On Saturday afternoon in Salina, recent McPherson High graduate Keshawn Sewell will be the recipient of the Kansas Basketball Coaches Association’s first-ever “Courage Award.”
I can’t think of a more-deserving honoree.
Keshawn’s entire life has been a story of courage. Born in Jamaica, he was primarily raised in his infant years by his mother in a small house consisting of eight people though there was room for only three.
As a youth, he attended Spanish Town Primary School, where corporal punishment and fights occurred practically every day — and this was grade school. There were days when there were practice drills in the event gunshot fire broke out. It was a strife-torn and impoverished area and I can only imagine how Keshawn feared for his life every day. In the middle of his fourth-grade year, he seized the opportunity to leave Jamaica, though he was leaving everybody and everything he had known in his life behind and about to face an unknown existence.
He moved to Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived with his sister and her two sons. But it soon turned badly for him as again he lived in fear and the schooling there was failing him, even though he was eager to learn. He would do everything he could — even intentionally doing poorly in class — to stay at school as long as he could and not have to go home to a situation that was becoming more troubled by the day. He also wound up being bullied at school, as he hadn’t mastered the English language and kids made fun of him and provoked fights.
The family moved from apartment to apartment and lived off food stamps. There was very little food. It was poverty at its worst. It was a dead-end situation with no end in sight.
But finally, the story had a happy ending. Current guardians LyChelle and Joel Lawrence offered a place in their home. He was reunited with his cousin, Davian, who himself was a standout track and field athlete for the Bullpups. Davian had lived in Jamaica with Keshawn when he was born.
Despite his obvious athleticism, however, Keshawn had never played basketball in his various travels. McPherson, of course, is a basketball hotbed and he soon found himself attempting to learn the game. As a ninth-grader, he took the court for the first time and struggled mightily.
But he doggedly stuck with it and with continual support from the coaches, he started to make progress, albeit at a snail’s pace as far as he was concerned. He showed some spark late in his junior year and was being counted on to contribute his senior year.
During the preseason, his improvement was amazing. In December, it was obvious he was going to be a key component for a Bullpup team that had visions of winning a state championship. His job was to play defense and rebound, since the Bullpups didn’t have much size.
During a practice over the Christmas break, on a routine play, he suffered a broken leg. The injury cast a pall over the team as Keshawn, with his 24-hour infectious smile and gregarious personality, was the most popular player on the team and it wasn’t even close.
The injury ended his playing season, but not his season as a teammate. No team could have had a bigger supporter. He was like an assistant coach and rooted his teammates on to success. When the Bullpups defeated Topeka Hayden in Salina for the state title, Keshawn was there to hold the trophy high. Even though he didn’t play in the game, his spirit raised the level of his teammates. They wanted to do it for him.
He was expected to make a full recovery and resume the sport that had made him famous — track and field. As a junior, he was one of the best triple and long jumpers in the state. When healthy, he was expected to perhaps win state gold.
When finally cleared, he still didn’t seem 100 percent. Then the unthinkable happened — during a late-season meet, he rebroke his leg in the same spot. His dreams of winning an individual state championship to go with his team championship in basketball were shattered.
“I have heard much advice on how to cope with adversity, but from this experience, I have certainly learned that adversity is nothing more than change that negatively affects your life,” Keshawn writes. “Your power does not lie in resisting the change, the circumstance or the behaviors of others.Your power lies in your interpretation of the situation, in your ability to get up again and renew your life and your desire to transform your pain into power.”
I got to know Keshawn a little bit during his junior year and became better acquainted with him this year. I can’t think of a nicer and more-courteous athlete I have come across in my nearly 40 years in the sports writing profession. I root for him to recover fully from his latest injury and to be successful at Fort Hays State University, where he has signed a track and field letter of intent.
I also root for him to be successful in life. No matter what occupation he chooses, he’ll be successful. Life has taught him how to adapt to any situation and survive.
It’s only appropriate the first honoree of the KBCA’s “Courage Award” is the most courageous athlete I have ever met.