Erwin McEwen took the death of Ashton Wise almost as if it was his own son. And in some ways, the bond shared between coach and player truly seemed that genuine.
He spent his weekends tutoring young boys in baseball and mentoring them in the ways of life not far from the Cabrini Green Housing project where he grew up and the University of Chicago campus where he earned all his advanced degrees.
Right away, he took to young Ashton, a gregarious, but well-mannered and respectful 11-year-old sixth grader who stood out among his peers as a “gentle giant.”
“Ashton was an energetic little boy who was a good athlete, playing both baseball and football,” he said. “Ashton was smart and we called him Coach Ashton because he liked to share with teammates what he knew about playing and was always butting in on coach’s strategy huddles. Every trip to the plate was a swing for the fence… he had a great relationship with his dad, who was always by his side.”
All that promise, not to mention that inspiring bond, came to a sudden and tragic halt on the night of December 11, 2009. The young boy was sitting alongside his father in their parked vehicle, when a masked, shotgun wielding gunmen crept close enough to cowardly open fire.
A totally innocent and unsuspecting Ashton was hit once in the head and died instantly. His father suffered multiple-wounds that relegated him to weeks and weeks of bedridden recuperation.
Even with that, Kenneth Wise would never be the same. Those who knew him and Ashton best insist they were as close and inseparable as any two humans could ever be.
“I was teaching my son to be a man, but at the same time I wanted him to have a childhood,” said Kenneth. “Ashton was my man, and I still can’t accept how he was stolen from me. I stay in prayer…begging, pleading that God will strengthen me to do the right thing and not change my heart.”
So heart-wrenching were the circumstances of Ashton’s death, McEwen soon vacated his director’s post with the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services to dedicate more time and research to some of his new-age violence prevention theories.
“Right now, we’re dealing with all youth violence from either the first or second level,” he said. “That means all our programs are either geared toward interrupting violence or occupying the time of young people to keep them otherwise engaged.
“Neither solve the problem and only speak to the symptoms,” he continued. “Until we start to deal with all the toxic stress, the psychological and emotional variables of what makes some of these kids behave as they do, we’re doing a disservice.”
In McEwen’s mind, the difference lies in strengthening the bonds of the family. Not just among parents and their own offspring, but among all the kids and adults that comprise a community.
"Kenneth Wise was not an absentee father," he said. “He was around so much we made him an assistant coach. If a dad that committed can’t keep his kid safe don’t tell me it’s just gang related…it’s community related.”
Thus, McEwen believes it’s almost as important that we, as a community, focus on the troubled kids as much as a parent would their own. “We have to help those parents,” he said. “Until we do, our own kids want be safe either. Parent wisdom in getting over the hump lies within the community and among the parents who are managing.”
Longtime residents in the South Shore neighborhood where Kenneth Wise grew up will tell you he put those very theories to practice in the way he lived his life. Among his son’s teammates, he was looked up to and seen as a father figure. The son of two public school teachers, Wise, an armed security guard by trade, inherited the building purchased by his parents more than 40-years earlier and still serves as the property’s popular and trusted landlord.
But Kenneth Wise will tell you the neighborhood and the city of then and now are vastly different places. “Things have changed so much from my generation,” he said. “We used to be in the park all day playing football and basketball, your block against the next block. Nowadays guys can’t even walk down a different street block, let alone get to know one another at the park. Something’s gotta’ change.”
McEwen insists it revolves around how we view what constitutes community and what truly represents its best interest. “Organizations like DCFS need to make it a policy of targeting more than children thought to be abused or neglected,” he said. “We need programs that extend to parenting and strategies for dealing with traumatized kids.”
McEwen also strongly suggests that the powers-that-be cease with labeling crimes as “gang-related,” stressing all it does is serve to diminish the tragedy and marginalize the victim.
There are no quick fixes he concedes. The only way we’ll ever again reclaim our streets will be through hard work and patient effort. But, no matter how much time lapses, for Kenneth Wise—much like Ashton's mom, Valerie Mayo, and siblings Kentea and Evander Mayo—the pain always seems to linger.
“Taking one breathe at a time and praying for strength,” said Wise, “that’s a part of my every day.”
Glenn Minnis is a sports and culture writer who has contributed to the likes of ESPN, Vibe and the NFL Magazine. He has also been on staff at AOL Sports, the Chicago Tribune and was the founding sports editor for 360HipHop.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @glennnyc.