Changing quickly

Toss a pebble in the puddle and follow one of the ripples.

Kyron Espadron was 15 years old and in the car with his stepmom driving to their home in the Woodmere neighborhood of New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward when he heard the news that would change him and his city forever, sending waves and refugees throughout the country.

Hurricane Katrina was coming and it wasn’t waiting for people to be prepared.

“It was kind of a last-minute thing — we got my bags and I got on out of there,” Espadron said. “I mean, I didn’t have too many personal belongings, but I got what I needed to and got right on a plane.”

Espadron landed in Daly City, where he lives with his grandfather Warren Johnson Sr. He plays wide receiver for the Jefferson High School varsity football team and has a grade-point average over 3.0. He also works for the city’s Department of Water and Waste Management, sending part of every paycheck for rent and food to his family still living in the Gulf Coast region. (His mom is back in New Orleans, while his eight siblings are either in New Orleans or Georgia.)

Now, a full year after the storm, Espadron is still tracing the path back to his troubled former life, trying to reconcile deep feelings of pain and sadness for his hometown with the happiness and opportunities he has now that he could have only dreamed about previously.

“A lot of things happen in life that are just weird and turn out crazy,” Espadron said. “Like Katrina was the worst natural disaster to hit the United States — I give it that. But it’s given so many people new chances. It’s killed a lot of people, but it’s given me new life.”

Espadron’s childhood in New Orleans paints a picture of an inner-city life so bleak it’s hard to imagine just how far he has come. Both of his parents have been in and out of jail his whole life and Espadron had lived with a friend of his mom’s since he was 10 months old. His stepdad was physically and verbally abusive, leading Espadron to begin lifting weights and playing football at a young age to protect himself. And his neighborhood was so dangerous, he says he would sometimes leave the house with a bulletproof vest on.

“It’s a place where a lot of people are embarrassed to say they’re from,” Espadron said. “But I’m proud of it, because that’s what made me the man I am today.”

He recently returned from a visit to see family and friends and was saddened by the devastation thatstill characterizes his old neighborhood.

“You used to hear the sound of jump ropes and people would be out on the street dancing and listening to music,” the 16-year-old said. “To see it now, it’s real painful, like a ghost town. But when you walk around, you can hear your old echo.”

In Daly City, however, Espadron has turned his life around, making friends and emerging as one of the leaders on the Jefferson football team.

“He’s real cool and has become a really good friend,” teammate Sadi Benard said. “He’s from New Orleans, but he’s a Daly City boy now.”

Espadron, a junior, is making the best grades of his life and should be a big part of the Jefferson football team this season, and has dreams of playing Division I football at Cal or Georgia. But first, he is on track to become the first member of his family to earn a high school diploma and is saving money to fly his mom out for graduation.

“My stepdad always told me, ‘You can’t catch the ball. You’re a little girl,’” Espadron said. “So now everytime I’m on the field and look up and see that Hail Mary pass, I’m thinking about what he would say. And I know I’m catching that thing and taking it all the way.”

melliser@examiner.com

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