Judging a young man's character can be difficult.
Tailback Dwayne Cherrington was one of 12 Colorado football players suspended last season for misusing the university's telephone-access code. Cherrington charged a little more than $8 and had to sit out one game.
Weigh that against Cherrington as a counselor. An athletic department secretary at Colorado recruited Cherrington last spring to work with Jerome, a 10-year-old who was having problems at home and school.
"I guess she felt I was a well-rounded guy and thought I would be perfect to work with Jerome," said Cherrington, a redshirt sophomore from Santa Ana Valley High. "He was having a lot of problems, problems at home, which led to problems at school. He was fighting with his teachers and he didn't have anyone to relate to about it. His problems were 100% worse than anything I went through."
To those who know Cherrington, the surprise isn't that he went out of his way to help a kid. The shock is that anyone could have problems "100% worse" than those Cherrington plowed through before he came to Colorado.
"I'm going to have tears of joy the day Dwayne has that diploma in hand," said Scott Orloff, Cherrington's coach at Santa Ana Valley.
Cherrington, the Buffaloes' No. 2 tailback, is nursing a tender hamstring he injured on special teams in a 31-21 victory over Colorado State last Saturday. This is a speed bump compared to the mountains he has scaled.
Pick a stereotype and Cherrington exposes a myth.
His father died of colon cancer when Cherrington was a sophomore at Santa Ana Valley, making him, at 16, the oldest male in the house. Yet he went to school every day, studied every night and stayed out of trouble, setting the standard for his younger brother and sister.
He grew up in an area so dicey that more than once he found himself looking down a gun barrel. Yet, he had no use for the three gangs that claimed his neighborhood, instead choosing football.
His family was so poor after his father died that he had to work during the off-season to help them pay the monthly bills. Yet he never lost sight that education was the way up the ladder.
"There was so much he has had to overcome," said Orloff, now coach at Dana Hills. "You see so many youngsters who don't make it with half his troubles. But Dwayne knew exactly what he wanted to do and he was going to get there. He is extremely focused."
So focused that when Cherrington began talking about becoming a father two years ago, at 20, friends and former coaches pleaded with him to wait. At least hold off until after college, they begged.
Elijah Cherrington is now 17 months old. Cherrington and Regina, who began dating as seniors at Santa Ana Valley, were married in May and live in Boulder, Colo.
"I planned all my life to be a father at an early age," Cherrington said. "I never gave it a second thought. People tried to talk me out of it, but this is what I planned.
"It's like when people tried to tell me that I would never get a football scholarship. They told me all the statistics on how few guys get one. I got a football scholarship. That was my plan. I never gave it a second thought."
Some things you can't plan.
There is no school photo of Cherrington as an eighth-grader. He was at the hospital the day of the picture session. His father was undergoing surgery for colon cancer.
William Cherrington, a truck driver, died three years later.
"My husband had never been ill a day in his life," Irene Cherrington said. "He would joke that I was always the one who worried about getting sick. He was the strong one. That's why it really shook all of us."
Dwayne, though, never seemed to waiver.
"My dad had pushed school on me all my life," Cherrington said. "He pushed it like crazy and I understood. When he was dying, he didn't really tell me much. He knew he had done his part through the years. He was strong."
So was his son.
"I remember seeing him at the funeral, standing next to his father's grave handling all his emotions," said Scott Strosnider, who was Cherrington's coach that year at Santa Ana Valley. "Each family member was supposed to shovel some dirt onto the grave. I saw a 16-year-old kid help put his father to rest. I was having trouble handling it and I was supposed to be the grown up."
That strength was extended to his family. Cherrington became the man of the house. He held jobs during the off-season, even forgoing training that would improve him as a player. He would work from the end of school to 11 p.m., then study until 1 a.m. and get up for school at 6 a.m. He rarely missed a class.
"I was still young and wanted to be wild," Cherrington said. "I couldn't. If I fell off, there would be no hope."
