November 19, 2017

ESPN Producer Shares Unlikely Story About Unlikely Family

by Madeline Linnell ‘17

Managing Editor

Six-time Emmy award winning ESPN Producer Lisa Fenn kicked off the Homecoming festivities with telling the story of Carry On: A Story of Resilience, Redemption, and an Unlikely Family, her newly released book. Dartanyon Crockett, Leroy Sutton and Fenn make the “Unlikely Family” referred to in the book title. It is a fitting description, for, just as Fenn said in her talk, “They’re black; I’m white. They’re lower class; I’m middle class. We had every reason in the world not to connect.” And yet, they did.

One night in 2009, a phone call woke Fenn. It was her father, who lives in Cleveland, Ohio. He told her she had to pursue a local story he found concerning two, disabled high school wrestlers. Fenn sought human-interest stories as an ESPN producer; therefore, her father’s scoop was truly tailored to her specialty. The reason why Fenn entered sports journalism to begin with was because she “loves the passion” people express in the sports’ world. Furthermore, as she said in an interview with a Tartan reporter, “Sports can be a bridge of people who wouldn’t normally come together.”

The statement rings especially true in her experience with sports. For, after receiving that phone call, Fenn zipped to Cleveland’s Lincoln-West High School the following day to watch and record a wrestling match—and there she met Crockett and Sutton.

Crockett carried Sutton on his back to and fro as Sutton has no legs. At 11-years old, a train hit him. Crockett too suffered from impairment, Leber’s disease. The disease causes severe vision loss. Despite these obstacles, the two earned a successful wrestling season. Fenn learned more than just their winning record, however. Her piece also peeked into their personal lives. They had suffered a great deal, and yet, despite this vulnerability to substance abuse and criminal activity, Sutton and Crockett held “cheerful” demeanors, as Fenn noted in her talk.

The young men lived in poverty, their parents gone or unstable. Beyond high school and wrestling, for that matter, their future looked bleak. This was a neighborhood with scant opportunities.

After completing her ESPN piece, Fenn could have walked away and resumed ordinary life, but she didn’t. Instead, she remained a constant source of love and encouragement for both Crockett and Sutton. Why? She believed in them; she wanted them to succeed, to defeat the odds. “You can never count them out,” she said in the ESPN documentary.

Bonding, however, was not easy. Fenn described just how difficult it was to enter conversations with them at times, “to be in on the jokes.” But she was committed, and eventually, helped them along with their various endeavors, like college or judo (Sutton studied game design, and Crockett became a Paralympic Judo athlete). With time, they grew to be a family.

Their strong bond testifies to what she said in the Tartan interview: “Differences don’t have to separate us.” There is, she said, “a way to enjoy and love each other.”

Fenn also said she learned a lot about how to best assist those in poverty, in addition to recognizing how most upper-middle class people tend to perceive those in poverty. On this second front, she said, “There is a lot of compassion for children in poverty; but once they get older, people lose sight about how they got there.”

Instead of walking away from poor, young adults, Fenn suggests something radically different. What these young men and women need is not criticism—and nor is it necessarily or primarily money. What they need most, she says, is “a committed love” which will eventually allow him or her to succeed. She continues, “It’s difficult but possible to help someone out of poverty.”

The book, Carry On, shares this inspiring story. Though, writing it proved a story in and of itself. When asked about the overall writing process, Fenn answered with a slight chuckle and then proceeded to cite a Winston Churchill quotation: “Writing a book is an adventure. To begin with it is a toy and an amusement. Then it becomes a mistress, then it becomes a master, then it becomes a tyrant. The last phrase is that just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster and fling him to the public.”

In other words, writing a book has its challenges. Crockett and Sutton, however, provided her with encouragement.

Gordon College too became a quasi-support system for Fenn. She would routinely work in Jenks Library, which she called an “energizing” experience. Fenn said that working at Gordon was “good for my morale.”

The book now finished, Fenn is trying to discern what to do next. She said, “I want to take what I’ve learned about getting out of poverty and make a bigger dent in that, but I’m still looking for a way to do that.”

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