The great escape
When Leviticus Tharpe's head hits the pillow these days, he can rest easy.
He finally feels he has a stable place to live and a great situation. However, it wasn't always like that. Not by a long shot.
Tharpe has had to overcome plenty of adversity, instability and homelessness. But the 16-year-old has come out the other side even stronger. He's now an up-and-coming player on the Lincoln (San Diego) High School football team with quite a story to share.
"It's definitely made me a stronger person," Tharpe said. "I know what it feels like to not have anything and what it feels like to suffer and be in pain. A lot of people, they don't know how that feels."
Said Tharpe's dad, Fred Tharpe: "It wasn't that easy, but through the grace of God in his life he's made it through to where he is now."
"It's a place where I can be me without being judged or being punished for it.”
Tharpe's triumphs and hurdling every obstacle in his path have helped earned him Semper Fidelis Athlete of the Month, presented by the Marines.
He'll have the opportunity to attend the Battles Won Academy in Washington, D.C., this summer.
Tharpe's journey has been a long and winding road. He grew up in Memphis, Tenn., as the seventh of eight children. Gangs in the area tried to recruit Tharpe's older siblings, so his parents, Fred and Lutrecia, knew a move was imminent.
"We did not want their lives to turn out like that," Lutrecia Tharpe said.
When Leviticus was around 10, his family picked up and transplanted to Fred Tharpe's hometown, Paris, Tenn. The elder Tharpe stayed in Memphis for about six months to work at a well-paying job. Mom and her kids first moved into an apartment in Paris and then rented a house.
At Henry County High School, Tharpe started to establish himself as a solid player on the football team by the time he was sophomore. When Tharpe's older sister, Angelica, moved to San Diego with her husband Lutrecia fell in love with the area. She vowed to get her family to the warm climate someday soon.
"I felt like it would be a better opportunity football wise," Lutrecia Tharpe said.
In October 2017, Lutrecia packed up and traveled to San Diego. Her kids finished out their semester and moved west in January. Leviticus moved in with another sister and husband, and the family had seven members crammed into a one-bedroom apartment.
Tharpe enrolled at Lincoln and started competing on the track and field team. His athletic ability caught the eye of varsity football coach David Dunn.
Once, when Dunn dropped off Tharpe at his sister's place, the coach knew his player was living in a unique situation. Tharpe lived quite a distance from his high school, so he had to take city buses and trolleys for about an hour each way to attend class.
Tharpe's sister gave her mom a timetable to find somewhere stable to live, but she didn't find a suitable place. Tharpe had to move out of the small apartment with his mom and youngest sister.
"One of my coaches actually came to practice one day and he was like, ‘We should check on Leviticus' living situation,' " Dunn said. "And I was like, ‘Why would you say that?' He said, ‘I just came down from the grocery store down from the school and I saw him like he was living out of a car.'"
When Lutrecia Tharpe stopped by school one day, Dunn saw the car. He could barely look into the windows because they were jammed-packed with stuff.
"We were thinking about going back to Tennessee, but I couldn't do that," Lutrecia Tharpe said. "I couldn't do that because I felt the opportunity was still great here and we had made the sacrifice to move and all."
Lutrecia Tharpe was looking for a room to rent when Dunn made an open invitation for Leviticus to come live with him.
"(Coach Dunn) said, ‘I'll make sure he's taken care of and everything like that,' " Lutrecia Tharpe said. "That was my main thing, we all wanted to stay but I wanted to make sure that he still had that opportunity. He took him in."
Leviticus moved in with his coach in June 2018. Growing up in San Diego, Dunn's parents always had an open door policy and a couple of his friends lived with him. Dunn, who played wide receiver for seven years in the NFL for four teams, welcomed Leviticus in despite his four-bedroom house already having seven occupants, including Dunn's nephew.
"You just feel for a kid like that who has seven siblings and different stories of bouncing around and just kind of being displaced all over the place," Dunn said. "My main thing was, God put me in a situation to not only be a head coach but to be a mentor and to be as helpful as I can. I was like, ‘Hey, man, you don't have to worry about anything here.' "
Dunn is trying to help Tharpe be a standup human being as well as a well-rounded student-athlete. The coach told his mentee when he moved in that if he wants to pursue his dream of playing college football, he needs to hit the books hard and take his grades seriously.
Tharpe responded. He has increased his grade point average to 3.4 and is taking an aggressive schedule with two of his four classes being Advanced Placement.
Now that Tharpe's on the right track with school, he's upped his play on the field. Even though Tharpe lives with Dunn, Tharpe receives no favoritism, he has to earn his playing time just like any other player on the team. He finished the season with four touchdowns — two receiving and two rushing — as the team's No. 4 wide receiver.
"It was a pretty good year," Tharpe said. "I could have played more, but certain plays I didn't understand very well so my playing time was kind of limited because of that. It was pretty good the times. I did get in and the times I did get the ball because I always made plays."
Tharpe, who 5-foot-11, 170 pounds, mostly lined up as a slot receiver. Dunn loves how fast and how well Tharpe finishes.
"We're trying to teach him how to have more body control," Dunn said. "He's a pretty solid slot receiver, running jet sweeps and he can get outside fairly quick and he does very well on special teams and can play defense. He tackles well. He's a pretty well all-around player."
Tharpe helped Lincoln win six games in a row this season to make a deep postseason push. Lincoln advanced all the way to the CIF state Division 3-AA Bowl Championship game on Dec. 15 where it fell to Menlo-Atherton, 21-7.
While battling all of life's changes of moving, switching schools and jumping around with living arrangements, football has always been a constant for Tharpe. It's a place for him to turn.
"Whenever I have frustration or I have like a temper or anger, I don't have to use it on no one else I can use it on the football field and it just keeps me going," Tharpe said. "It's a place where I can be me without being judged or being punished for it."
Tharpe's dad has watched his son be a stronger person by having football in his life.
"He's had the downside of life, but football being in his life, it keeps him really motivated," Fred Tharpe said. "It keeps him really striving with a positive attitude, positive mind that he's going to overcome."
If Tharpe's challenging journey in the first 16 years of his life has taught him anything, it's to stay humble and keep fighting.
Tharpe will never back down. Nothing will get in his way.
"The kid is driven," Dunn said. "I'm excited for him to see if he's going to pull it together — him and his family."