V’Angelo Bentley: A family story, a football story
V’Angelo Bentley was 9 years old the first time his mom left. He went to see her off at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport with his stepfather, Robert Pope, his infant sister, Nakita, and his grandparents.
It was 2004 and Angela Pope, Bentley’s mom, was boarding a plane for a trip that would eventually bring her to Bagram, Afghanistan.
She remembers V’Angelo standing there, smiling a lot — like he always does.
“OK, Mommy,” he said. “Bye.”
I’ll call you, she said, I’ll write to you. She had the sense that he really didn’t understand what was going on. And how could he, at that age.
Bentley remembers his mom crying and hugging everyone. He didn’t really know how to take it.
Angela boarded her flight and was gone for the next four months. Bentley went home with his stepdad and sister.
And then he ran away.
That’s how Angela tells the story anyway. Bentley tells it differently.
“I just, I don’t know,” he said. “I was just looking for things to do. I wouldn’t say I ran away.”
Bentley slept in his own bed each night. He just spent more time at his grandmother’s house, more time at friends’ houses.
There was another time during those four months that Angela called home from Afghanistan to talk to Bentley, and he wasn’t there. Her husband told her he’d gone to a family party on V’Angelo’s father’s side of the family. He’d left three days ago.
“When she went (to Afghanistan), he wasn’t happy at all,” said Bentley’s father, Vernon Bentley, whom Angela never married. “He was rebelling against his stepfather a little bit.”
For Angela, family is everything. Whenever there was an issue, her parents would sit her and her two brothers down and have a “family forum.” They would talk out the issue. That’s the type of environment Angela brought Bentley into. Whether it was problems at school or problems at home, the entire family was involved.
They tracked him down and brought him home. Angela talked to her son about it over the phone.
“I need you at home,” she told him.
Vernon told Bentley that his mother left his stepfather in charge, and even if he didn’t like it, that’s the way it was.
Vernon said rebellion just stemmed from the age Bentley was at. Bentley and his mother maintained a regular contact through emails and phone calls.
It took Bentley a long time to really understand what his mom was doing. At some point while she was away, he looked at a map and saw where he was, in inner city Cleveland, and where she was, in Bagram. That’s when it hit him how far away she was, how impossible it was to reach her.
Is a family really broken if all of the pieces are still there?
It could have seemed broken for Bentley when he was little. There were times when his father would tell him he’s coming to pick him up, and then he would never show.
Bentley was a young kid growing up in Cleveland, a city with one of the highest percentages of single-parent households in the United States.
There were a couple of years when Vernon wasn’t really around much. But Bentley always had support. If it wasn’t his mom, it was her parents, Letha and Phillip Shepherd.
Vernon is a self-proclaimed “football dad,” but it was Bentley’s stepdad, Robert, who first tried to get him to play football. Bentley was 7 years old. His mother was just looking for anything to get him involved in.
Angela took him to play for a local team called the Bulldogs. She was leery about leaving him there alone, but she dropped him off and let him play.
Bentley joined the team two weeks into practice. They were just getting their pads. Bentley put his on for the first time and was put in the “Bull in the Ring,” a drill that is banned by many youth leagues today.
Players stand in a circle — with one player in the center — and fly at the player in the middle one-by-one, from any direction.
Bentley remembers getting clocked by one of the biggest players on the team. After that he simply walked away from practice when no one was looking.
A couple hours later Angela returned to pick up her son. He was nowhere to be found. After a frantic couple of minutes she found him on the opposite side of the park, playing in a sand mound.
“He was having a ball,” Angela remembers. “He was dirty as all get-out. I was like, ‘Dude, where were you supposed to be?’”
Angela took him home and rethought the decision to have him play football. Bentley hadn’t understood football, and he hadn’t wanted to be there.
The next year Bentley went to his father and told him he wanted to play football.
Vernon took him to Rick Wilcox, a close friend and coach of the East Cleveland Chiefs. This time Bentley wanted to play; he was ready.
The Chiefs coaches thought he was a natural. No one could catch him on the field. Vernon and Angela watched their son evolve into someone who not only liked football, but was also good at it.
What if one of the pieces goes missing?
The trip from Bagram Airfield — about an hours drive north of Kabul, the capital — to Ramstein Air Base in southwest Germany traverses more than 3,000 miles. When the aircraft is filled with 40 or 50 wounded soldiers, many of whom need constant care, it can lead to some long days. It’s even worse when the orders are to turn around and come right back to Afghanistan.
It was Angela’s job to care for those wounded soldiers on the countless flights she made from Afghanistan to Germany during her two tours of duty. When she knew it would be a long mission, she’d email or call home to her family in Cleveland and let them know that she’d be out of contact for a while.
She originally joined the Air Force in 1986 for what she calls “selfish reasons.” After two years of college, she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do with her life. A military career would provide her with an education, a steady job and a chance to see the world.
She never thought she’d wind up in a war-torn country, caring for scores of wounded servicemen. When she joined, America had not been in a major military conflict since Vietnam, more than a decade before. War was an afterthought.
But it became very real.
Angela cared not only for Americans, but any wounded who came through Bagram. That included Afghan soldiers.
“Truthfully,” she said, “like you hear on TV, that they didn’t really want us over there, I sensed that.”
In the mind of an Afghan soldier, the roadside IED that tore apart his or her body wouldn’t have been there at all if the Americans weren’t there. Angela could feel the resentment.
And she saw a world that was vastly different from the world she knew.
