Weeks before “Straight Outta Compton” became a hit movie last summer, recruiters were going straight into Compton pursuing a 14-year-old sports prodigy, Sean Harlston.
An assistant coach from a private high school showed up unannounced one afternoon outside the family duplex in Willowbrook, an unincorporated area of Los Angeles where children are placed in Compton Unified School District schools.
“I still don’t know how he knew where we lived,” said Harlston’s mother, Keshawn Hardwick. “He said, “I saw Sean outside and was in the neighborhood.’”
Harlston said no thanks. He had already started receiving instruction from Dominguez basketball Coach Jonathan Davis.
“I’m big on loyalty,” Harlston said. “The basketball coach was always there for me.”
Harlston didn’t just commit to attending Dominguez — he embraced the entire Compton community.
“I want to be a Compton Unified legend,” he told football Coach Jason Miller. “I want to reach greatness in the classroom, in sports and in the community.”
Months have passed, and the 6-foot-2 Harlston is exceeding expectations in his freshman year. He was the starting quarterback for the varsity football team. He was an all-league point guard for the basketball team. He’s running relays for the track team. He got all A’s on his report card except for a B in art class.
Even seniors, several years older, offer high-fives and smiles when he walks by the physical education office twirling a football in his hands.
Rarely has someone so young provided so much inspiration and hope for a hardscrabble community that needs success stories.
Harlston has attended Compton schools all his life. “I feel Compton has always been there for me,” he said. “I want to be able to say I came from Compton, where everything isn’t easy. I want to let people know it’s not as bad as you think if you have your right mind-set and you’re focused on success.”
With an outgoing personality and communication skills that helped him win an oratorical contest in eighth grade, Harlston exudes the type of qualities teachers and coaches cherish in students. He’s been taught to listen to his coaches, respect his elders and use sports as a way to learn life lessons.
Harlston’s mother remembers his middle school principal telling her, “I just want to shake your hand. That’s somebody I want my daughter to bring home when it’s time.”
It’s easy to understand the impact Harlston makes when you hear what he believes in.
“If you do the right things even when people aren’t watching, you’ll get noticed,” he says. “I was always told hard work beat talent when talent fails to work hard. My main thing was to work hard so I could succeed at anything I wanted to do.”
His mother attended Harbor City Narbonne High and Cal State Dominguez Hills, where she played volleyball and basketball. His father, David Harlston, a football player, went to Lynwood High and Texas A&M, and resides in Texas.
Sean resides in a duplex that his mother and three younger siblings share with his grandmother, grandfather, uncle, aunt and five nieces and nephews.
The adults keep track of him, and in turn he’s expected to help monitor his many younger siblings and cousins.
“What’s the synonym for grand finale?” his 9-year-old sister, Shawnee, asks while working on a school assignment. If Harlston cleans dishes or sweeps the living room, he makes sure the younger children help, too.
The politeness and maturity Harlston shows around adults is startling. Maybe it comes from hanging out for years around his mom when she took him to her job at the local boys and girls club. Growing up, he wasn’t afraid to try anything, so he played lacrosse, water polo, soccer and baseball along with basketball, his true love.
There’s a crooked rim in the courtyard of the duplex that might need to be replaced after another one of his dunks.
Dominguez High is known for being the school that produced NFL standout Richard Sherman. In a school office, a wall is covered with newspaper stories of the Seattle Seahawks cornerback’s athletic accomplishments.
“He took the time to make sure his school work was done,” Harlston said. “That’s why I admire him. I see he wasn’t just focused on sports.”
In February, after Dominguez lost a basketball playoff game at Palm Desert, Harlston didn’t get home until 2 a.m. — and with an injured knee.
Miller wanted him to show up for football workouts at 7 a.m. and had arranged to pick him up.
Right on time, a limping Harlston got into Miller’s car the next morning as his grandmother looked on.
“Don’t let anything happen to my grandson,” she said.
Harlston didn’t participate in the workouts, but Miller said his presence “showed his team, ‘I’m with you guys.’”
Miller added: “I have never in my life been around a kid as impressive socially, academically and athletically as Sean Harlston.”