The first time little De’Niro Laster was hit hard in a football practice, he stayed down on the ground crying.
His father, a former player at Grambling State, had encouraged his middle child to take up football because he thought he was a touch soft.
So that little boy took that first big hit and tears welled up in his brown eyes mostly obscured by his oversized helmet.
“It really, really hurt,” he recalled with a smile years later.
Many times since then, Kentucky’s junior linebacker has had reason to stay on the ground and cry like that little boy in Cleveland Heights, Ohio.
He’s seen his family lose everything in a devastating fire and not have a place to live. As a 13-year-old, he saw his best friend not yet old enough to shave lying in a coffin, taken too soon by cancer. In the last two years alone, Laster has been to seven funerals.
He’s seen his dad go to jail.
But instead of staying down on the ground, Laster gets back up.
He’s not alone.
“You can’t cry about everything because life happens,” said Kentucky teammate Dorian Baker, who played with Laster at Cleveland Heights High School and is like another brother to the linebacker. “Stuff happens. You can’t mope about it.”
No moping allowed, Laster concurred. He has too many people expecting big things from him.
“All my loved ones that passed away, they’d all want me to play football and continue in school,” he said. “This is my outlet. Football is how I get through it all.”
Kentucky’s coaches, who helped bring in the transfer from Minnesota, talk about Laster playing with an edge, with a chip on his shoulder.
That chip is just the half of it. He carries the weight of so much more.
“Where I played football at was a real bad neighborhood,” Laster said of his childhood outside of Cleveland. “I’ve seen shootouts before at practice, all type of stuff. We practiced on concrete and glass.
“Seeing all that so young made me a lot tougher. That might be a reason I play with a physical edge.”
He’s needed every bit of that edge on and off the field.
Staying down on the ground crying isn’t an option.
Dealing with devastation
For most people, the week before Christmas is a fun time, wrapping presents, doing last-minute shopping, seeing friends and family.
But for Laster, the date Dec. 18 can make those tears flow freely again if he lets them. It was the day one of his best friends, Fela Lockhart, was shot and killed in an attempted robbery.
“He wasn’t involved in the streets at all,” Laster said of his friend, who just happened to turn 21 on the day he was murdered.
It also was the day that Laster’s Cleveland Heights home went up in flames.
“I woke up and my whole room around me was on fire,” recalled De’Niro’s dad, Donald.
The space heater near his bed had spilled oil and covered the floor of the bedroom he shared with his wife, Kitt, who was at work at the time. Donald tried to throw water on the fire, but that only made it grow.
“The fire started moving fast and I ran upstairs and got my daughter,” he said. “I couldn’t breathe. There was soot and black stuff everywhere. The house burnt up pretty good.”
That fire would be a devastating link in a long chain of events that would send Donald to prison and necessitate De’Niro’s move from Minnesota to Kentucky.
A few years before the fire, Donald was a home builder and making a good living. Then the recession hit and no one was buying homes. Donald had to refinance his own home to help pay for rising family expenses.
A bill in the mail would later explain that his once manageable $1,200 mortgage was now $1,800. A lawyer told Donald Laster that while they were in the process of suing the bank for predatory lending, he should stop paying on his mortgage, instead placing that money into a separate escrow account until a settlement was reached.
What Laster didn’t know was that by putting the money into that account, he was letting his homeowner’s insurance lapse.
Suddenly, Laster, his wife and their daughter Dazmin were homeless with no money to rebuild. He owned other much smaller properties in poor repair in worse neighborhoods. So after a few days of relying on the help of others, Laster moved his family into a tiny two-bedroom place.
His other son, Donald Jr., along with his wife and their small child all had planned to come home for Christmas that week. De’Niro was going to be there, too, after his first semester at Minnesota.
The proud father tried to talk them out of coming. They came anyway and spent the holiday sleeping on the cold floor.
“I went in the bathroom that day and just cried,” Donald said. “I had to make things better for all of us.”
His attempts to make things better only made things worse.
“I dipped into something I shouldn’t have dipped into and I’m paying for it now,” said Donald Laster, whose plan to help his family involved selling marijuana on the side. The amount of the drug that he was caught with in Ohio would be a misdemeanor in most other states, he said.
But he’s paying the price with 24 months in jail at the Trumbull Correctional Institution in Leavittsburg, Ohio, where he will reside until this time next year.
Back at Minnesota, De’Niro constantly worried about his mom and younger sister. He needed to get closer to home in a hurry. It’s ultimately how he ended up at Kentucky where his friend and former teammate, Baker, was a wide receiver.
“It just didn’t feel fair for me up there living in a home and my parents were homeless and everything,” De’Niro said. “I wanted to come back and share the struggle with them.”
Laster has become “sort of the man of the family now since I’m away,” Donald said. “I’m proud of De’Niro because he chose to be closer to his mother.”
Being “the man” also means making sacrifices.
“The little money they get each semester, he takes some of it and sends it back to his mom,” UK recruiting coordinator Vince Marrow said of the linebacker. “It’s a real big thing for him. He don’t take this for granted. He’s appreciative of everything he gets.”
Laster’s mom and sister still live in what he calls a “tough and bad neighborhood,” before adding, “but we was homeless before, so something is better than nothing.”
His family’s situation gives Laster added motivation on the football field every day, Baker said. “Maybe in a couple of years, he’ll be blessed enough to be in the NFL and be able to buy his family a brand new house.”
‘Right place at the right time’
Donald is happy that he’ll be out of prison in time to see his son play in a Kentucky jersey next season. Even the automated voice that interrupts that this call “originating from an Ohio Correctional Facility may be recorded and monitored,” doesn’t drown out the pride in the father’s voice as he talks about his 22-year-old son.
“I hate to say this, I was good, but De’Niro, he’s better than me,” Donald said.
He goes back to when De’Niro was selected to play for an All-Star team as a 13-year-old when all of the other boys on the team were 16.
“At the end of the game, De’Niro sacked the quarterback and won the game,” Donald recalled, his voice cracking just a little. “That’s when he was 13 and he’s been doing it ever since. He seems to be in the right place at the right time.”
De’Niro Laster officially knew he was in the right place this summer when he found himself in Ethiopia as part of a service trip for Kentucky football players.
He saw children foraging through garbage dumps for meals and thought back to the times as a boy when he sometimes didn’t have a meal to eat.
He saw kids working out with makeshift weight-lifting equipment made of sticks and buckets of cement and thought back to the times when he pulled broken beer bottle glass from his cleats during practice.
He saw generations of families sleeping together on the mud floor of a makeshift hut and thought back to sharing a bed with several cousins because that was their only option.
The weight of this journey from Cleveland Heights to Minneapolis to Lexington felt less heavy.
And suddenly the 6-foot-4, 240-pound linebacker’s eyes were overflowing again.
“There was times over there where I’d just cry, tears of happiness just seeing how far I’ve came and seeing how many people have doubted me,” De’Niro said. “Just a lot of stuff.”
Laster shared his story with Courtney Love, a teammate on the Ethiopia trip who had his own trials and tribulations growing up. Even months later, the two linebackers serve as makeshift therapists for each other.
“De’Niro, he’s a great guy,” Love said. “Where he comes from, it’s just nuts. I can’t really say enough of how proud of him I am, just hearing his story and the way he grew up. It was tough. Now he’s here and he’s got a whole life ahead of him.”
Kentucky football season opener
Southern Mississippi at UK
When: Sept. 3, 7:30 p.m.
Where: Commonwealth Stadium
Coming next Sunday
The Sunday, Aug. 28 Herald-Leader will include a special section previewing the 2016 college football season for UK, the rest of the state and the nation.