To date, this is one of the most remarkable stories I’ve had the privilege to write about. A teenager survives 14 gunshots. 14. That’s nearly one bullet for every year he’s been alive.
What makes this story even greater is that this teen could have give up on himself. But he wouldn’t, and neither would his mentor TJ Jackson, founder of Prep & Sports in Delray Beach. It’s a remarkable story of overcoming adversity, promoting education, and the depth of influence NFL athletes (like Anquan Boldin and Brandon Flowers) can have on our youths.
The story originally appeared in the January 2013 issue of Boca Life Magazine. Here’s the story in full:
Prepped Beyond Sports
Through sports and education, former NFL star Tavarius “TJ” Jackson has changed the lives of thousands of Palm Beach County youths.
A few minutes after school lets out on a sunny day in the middle of November 2007, Kevin Lubin walks into his mentor’s West Boca High School classroom. He asks his mentor, Tavarius “TJ” Jackson, the former Dallas Cowboys safety, a question no high school senior should ever have to ask: If you were held at gunpoint, would you run or would you stay?
Lubin is one of the lucky ones who got out of Delray Beach’s roughest part of town. Not just got out, but got out alive. Born in New York and relocating to a rough part of Delray Beach when he was 7, Lubin saw his fair share of drugs pass through his neighborhood and was in more than a few fistfights as kids were bullying the newbie with the New York accent. At 13 years old, Lubin was sent to juvenile detention for 30 days for what he sums up as “being at the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Lubin doesn’t want to be that kid. He doesn’t to want be like his older brother, who never graduated high school and was incarcerated for selling drugs, two things the young Lubin saw tear at his mother, who worked tirelessly as a nurse to care for her sons by herself. To get out of the fray, Lubin turns to sports.
As an 18-year-old, Lubin has the beginning traits of a classic football player: a 5-foot-11-inch, 260-pound hoss-like lineman who could bench 375 pounds and squat 460. He is one of Jackson’s prized pupils, working with Jackson through his non-profit program, Prep & Sports. Jackson’s goal was not to only improve Lubin’s football skills, but also his academic grades. What was a dismal 0.3 GPA student became a 2.0 one, then a 2.9 student, to eventually a 3.3 GPA student.
With any luck, Lubin might get out of this rough Delray Beach neighborhood soon enough. As a senior in high school, Lubin dreams of playing for the University of Miami and is entertaining interests from Albany State and Auburn University.
That afternoon in his classroom, after Lubin asks Jackson the fight or flight ultimatum, Jackson takes a moment to think. Jackson finally says, I would stay. He figures the chances of talking the gunman out of shooting would be better than running and avoiding inevitable gunfire.
I’d run, Lubin answers back. I could avoid getting hit, he thinks.
Days later, at 10:20 p.m. on the chilly Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2007, the day before Thanksgiving, Lubin meets his friends Dante and Jermaine outside Lubin’s house just blocks north of Atlantic Avenue, just east of I-95. After crossing the street, the trio chat.
At the corner of his eyes Lubin sees a pair of headlights in the far distance, piercing through the dark night. He thinks, “Man, those headlights are coming right at us.”
Someone out of the three suggests they get into Lubin’s car to get out of the cold air and avoid any trouble. Robbers come prowling this troubled neighborhood all the time, and this oncoming car might be carting some would-be robbers. As the trio moved toward Lubin’s car, he hears the screeching tires of the ominous car. A back window rolls down, and Lubin finds himself staring at the barrel of an AK-47 held by a masked man.
Before he has time to react, the gun goes off. Boom.
“I knew I was shot,” Lubin says.
Like he told Jackson he would, Lubin runs. So do his two friends. They run as fast as they can. The trouble is Lubin has been hit. The normally 4.68-second 40-yard runner Lubin only moves about 5 yards before there is another boom, then another boom, boom, boom, boom.
This time he falls down. Everything becomes tingly and numb. As Lubin looks up from the ground, he sees the brisk night air filling with light gray gun smoke. Oh, God, I’m going to die, he thinks.
The shooter’s not done yet. As he stands over the limp Lubin, the gun goes off again and again. When it’s all over, Lubin’s eyes begin to shut, and the vision of the black Air Force One sneakers and Nike socks worn by the gunman slowly disappear out of sight.
Fourteen. That’s the number of bullets Lubin’s body took. He doesn’t know it yet, but two bullets only centimeters from his heart will be inside him forever.