Irene Cherrington didn't return to her job after her husband's death. She had worked the night shift as a label inspector for a cassette manufacturer, but felt she needed to be at home nights. She refinanced the house mortgage and also received money from a life insurance policy.
Even then, it was difficult. Money was tight and there were two 10-year-olds to raise. Dwayne took on the male role-model role, especially with his younger brother Jason, now a sophomore at Santa Ana Valley.
"I was never out of his life," Jason said. "If he was going to watch a football game at a friend's house, he would take me. If he was going to the mall, he would take me."
Said Irene Cherrington: "Dwayne and my husband were very close. I think Dwayne wanted that same relationship with Jason. Dwayne went everywhere with my husband, so Dwayne took Jason everywhere."
And he protected his brother. When Jason got out of line, it was Dwayne who straightened him out.
"I understood what Jason was going through," Cherrington said.
As an eighth-grader, Dwayne Cherrington had been walking home with a friend one night. A car pulled up and a man asked for directions.
"He then said, "If you move, I'll shoot you,' " Cherrington said. "I saw the gun barrel pointed at us. I knew he was going to shoot us no matter what. My friend ran one way and I ran the other way."
Cherrington hopped a fence before the man could shoot. That was not the only such experience for Cherrington.
"It was just the way the neighborhood is," Cherrington said. "I stuck to football and school."
Cherrington is not the first to see sports as a way out. He's just one of the lucky ones to pull it off. He knew it took work, not just talent.
"This summer, I would come into the weight room at 6 a.m. to work out and Dwayne was already there," said Kennedy Pola, Colorado's running backs coach. "Not only that, but he had made sure his two roommates came with him.
Cherrington, an economics major, had a 3.3 grade-point average his first year at Colorado, the highest among the school's freshman athletes.
"Dwayne is the type of kid that makes a strong program," Pola said. "You don't have to chase him to the classroom. He doesn't hoot and holler when he plays. You ask him to meet you at a certain time and he's there. He's not only humble, he's accountable."
Against Missouri last season, the Buffaloes' running game was stagnant. Cherrington was put in and, on his first carry, burst through the middle for a 34-yard run to the two-yard line. He scored two plays later--his first college touchdown--extending the Buffaloes' 15-point lead to 34-13.
Cherrington had 172 yards rushing for the season, averaging a team-high six yards per carry. Not Heisman-type numbers, but a beginning.
"His time will come," Pola said. "He has the talent."
Football was not Cherrington's first choice, nor his mother's fondest wish. Irene and William Cherrington, who married in 1973, had both moved from Belize, in Central America, where futbol is soccer.
Dwayne Cherrington played soccer first, then baseball. But football could not be avoided.
"I was chunky so I played guard at first," Cherrington said. "I was chunky but fast, so they moved me to running back. It started there."
Not that his mother was--or is--pleased.
"I was very, very scared of football," Irene Cherrington said. "It still gives me the creeps. I'm nervous every time Dwayne plays, so I didn't go to many of his games."
She missed a lot.
Cherrington gained 3,333 yards rushing in three seasons for Santa Ana Valley teams that didn't win more than five games in a season.
Judging a young man's character can be easy.
"I called Dwayne into my office before his senior year and asked if he was leaving," Orloff said. "The rumors were around that he was transferring to Mater Dei or Villa Park. I told him if it was true, that I would help him do it legally. He said, 'Coach I'm not leaving.' I have always thought how that showed his character. He could have left and won a championship, but he stayed knowing we were going to have a rebuilding year."
That integrity was apparent to an athletic secretary at Colorado when she asked Cherrington to help Jerome.
"He needed a big brother," Cherrington said. "We would go play basketball and football, and just talk. I brought him to the spring practices, so he could be around the team and see me play."
It was about a month ago that Cherrington last saw Jerome. Both were in a hurry. There was time enough, though, to say hello and asked how things were going.
Jerome was fine, at least he said he was fine. Cherrington hoped that was true.
"I need to check up on Jerome again."