Bridging the gap

Staff Writer
The Columbus Dispatch

The words came haltingly, pulled from deep down.

"My father ...," was all Ohio State junior running back Antonio Pittman could manage before the emotions welled up, forcing him to pause.

The crowd gathered in the Akron Buchtel High School gym on this January day applauded, encouraging Pittman to continue.

They were there to celebrate his decision to enter the NFL draft. But the group of mostly friends and family also recognized the weight of what Pittman was trying to say.

"My father is up here," Pittman began again. "He was never part of my life. But we enjoyed a good weekend, some makeup time ... "

Applause interrupted him again.

Marcus McKinnie listened and smiled. He was happy because he had been given another chance -- by the state, which released him from prison just three weeks earlier; and by his son, who had forgiven him for a lifetime of neglect.

They wore outfits purchased together a few days before: Lacoste polo shirts and ballcaps; Pittman in red and McKinnie in blue.

McKinnie smiled with pride. He had his chance once, as a standout college football player with a sure NFL future. But he threw it away. Now he watched the fruits of his son's labors paying off. Pittman is expected to be a first-day draft pick this weekend, likely in the second round. He will sign a multimillion dollar contract.

McKinnie trusts that Pittman will handle fame better than he did.

"I had my shot," McKinnie said, "but I had no discipline at all. Everything that came my way, I took, and that ain't how it's supposed to be.

"I told him the years go by so fast, you have to be disciplined and take advantage of what you've got going on. A lot of kids, you tell them that but they don't listen. I was one of them."

' Woulda , coulda , shoulda '

McKinnie and Keith Luck were boyhood friends in Barberton. Both landed football scholarships, Luck to Akron and McKinnie to Purdue.

McKinnie was a free safety, aggressive and a vicious hitter. As a sophomore in 1979, he intercepted a pass in an upset of Notre Dame. As a junior, he made 120 tackles and was considered a fine NFL prospect.

"He should be retired from the NFL right now," Luck said. "That's how good he was. But a lot of guys 'woulda, coulda, shoulda.' Marcus was a follower, not a leader."

Partying dragged McKinnie down. He failed to properly train for his senior season, and his play slipped.

Still, NFL teams were interested. Several pursued him as an undrafted free agent, and he chose the Cleveland Browns, in part to be near Valerie Pittman, already the mother of four of his children. Just a few weeks into training camp in 1982, McKinnie was released.

"I got discouraged," he said. "I started messing with drugs, and that's when everything started going downhill."

Back in Barberton, McKinnie and Valerie Pittman tried to make it work. They had a fifth child, Antonio, in 1985. But the streets had a hold on McKinnie, and things got ugly. Valerie Pittman said he got abusive, to the point that by 1990 she could take no more and they split up.

In her view, not having a father around for her children was the lesser of two evils.

"It's best they don't live in a disruptive household and see that violence," she said. "I decided to make it on my own."

The estranged years

Pittman still saw his father from time to time through grade school and middle school. The kids stayed in Barberton for a while with McKinnie's parents. When McKinnie had steady work, he'd give Pittman spending money.

But they were never close.

"I didn't put that time in that he wanted," McKinnie said. "But I was raised the same way. My dad never lived with us. It's like a pattern. Nobody ever did anything for me, so that's what I was used to."

One common bond was McKinnie's oldest son, Anthony, seven years older than Antonio. McKinnie and Antonio were close with Anthony.

"Antonio looked up to him," McKinnie said. "Anthony kept him in line, kept a foot on his neck. (Anthony) was a heck of an athlete, too, but he wouldn't go to school. He was real hyper, had no patience, always got into fights."

And Anthony was the cause of the deepest scar in McKinnie and Pittman's relationship. When Antonio was 14, Anthony accidentally shot and killed himself at age 21.

At the time, McKinnie had just been sent to prison for violating probation on an assault conviction. McKinnie thinks Antonio blamed him for Anthony's death-.After that, contact became even less frequent.

In some ways, the death of his brother seemed to spur Pittman, to wake him up. He changed from "an ornery kid" in middle school, Luck said, to a straight-A high-schooler.

"He came out a better person," Ceola said. "Antonio didn't want to go down the same road (Anthony) did. He wanted to do better."

Years later, Pittman got a tattoo on his left biceps, memorializing Anthony.

Not long after Pittman left for Ohio State, McKinnie was imprisoned again, again for violating probation. His two-year sentence meant he could not see his son play for the Buckeyes, except on television.

Redemption

Luck, who now owns several successful businesses in Barberton, visited his old friend from time to time.

"Marcus is a good person when he's clean and sober," he said.

McKinnie's sentence was up Dec. 28. He had never seen Antonio play for Ohio State in person, and Luck decided to take him to the national championship game Jan. 8. He paid for a plane ticket.

He also invited Pittman to spend a few days with him, his wife and McKinnie after the game. By that time, Pittman had told friends he planned to turn pro.

Pittman accepted. After Ohio State's 41-14 loss to Florida, the four traveled by car through Arizona -- seeing the Grand Canyon -- before ending up in Las Vegas for a weekend.

"I saw a lot of father-son bonding," Luck said. "A lot of apologizing."

McKinnie said, "Oh man, it was unbelievable. It just meant a new beginning."

And a few days later, he sat behind his son at the Buchtel gym, bursting with pride. Pittman has a chance to succeed where his father failed. But the pride also came from hearing his son acknowledge him. Pittman doesn't open up often -- numerous attempts to interview him for this story were unsuccessful.

So the fact that he publicly recognized McKinnie that day was meaningful.

"Sometimes if you try to go through life and shelter yourself from the pain and hurt, it only comes back to haunt you," Valerie Pittman said. "Antonio made it knowledgeable, got it out in the forefront -- 'Here's my dad. He had a drug problem. He's been in prison. But he's my dad.' "

kgordon@dispatch.com