As he comes to, Lubin hears a paramedic gasp. “Man, look at his leg,” he says. Lubin’s left leg is absolutely mangled. Muscle and ligaments are ripped apart, as if a wild animal took exception to Lubin’s knee cap, which in retrospect isn’t far from the truth. The paramedic is literally holding together Lubin’s lower leg, making sure it doesn’t sever from the rest of his body. And that’s when Lubin knew that if he was lucky enough to make it out alive, he’ll never be able to play football ever again.
As Lubin is rushed to Delray Medical Center, TJ Jackson receives a phone call. He’s on his way with his family out of town for Thanksgiving vacation. He hears the news. TJ, Kevin’s in trouble. He might die. Immediately, Jackson takes a U-turn back to Delray Beach.
Tavarius Jackson was born and raised in the Carver Estate projects of Delray Beach. After moving away and playing collegiate football at Virginia Tech and then professionally in Dallas, he came back home with one mission: to give at-risk youths – youths like Kevin Lubin – a way out. Jackson was a lucky one who got out, and he figured he could help do the same for hundreds, heck, thousands of kids that society has already dismissed.
On paper, Jackson was just another at-risk black kid. The projects provided prime seats to drug usage, criminal behavior and plenty of roughhousing. But Jackson wasn’t the average at-risk kid. And he didn’t have the average set of parents from his neighborhood. Raised by a mother and father who championed education for him, his three sisters and half-brother, it was always school first for the Jackson family.
Aside from academics, Jackson excelled at basketball, football and baseball (he even played with a semi-pro baseball team, the Delray Braves, as a middle schooler). But school always comes before sports, his parents would tell him. Once, after struggling with algebra in the eighth grade, Jackson came home with a D on a mid-term report. His punishment? No more baseball until your grades are up, they said.
Averaging a 3.6 GPA at Olympic Heights Community High School, Jackson received a football scholarship offer to play for his school of choice, Coach Steve Spurrier’s Florida Gators. All he had to do was reach a minimum score on either the SAT or ACT exams, and the scholarship was his. As luck would have it, school prepared Jackson for everything except these standardized tests. He didn’t get the score he needed, and the scholarship to play at his dream school elapsed just as quickly as it was offered.
Jackson went on to play for Virginia Tech, where he earned a scholarship. While in Blacksburg, Va., thousands of miles away from home, he began to mentor two Delray Beach teenagers. He became a confidante to them, supporting them when they called, seeing that they put academics before anything else. They saw him as the great TJ Jackson, the kid who was raised in public housing, was an incredible athlete, got his grades in order, and yes, someone who got out.
When he came back home after finishing his playing career, Jackson saw much of his hometown was still the same as when he left it – youths surrounded by the bad influence of crime, drugs and more. A soft-spoken man with loud determination, he couldn’t sit around without doing anything about it. In 2005, he created Prep & Sports, a non-profit program for local at-risk middle school and high school students that emphasizes academic performance as much as the athletic ones. Learning essential sport skills from a former NFL athlete and his colleagues would be the draw, but the side effect would be getting life-altering education. The idea was to get kids not just to graduate high school with honors, but also complete four years of university education.
Jackson programmed it so that a typical Prep & Sports week is filled with after-school academic courses taught by certified Palm Beach County teachers, as well as challenging mini-sport camps based on the season’s current sport. During the academic sessions, Jackson brings in financial advisers, doctors and sport psychologists to educate the kids on life away from the field. At the end of the day, Jackson wants these kids to know that “playing professional sports doesn’t last forever, but being educated does.” One of the first kids to walk into the Prep & Sports doors was 16-year-old Kevin Lubin.
Jackson saw in Lubin a kid who possessed all the physical and mental abilities to be better than a 0.3 GPA student who people already had written off for being in juvie.
“We became like brothers,” Lubin says. “I always wanted to be around TJ.”
Jackson worked on Lubin’s football disciplines, sometimes taking him and other players out to the field from noon to 9:30 p.m. on a Saturday. Just as hard, Jackson pushed Lubin to excel in his schoolwork.
As his protégé entered his final year of high school, Jackson couldn’t have been happier at the more than 3-point GPA increase. Just as well, Lubin might even have a chance to be a scholarship athlete.
And then the night of Nov. 21, 2007 changed everything.
