Teenager balances sports, goals in difficult home life

 Student plans to make his amateur boxing debut next year

By Rich McGowan

SUMMIT TOWNSHIP, Mich. (AP) — Maurice Conner used to have a cellphone. Unlike the rest of his generation, though, the 17-year-old didn’t need it. Landlines work fine for him.

He doesn’t own an Xbox or PlayStation. Conner doesn’t have time to play games even if he was the type to sit still for them — which he isn’t.

And forget about name-brand clothing. A pair of camouflage boots and an old T-shirt and jeans, and Conner is good to go, according to MLive.com.

Conner’s back-to-basics mentality is derived partially from his personality — quiet, unassuming, low-maintenance — and from a home life where such luxuries for himself would create undue difficulties for others. Living in a home where he is the oldest of five children, Conner has devoted himself to putting others first while nursing a quiet determination for a better life.

His weekend isn’t ruined if his parents ask him to babysit or because he doesn’t have a car.

Conner, a junior at Napoleon High School, silently chuckles to himself when he hears the complaints of some of his peers.

“I’m like, ‘Yeah,’” Conner laughed. “I’d like to see them do a day in my shoes. They think that’s bad? See what I got to do on a day-to-day basis. It’s a lot, it really is.”

Conner’s day begins at 5 a.m. so he can join his mother, Sandra Ramon, for an hour at her job as a custodian at McCulloch Academy of Technology & Science. Conner helps his mother get enough of her morning responsibilities finished to give her the time she needs to drive Conner to catch the bus to Napoleon High School.

For a few hours, his routine is like that of any other teenager. He goes to classes then football practice where he plays linebacker and running back for the Pirates. After practice is an hour of weightlifting, unless he has homework to finish.

Conner’s mother picks him up from Napoleon and it’s either off to boxing practice or home for a quick shower before putting in a few hours at his job at Little Caesar’s. His income, even when working just a few hours a week, as he does during football season, helps his family make ends meet.

On nights he works, Conner still puts in time training with his uncle, Mario Shelvey, as he prepares to make his amateur boxing debut next year in the Michigan Golden Gloves in March.

Many nights — after putting in an 18-hour day — Conner doesn’t get to bed until 11 p.m. Then it’s time to do it all again at 5 a.m.

In their precious little spare time, Conner and his mother also volunteer in an after-school exercise program for girls at McCulloch.

It’s a difficult life, but that’s just the way it is and has been for his family.

“That’s life, that’s everyday life,” Ramon said. “I had to do it at a young age, as a young mom, I had to take care of three children and work and maintain them. I did all that, why can’t he?”

Conner lives in a duplex in Summit Township, with his mother, and sister, Maggie, 13, and his mother’s boyfriend Josh Grimes and his three children, Joshua, 13, Rockia, 12, and Anthony, 9.

Conner’s other sister, My’Lynn, 15, moved to Iowa at the end of the summer to live with her grandmother, as did Maggie, who became homesick and has since returned.

Ramon said there have been times when providing for all the children was impossible. Instead of sulking about not having new clothes, Conner deferred to his siblings and never complained.

“We haven’t always had a lot of money so we try to embrace every moment and try to have a good time,” Conner said. “I loved watching my sisters grow up. I love my sisters to death.”

My’Lynn and Maggie’s departure to Iowa was due in part to ease the financial strain but also to give them a fresh start following their parents’ divorce last year. Conner, who attended Brooklyn Columbia Central High School at the time, acknowledged his parents’ split affected his academic performance.

“That hurt me, a lot. Mentally, physically, emotionally, everything,” Conner said. “I was like, ‘To hell with school,’ I didn’t really care about it.”

Conner transferred last winter to Napoleon High School, where his mother once worked and knew many of the teachers and administrators and felt the change in scenery would be a better fit for her son.

Along with the change of schools, Conner’s father, Maurice Sr., who lives in Jackson and sees his son regularly, told Conner the time for being upset about the divorce had passed and it was time to refocus on his studies.

Conner describes himself now as a student who gets A’s and B’s.

“He’s more strict on me than anybody, honestly,” Conner said of his father. “He wants me to make something out of my name. Me being a Maurice Conner, he wants me to be something in life. Because we both have the same name, he always says, ‘You’re going to make our name something.’”

Making a name for himself is something Conner has begun to do on the football field.

As a sophomore for Columbia Central last season, Conner led the team in rushing with 552 yards and seven touchdowns.

This season for Napoleon, playing primarily linebacker, Conner was third on the team in tackles, despite missing the first two games after being ineligible due to transfer rules.

Keeping up with all of his commitments leaves little time for anything else, and football nearly became a casualty of his busy life.

After attending much of the Pirates’ offseason program, Conner was absent as football practices officially got underway in August. He worked full-time, and providing income for his family took precedent over practice.

Conner and his mother met with Napoleon football coach Scott Ashe to explain the situation. An intense, old-school-style coach with little tolerance for players not coming to practice, Ashe recognized the responsibilities his player was carrying.

“I think he had a hard time coming to me and saying, ‘Coach, I think I may have to miss practice once in a while to work,’” Ashe said. “Because he knows how I am. If you don’t practice, you don’t play, and if you’re not dedicated, you might as well go do something else.”

Since meeting with Ashe early in the summer, Conner has found a balance, maintaining his responsibilities off the field while still putting in the work on the field Ashe requires.

“He was very understanding,” Conner said. “He knows I’ve always had it rough. He knows that and understands it, and he cuts me a little slack sometimes — but not too much.”

Senior running back Jack Hatt is Conner’s closest friend on the team and he sees Conner walk the tightrope of his responsibilities. Hatt is one of few teammates who know the weight of Conner’s off-field schedule.

When Conner was unable to attend all of the summer practices, Hatt said there was some grumbling from players who did not know the reasons for Conner’s absences.

“I think very few, maybe none, know all that’s going on,” Hatt said. “Even me, knowing him pretty good, I don’t know everything he is going through, and that’s what was hard for a lot of the team. They just see him missing practice some of the time. They don’t know the cause of it.”

Despite the long hours of his daily life and the misunderstandings of his peers, Conner has no plans to slow down.

After football season, Conner intends to wrestle and compete in track and field in the winter and spring. He sees his busy life as preparation for his future, which he insists includes college.

“That’s what I’m going to do,” Conner said. “No ifs, ands or buts, no asking questions, that’s what I’m going to do. If I can get a scholarship, that’d be amazing. It’d help my family so much.”

Conner said he plans to study business management in college while continuing his amateur boxing career. After college, he hopes to turn professional in boxing.

“I look at my life like my life’s preparing me for college,” Conner said. “I already have to wake up at 5 o’clock in the morning, then I got school and football practice and boxing practice and I get home, get some food and a shower and work. College, it’s kind of the same thing, I think it’s preparing me.

“It’s all about me making it out of Jackson.”