It is the Marvin Lewis Golf Classic and that means it's the annual shake-your-head weekend.
Just how does Lewis find five kids like this every year without going on the Lifetime Channel or watching Oprah? They always seem to defy more and more odds each year. Lewis says the same thing every May. He looks at the applications on his desk that have been approved for the five $20,000 scholarships ($5,000 each year), shakes his head and says, "I only wish I could give it to all of them."
Over here you have Colton Sayers, who became a man at the age of seven when his 32-year-old father of three was diagnosed with ALS and the little boy exercised his dad's legs and suctioned his mouth. His father died the summer his son began working so he could put money into the jar he marked "LaSalle fund" for the high school where he wanted to continue his love of swimming. When he scraped together more than $600 for the down payment, his mother made sure she got the rest through loans and scholarships and now he graduates with a 3.7 after four seasons swimming for the Lancers varsity and is headed to the University of Findlay.
Over there is Ripley High School's Eliese Kendrick, the Ripley High School valedictorian who has been accepted into Ohio State's elite Mount Leadership Society Scholars program that takes 100 of 6,000 applicants with a résumé that looks like that of a 50-year-old. But it has been a struggle since 2004, when her father was in a head-on collision with a truck and has been disabled since.
She is working as many jobs as sports she played (three), yet she has found time to volunteer for nearly 30 community service projects, from Sunday school teacher to Ronald McDonald House volunteer in downtown Cincinnati, at least an hour drive from Brown County.
Try Seton High School's Mollie Williams, headed to the University of Cincinnati to play soccer, but first she had to wind her way through Route 50. That's where her father, a chemical engineer, was driving home from work and was hit by a car that crossed the line during her freshman year.
While he was in and out of the hospital for two years undergoing 15 surgeries, Williams continued to play soccer while also working as a nanny and a youth soccer ref while finishing with a 3.8 GPA and a No. 10 ranking in the class. Although she's getting some financial help from UC, she's not getting money to play soccer. But Lewis' scholarship is going to give her a better shot at being able to play while pursuing what has turned out to be a challenging program.
"My dad suffered multiple fractures all over his body and we had a lot of people come over to the house to help him come back from all the surgeries," she says. "It really inspired me to be a nurse practitioner. It's been hard. A lot of things haven't been covered and I've been worried for a long time because I have to pay for college on my own. This (scholarship) helps me out so much because it means that's another loan I don't have to get."
Or try Jackie Raabe out of Oak Hills High School, winner of the Sharon Thomas Scholarship, named after the executive director of Lewis' foundation who died of breast cancer.
It's as if Thomas sent her.
Raabe's mother is a 10-year breast cancer survivor of 13 surgeries. Her father suffered pancreatitis, slipped into a coma for two months, but ended up going to her softball games in a wheelchair. She'll tell you that moments like her dad being able to say "I love you" again and her mother's hair growing back after the final chemotherapy treatment inspired her to keep excelling.
So while she finished in the top 10 percent of her class along with receiving "Highest Honors" and enrolling at Thomas More College, she also raised more than $20,000 for the American Cancer Society and Susan G. Komen Foundation through such events as the Relay for Life and Pink Ribbon Girls. The goal is now to be a nurse practitioner for cancer foundations.
"It seems like I grew up in hospitals and that inspired me to go into nursing," she says. "I'm the middle child, so I really had to mature quickly. This means a lot. My parents have enough to worry about and this is going to allow me to start out without as much debt."
Somehow these kids end up on Lewis' desk every spring, their improbable stories and impossible dreams bubbling beyond the boxes and lines of an application. You can see why the interviews are one of the highlights of his year.
It's because he gets to meet guys like Bakari Jones.
Of course, how Jones fit Lewis into his schedule is a mystery. He got in there somewhere between Spanish Club and Picasso.
"I like doing new things," Jones says. "I try everything."
Jones comes from a single-parent home where his mother, the most important person in his life, he says, has become blinded by a tumor in her eye. She has been out of work for a year, a year in which her son has continued to volunteer in soup kitchens, tutor at the Nativity Grade School, and does community service work for the Alpha Esquires, a group that provides mentors for young people.
Not only that he ran track and wrestled, and this past season played tight end and linebacker for Purcell Marian High School until he fractured his spine. But he's literally still dancing. Jones, who took ballet when he was younger, says he's step dancing and ballroom dancing.
But art is his passion. He picked it up in seventh grade and taught himself to draw and paint through reading on his own. He has become more and more involved of late with the help of Cedric Cox, a Cincinnati professional artist. Jones met Cox when he went to his studio this past year looking to do a report on him and ended up enrolling in Cox's Teen Arts class at the Kennedy Heights Art Center.
"I just started painting this year and I really enjoyed it," Jones said. "I was inspired by Picasso and Cedric has really helped me."
Jones is getting confident enough in his skills that he's starting to help younger artists and Cox sees a bright future. It starts this fall at Northern Kentucky University with a major in business entrepreneurial studies and a minor in art with the goal of owning his own art and graphic design business.
"He does a lot of interesting things," Cox says. "He's got more of an illustration background. He draws what he sees in pop culture, but I think he's moving more to fine arts. He's got a willingness to try different things. I brought in some books on different painters so he could see the influences. He did pretty well for just starting out with that."
A solid B student, Jones had been able to secure much of the money he needs to attend NKU. But Lewis' scholarship not only puts him over the top, it's going to allow him to study abroad his sophomore year.
"He'll be busy with school," Cox says, "But he's a guy I hope to keep in touch with and be able to help."
This is why Lewis keeps doing it. The stack of applications stapled with dreamy essays, hardscrabble family financial information, and cold college aid forms suddenly bustling to life.
Sunday marks his eighth annual golf tournament, the centerpiece of the Marvin Lewis Community Fund, one of the region's most successful charitable ventures that has impacted nearly half a million people down through the years. They play Sunday at Shaker Run in Lebanon after Saturday night's V.I.P. party at Cadillac Ranch in downtown Cincinnati.
As always, there is an all-star roster of former Bengals and NFL figures expected, such as Bengals radio analyst Dave Lapham, former quarterback Ken Anderson, former wide receiver Isaac Curtis, Chargers Hall of Famer Kellen Winslow, and Tampa Bay head coach Rahim Morris.
The NFL lockout has cut down on the number of autographed memorabilia items that have fueled the auctions since players haven't been at their facilities and there won't be as many Bengals players at this year's event because they aren't in town for OTAs. Under lockout rules, coaches and other NFL team employees can't have anything beyond social contact with players. Lewis has received permission from the NFL to invite players to charity events, but they still can't talk football together.
Still, a lockout doesn't seem to be much of an obstacle when looking at the applications that just came across the big man's desk.
"All of my experiences have taught me that challenges are not to be feared, but faced," Jones wrote in his essay. "I am determined to be successful and if I am awarded a scholarship, I promise to make you proud."
That just may be the closest thing to a lock that Lewis has had in this springtime of doubt.