Today, kevin Lubin is a 23-year-old man who can’t stay still. He fidgets a lot and seems a restless soul. Maybe he’s just excited that he’s still alive, having tasted death in a cruel way. As expected, his football career has long been over, disappearing at about 10:45 p.m. on that fateful Wednesday more than five years ago. As he puts it, “It took 18 years to make everything happen, and it took 30 seconds to take it away.”
But Lubin is doing what his mentor Jackson told him from the beginning: furthering his education. He just graduated from EMT training at Barry University at – guess what – the top of his class. On the horizon is enrolling in fire academy where he hopes to be a paramedic and “make a big difference in someone else’s life.”
His long road of recovery and rehabilitation is mostly behind him, thanks in part to a dedicated surgical team at Delray Medical Center that spent nearly 23 hours searching for each of the bullets that pierced Lubin’s 18-year-old body, but also to his tireless determination to rehab and walk again. The battle wounds are still there: a long, jarring scar from his chest to his pelvis, vertically bisecting his midsection; a deep wound in his right hip; his mangled left knee warped and seemingly hollow; a dark two-inch-wide gash on the bottom of his right forearm.
The nightmares stopped about a year ago. He no longer wakes up in a pool of sweat, to the imaginary sounds of “boom, boom, boom.”
Despite all he’s been through, Lubin holds no ill will toward his shooter, who police found a year later. Lubin found out he was the random victim of a brutal gang initiation: You kill someone, and you’re in the gang. Wrong place at the wrong time is a common theme to Lubin’s life story. His two friends made it out just fine, despite both being hit with one bullet each.
“I wouldn’t change anything,” Lubin says today. “Everything that happened to me made me who I am today.”
He no longer lives in that same neighborhood, opting to move out with his mother to a safer part of Delray Beach. Despite being out of school for four months during his senior year, Lubin managed to graduate along with his fellow classmates, passing a grueling end-of-the-year American government exam.
At graduation, Lubin miraculously limped unaided across the stage to accept his high school diploma.
Lubin has been thankful for the support of his close friends and family, and especially TJ Jackson. Jackson sat outside Lubin’s surgery door for the entire 23-hour operation, pushed him during his painful, sometimes wretched rehab sessions, and even raised funds through his NFL connections to pay for all of Lubin’s medical bills. Throughout it all, Jackson kept driving home the importance of keeping up Lubin’s studies.
“TJ was one man who changed hundreds of [people’s lives], mine included,” Lubin says. “He did it.
“I’m still here. I never gave up, and I definitely worked hard to get where I am now. I put education in my mind, thanks to Prep & Sports.”
As for Prep & Sports, it too has grown. Today it has seen nearly 600 students go through its program. Last year out of the 18 seniors who matriculated out of the program, all 18 received collegiate scholarships.
One of Jackson’s former mentees, Brandon Flowers, has become a partner with him in the program. Flowers, a standout corner for the Kansas City Chiefs and graduate of Atlantic High School, hosts the annual Brandon Flowers Charity Weekend throughout various venues in Palm Beach County, raising thousands of dollars through social events and a 7-on-7 flag football tournament.
“I feel like with the kids in the community, if they see us [NFL players] mentoring, then that might change their path,” the 25-year-old Flowers says. “For me, to change a kid’s life is a feeling that’s indescribable. You can’t change everyone’s life, but man, when you change one, it’s incredible.”
To gain more visibility, Prep & Sports strategically partners with other like-minded organizations to combine overall efforts. Specifically, this past summer Prep & Sports partnered with The T.E.A.M. Elam, Kansas City Chiefs safety and Riviera Beach native Abe Elam’s charity, and Q81, Baltimore Ravens receiver and Pahokee native Anquan Boldin’s foundation, for a football skill training camp for elementary-age students in West Palm Beach.
For the three current NFL athletes and TJ Jackson, they each want to serve as role models for the thousands of Palm Beach County kids who may have been born on the wrong side of the tracks and are looking for a way to get out.
“Twenty years from now,” Boldin says, “I don’t want to be remembered for just being on the football field. I want to make a difference in my community.”
As Jackson, 32, looks out the window of his Northwest Fifth Avenue office in Delray Beach, just three blocks from where his former pupil, now friend, was shot 14 times, he admits he didn’t know what to expect when he started Prep & Sports nearly eight years ago.
“I wanted to make a difference, and I wasn’t going to stop until I did that,” Jackson says.
His 13-year-old daughter, Tabriana, wants her father to become a coach. Jackson’s not sure that’s in his cards. He wants to continue growing the Prep & Sports program and continue to show kids that yes, you can get out.