had to navigate through a lot of stuff to get to where he is today.”

Dramatic improvement on field

Even the football part of Beaumonte’s college plan has gone through its share of revisions.

After redshirting in fall 2007, Beaumont – according to his position coach, Chris Hansen – was “pretty much headed out the door” when Beau Baldwin hired on as the Eagles head coach that winter.

“He was really, really stiff as a runner, and we didn’t have much trust in him back then,” explained Hansen, adding that Beaumonte’s hands were also “awful – he couldn’t catch a thing.

“That’s when Coach Baldwin met with him one on one and told him he needed to get better, loosen those hips up and be able to stick a foot in the ground and go. And the kid left that meeting and went straight to the weight room and started lifting and stretching.”

To help soften Beaumonte’s hands of stone, Hansen assigned him a football that he was to flip around while watching television or listening to music during his spare time. That extra effort in the weight room, and Beaumonte’s relationship with his football, paid dividends.

“Last year, he looked like a real running back for the first time,” Hansen said. “He’s just made incredible strides as a football player.”

Beaumonte, after lettering as a sophomore last fall, had a breakout game two weekends back when he started in place of the injured Taiwan Jones and rushed for 78 yards and a touchdown on 26 carries and also caught two passes – including a 16-yard scoring toss – in the Eagles’ 35-24 road win over Weber State.

“He did a great job,” Hansen said. “I’ve always felt like if we give him the ball 30 times he’ll get us 150 yards, so I was happy to see him have it in his hands as much as he did.”

‘You think you’re the man, right?’

Beaumonte remembers having questions, as a toddler, about why he was not permitted to live with his mother, whom he still visits when he returns to the West Side.

“At the same time, I learned and understood at an early age that my real mom wasn’t physically capable of taking care of us,” Beaumonte said. “But she was there for us as much as possible, and we know she loves us all.”

Still, it is Zena Sturgis’ foster home that Beaumonte considers his home. And that’s where he bunks whenever he returns to Tacoma.

“Once he came into my home, he didn’t want to go anywhere else,” Sturgis said. “He fit in perfectly and really got along with all my grandkids. He still loves them to death and calls them his cousins.”

Sturgis recalls a conversation she had with Beaumonte shortly before he headed off to college.

“I told him, ‘Now you think you’re grown; now you think you’re the man, right?’ ” she said. “ ‘Well, I’ll tell you right now that you’re not the man – and you won’t be the man – until you start paying your own bills.’ It made him laugh.”

Then, last Mother’s Day, Sturgis received a card and some flowers from Beaumonte, who had turned 21 several months earlier.

Inside the card was written: “Big Mama, I love you. Thanks for everything you’ve done for me. And, now, I AM the man.”

“I still have that card,” Sturgis said. “I get it out and read it every now and then. It makes me laugh, because now he really is the man.”

Even if he still gets a little help, now and then, paying for gas.

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