“You see the dirt and grime,” Angela said, “the inhumane way that they live over there, and you’d be appalled to see Americans fighting over an elevator. It’s like, ‘Guys, there’s a bigger picture out there.’”
“Just take the stairs.”
Angela spent a total of 10 months in Afghanistan: four in 2004 and another six in 2007. But she was never more than a phone call away. Especially the second time she left, when Skype made seeing her face possible for her family.
When she left for Afghanistan the second time, she left voluntarily. It was the perspective it gave her that convinced her to go back, and the pride that helping the men and women on the front lines gave her.
It felt different the second time they said their good-byes from Cleveland Hopkins. Bentley was 12 going on 13. He understood what was going on. There was a hesitation in his good-bye. He wasn’t going to rebel this time.
Angela noticed the difference. Her son was growing up.
There is an all-boys school in the Collinwood neighborhood in Cleveland that tries to keep the stray pieces together. The school’s called the Ted Ginn Academy and was founded by a former high school security guard who never took a college class.
The man who gives his name to the school is Ted Ginn, Sr., the father of Carolina Panthers wide receiver Ted Ginn, Jr. The school was founded in 2007 by Ginn, who coaches the football and track teams.
Some 350 boys pass through the doors of Ginn Academy each day wearing the required red and black school uniforms. Bentley knew he wanted to be one of those boys when he was in middle school. He saw what Ginn could do for people, how he could guide them in the right direction.
Angela, however, wasn’t so sure. Bentley had been in Catholic school all his life and Ginn Academy — a public school — wasn’t convincing for his mom.
Bentley met with Ginn and had him call Angela. Ginn did his best to sell his school to her.
“Why would you put him in a school that you’re going to pay thousands of dollars a year for the same education (as Ginn Academy)?” Ginn asked her.
She was afraid Ginn Academy wouldn’t be challenging enough for Bentley academically. She was afraid the balance between football and academics would tilt in the direction of the gridiron.
Ginn made her a promise. “Give me a year,” he said. “And at the end of the first year of school, if he’s not living up to what you need him to live up to, I will personally put him in a Catholic school for you.”
Bentley became one of those boys wearing the red jackets. Ginn Academy created a sense of pride. People in Cleveland knew what those red jackets represented.
Coach Ginn teaches boys to be men. He teaches men to lead, not follow. Being a follower in inner city Cleveland often meant going off the beaten path. Bentley didn’t follow.
On the football field and on the track, Ginn was all about putting your name in the record book, breaking down barriers.
“Ted Sr. played a big part in helping mold the gentleman you see today,” Angela said. “His determination, his goals, he knows exactly what he wants, where he’s going, and how he’s going to get there.”
Bentley finished high school valedictorian of his class of 62. If a career in football doesn’t work out, he wants to be an engineer.
Right now his focus is on school and Illinois football. And like Ginn taught him, he wants to see his name in the record books.
His name is a combination of his mother’s and father’s. Vernon. Angela. V’Angelo.
A lot of things went into shaping a soon-to-be 20-year-old from the inner city into a valedictorian and a starting Big Ten cornerback. His family is one. Coach Ginn always said to keep family close, because when something goes wrong, they’re the ones who will stick with you.
Vernon said one person has made a difference more than any other.
“His mom,” Vernon said. “She played a big part (in who he’s become). She used to read to him when she was pregnant. ‘Those smarts will get into him when he’s born.’ That’s what she used to say.”
“He and I, we have this bond,” Angela said.
Words can’t explain it. But one play might.
On Aug. 31, V’Angelo stood in the end zone at Memorial Stadium, waiting to return a kickoff from Southern Illinois. In the stands, Angela watched her son. She’d made the trip from Cordova, Tenn., where she now lives working as a nurse in the Memphis Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
V’Angelo fielded the kickoff with his right foot just in front of the goal line on the left hash mark. He raced up field 10 yards toward the Southern Illinois coverage and cut to his right.
Angela watched her son follow his blockers. He cut all the way over to the right hash mark and straight through a gap of defenders.
He came up to the 35-yard line, the Southern Illinois kicker was directly in front of him.
In the stands, Angela told her son what to do.
“Go left! Go left!” she yelled.
He made one quick fake to his right, without missing a stride, and cut back to his left. The kicker had no chance.
He sprinted past another couple of defenders and saw open field. There was nobody within an arms length of him for the next 35 yards. One defender made a last ditch effort to catch him at the 10-yard line, but V’Angelo wasn’t going to be caught.
He raced into the end zone untouched the entire way and looked right into the cameras along the sideline as his teammates mobbed him.
In the stands, a stranger sitting behind Angela said, “I know that must be your son. You were moving and talking, it was like he could hear you.”
She hadn’t realized she was doing it.
At 100 yards, the return automatically became tied for the longest in Illinois — and NCAA — history. It was just the second time in its 123-year history Illinois had a 100-yard return. Travis Williams and Eugene Wilson combined for a 100-yard kickoff return on a lateral play against Purdue in 2002.
Either way, V’Angelo was in the record book.
“When I returned the kick, I could hear (Coach Ginn) saying, ‘Put your name on something,’” he said. “That will go down in the Illinois books forever.”
Vernon was in the stands that day, too. He’d made the trip from Cleveland, where he still lives, working for AT&T. He said he ran about a hundred yards himself up the aisle and back down again when V’Angelo returned the kickoff.
And for a little while, they could rejoice — V’Angelo on the sideline, mom and dad in the stands. All of the pieces, together as one.
Sean can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and @sean_hammond.