6-27-02, 2:45 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
This is a story about stories.
JoJuan Armour's stories. With a little help from his friends.
Street stories. Oxford stories. Lower class stories and middle class stories and stories about dirty drugs that kill and sweet adrenaline that liberates. Stories about overdosing in the gutter and overreaching on the field.
"I want everybody to be touched by somebody," says Armour of his first annual Camp of Champions for children ages 6-14. "I want the kids to see that it doesn't matter where you come from. Show them guys who have made something of themselves no matter what."
The camp is this Saturday, June 29, quite fittingly in a gritty nook of Toledo's north end at Central Catholic High School. That's where Armour, the Bengals incumbent strong safety who turns 26 next month, played four years as a running back and defensive back before heading to Miami of Ohio and becoming the Mid American Conference two-time Defensive Player of the Year as a search-and-destroy linebacker.
Before lunch is all defense. The camp starts at 9 a.m.
After lunch is all offense. The camp ends at 4 p.m.
But there will be stories all day long. Probably some during the lunch provided by Subway. Maybe some during the awards, where the other sponsors, EA Sports and Reebok, figure to contribute.
Quite definitely, former Miami safety Paris Johnson will tell one of the stories. Johnson, trying to hang in with the Cowboys after some unsuccessful stints in the NFL, takes the term "street free agent," to another level.
"He's from the gutter," Armour says. "He grew up raising himself. He's so thankful for what he has now. I remember him telling me how he shot drugs into his uncle's neck. He'll tell that
story. I admire guys who can talk about their lives like that.'
Armour can tell some stories, too, even though he grew up closer to the middle class than a lot of guys. He lived in a two-parent home where both worked while raising him and a younger brother. His father worked construction and is vice president of a union, assigning the jobs now instead of working them. His mother, who used to work for a bank, is now working for social services in the federal building.
But one relative died of an overdose. Another sold drugs. That was before Armour remembers dragging the relative's suddenly sweating, heaving body from in front of the TV into the car for a mad dash to the hospital, where he died of a heart attack. Armour doesn't blame his family members. He empathizes because there just wasn't a lot of other fields to run on.
Some of the guys he knew didn't die so naturally. During one summer, he thinks it was between his freshman and sophomore years in high school, three got shot to death. That was about the time he started to get seduced by the girls caked in MTV makeup, the big, smooth cars, the icy jewelry, and all the other things selling drugs seemed to supply with numbing ease. The temptation crawled on him.
"Then those guys I knew died," Armour says. "They weren't in my inner circle, but I knew them. One day, you look across the street and see them and say, 'Wow, what a big car.' And then two days later you're reading about them.
"I learned at an early age that stuff just leads to two places," Armour says. "Death or prison. There aren't many ways out. There aren't many things to do in the inner city. But death or jail can't be an answer."
Except for a bad night in a bar during college (which seems to cover rich, poor, and everyone else in between), Armour hasn't been to jail. He thinks there was just enough love at home and at the YMCA and the Boys Club to make a difference.
"I would go to those places all day on Saturday and Sunday," Armour says. "After school, I was always doing something with sports. Yeah, I had talent. But there were a lot of guys who had more talent than I did and they just went a different way. I had cousins like that. They never made it. They made a choice."
Armour is one of three guys having a graduation party the night they got diplomas from Central Catholic. They end up in a parking lot because they're too young to go into the clubs.
Armour has words with a visitor with whom he has had a disagreement. He turns and leaves the argument and the next thing he knows he hears the unmistakable pops of gun shots. He dives and runs one way. The other kid dives and runs the other. Except, the other kid ends up dead and there is Armour shaking his head because he didn't know those were going to be the last words he ever spoke to the guy.
"There was no reason for it," Armour says. "This guy just drove into a parking lot with all these people and started shooting anywhere. They caught the kid. He was 14."
There will be 14-year-old kids listening Saturday. They will be listening to Armour, Johnson and another Miami pro in Redskins offensive lineman Alex Sulfsted. Sulfsted, from the Cincinnati suburbs, comes from a family who has been in ownerships of the finest restaurants in the area, such as The Maisonette. But Armour knows Sulfsted will touch someone in Toledo's north end with his story of a guy who has been released twice but is getting a new life with Steve Spurrier in Washington as a possible starter.
"The message I want to get out there to them is that there's a better way out," Armour says. "And I'm going to tell them the people who come to my camp are already choosing a better way. They're already finding something better to do with their time."
End of story.
**(Tuition to the first annual Camp of Champions is $25 per camper, plus one canned good that can be given to charity. For more information, call Greg Dempsey at Central Catholic High School at 419-255-2280, ext. 115. The address is 2550 Cherry St., Toledo, Ohio, 43608. Checks are payable to JoJuan Armour Camp of Champions.
Among NFL players expected are Bengals teammates Cory Hall, Canute Curtis, Curtis Keaton, Adrian Ross, Chris Edmonds, and Robert Bean. Former college teammates Trevor Gaylor of the Chargers, Travis Prentice of the Texans, Paris Johnson of the Cowboys, Alex Sulfsted of the Redskins, and Eric Beverly of the Lions are also expected.) **