Johns Hopkins Magazine - February 1995 Issue

A Long Way from the Old Neighborhood

By Dale Keiger

At 16, Greg Drozdek found himself living alone on some of New York City's toughest streets. Now he's at Hopkins and doing well -- though he admits to feeling displaced. Mentoring inner-city kids has helped. "One place I feel at home, if there is such a place, is with the children," he says.

On a fall Saturday afternoon at Homewood Field, Greg Drozdek '95 of the Johns Hopkins football team kneels on the sideline and makes the sign of the cross. It is moments before kickoff of the last game of the 1994 season. For all Drozdek knows, this might be his last game as well, and football means a lot to him. It's what got him to college. It could be the reason he's still alive.

A photographer claps him on the shoulder pads and wishes him luck. Drozdek barely notices. He does notice a black kid, a boy of about 10, who has walked up to the Hopkins bench. One of the private security guards who patrol football games at Homewood has already told the boy he's not supposed to be here, but this is not a kid who's impressed by rent-a-cops. He's come to say hi to his friend, and that's what he's going to do. Drozdek walks over, takes one of the boy's hands, and bends down to talk to him. At 6 feet, 230 pounds and wearing full pads, he looms over his skinny visitor.

The boy listens to whatever Drozdek is saying because this is Mr. Greg, the guy who comes to his elementary school every Friday, with books and lessons on how to read and write. He listens because he senses, in that way that kids do, that his big friend knows what it is to grow up in tough circumstances. And he listens because Greg Drozdek has a way of commanding attention.

The story of Drozdek's 21-year-old life reads so like a bad film script, some of his biggest supporters were skeptical the first time they heard it. And there are parts of it for which you must take his word, because there are no witnesses, or they prove impossible to track down. But his account is detailed and consistent over time, and almost every big piece of the story checks out with someone else who was there.

Drozdek grew up in rough working-class neighborhoods in New York City. His father beat him, his mother didn't seem to care that he existed, and his little brother embarked on a career as a crack cocaine dealer. When he was 16, Drozdek left home and slept wherever he could, but kept himself enrolled in a Catholic high school by working nights to pay the tuition. He stayed away from drugs, cultivated an interest in art and literature, and channeled his anger into football. After a dispute with the school's principal, he dropped out, but earned a GED. Then he gained an admissions interview at Franklin & Marshall College, and got himself into the freshman class. After a year, he had to quit school again, in part because he owed money to the wrong sort of lender. He went back to New York and was living hand-to- mouth when a couple of big-shots in the financial sector met him and decided, after a few hours of conversation, to guarantee his college education.

With their backing, he talked his way into Hopkins. Since his arrival for the 1993 fall semester, he has played football, crammed three years of study into two, and founded a volunteer program in which dozens of his fellow student- athletes spend an hour a week at a neighborhood elementary school being mentors for fourth-graders. He's on track to earn a bachelor's degree in English this May, and wants to stay on for a master's in teaching. He says he hopes to be a teacher, and someday found his own school. There are people who worry that he's too impatient, too scattered in his efforts, and too impassioned for his own good. There also are people who will tell you that if anybody can do all that he wants to do for inner-city kids, Greg Drozdek's the guy.

Says Wesley Wornom of Hopkins's Office of Volunteer Services, "I can't say that we see many like him. We don't see any like him."

Drozdek walks into Waverly Elementary School, across from Baltimore's Memorial Stadium, and a little girl says to her friend, "It's the tutor."

"Hello, how are you, sweetheart?" Drozdek says to her as he goes by. He heads into the office and spots two boys whom he knows. They have that defiant-sliding-toward- sheepish look of little boys in trouble, and sure enough, they're here because they've been fighting. Drozdek leans over each one in turn and asks what happened. The boys explain, then get a straightforward but not unkindly lecture from their large friend. "Did you think before you did that?" he asks one. "Or did you just react? See, you didn't think, and now you're here in trouble. Think first, then act. Always think first."

As he walks through the halls, he carries a knapsack full of books that he bought at Goodwill. Some he will donate to the school's library; others he will give to some of the kids, as rewards for work done well. He sees a boy in the hall and tells him to button his shirt. "You see me? My shirt's buttoned, right? You gotta have some respect for yourself."

This is the last Friday before Thanksgiving, and for the next few weeks Drozdek won't be seeing these kids or the adults at the school. After he oversees the afternoon's mentoring session, in which roughly 60 Hopkins student- athletes work with about 75 kids on writing stories about what they'd do if they could do anything, he leaves Te-Veria Lee, the school principal, with a hug and a peck on the cheek. A kindergarten teacher named Stacey Hindin gets the same treatment; he worked with her the year before as a tutor, and she'll tell you with little prompting that Mr. Greg is one of her favorite people.

Because of his affability, regular-guy demeanor, and generosity, it's easy to think you know Greg Drozdek once you've spent a few hours around him. He speaks of his life with what seems like disarming candor. But after a while you sense that some of his candor is practiced. He's gotten used to--and good at--telling his story, and seems at times to be talking not about himself but about somebody else whom he happens to know well. This ability allows him to appear open while he keeps essential aspects of himself tucked away. It's like a friendly handshake that holds you at arm's length.

To get a glimpse inside, you have to be alert to his reaction to certain events. Outside Waverly, one of the other mentors has just conferred with him. Drozdek turns to his girlfriend, Audrey Hawkins '96, who is also a volunteer in the program, points to a piece of paper and says, "Look at this. This is a fourth-grader who can't write his own name." There's anger and disgust in his voice. He seems to have taken it personally that this kid, newly transferred to the school, can't read or write.

Bill Tiefenwerth, director of Volunteer Services, has seen this sort of reaction in Drozdek. He says, "There's a sense of personal outrage, an anger behind it."

Drozdek tries to explain: "When I see a kid fighting in school, or that he can't read his own name--I was that kid. When these kids bleed, it's like me still bleeding. When they're not sure what they're worth, I've been there." As an answer, it's a soundbite. It suggests an acquired media slickness. Drozdek's an astute young man who has been asked to tell his story several times. At the same time, it's true: when he looks at the lives of some of these kids at Waverly Elementary, he's been there. He's a long way from the old neighborhood now, but his need to revisit tells how deeply it runs through him.

Greg Drozdek's story begins in a tenement in Yorkville, a neighborhood on Manhattan's Upper East Side that runs roughly from 79th Street up to 96th, the edge of Spanish Harlem. Parts of Yorkville are upscale, but parts are tough working-class territory. Drozdek lived in one of those parts. Says his former parish priest and lifelong friend, Peter Colapietro, "It's a neighborhood where a kid can go good or go real sour."

Drozdek's father, Tomislav, was a Polish immigrant, the son of a man who had escaped from Auschwitz to Yugoslavia; he himself had escaped from Yugoslavia (from a Polish section of Croatia) to Italy when he was 19, failing in his first five tries but persevering until he got out. After coming to the States, he worked in New York as a house painter. "He was pretty good, when he did it," his son recalls. "He was, and is, a drinker, and he's a man who never understood that he was in America, in an economic sense. He could never understand saving money. He could not get it into his head that if he worked five days a week all year long, he could do more than pay his bar tab."

Tomislav was not just an uncertain provider. He was also violent. He had been beaten by his own father, Drozdek says, and beaten by Yugoslavian police after his unsuccessful escape attempts. "My father was really heavy with his hands. I don't know if he realized how hard he hit me. He was the toughest son-of-a-bitch I ever knew. I think I'm a lot like him. I look just like him. When I go back to the neighborhood, the old guys call me 'Little Tomislav.'"

His mother, Gloria, is a first-generation American of Italian descent, who spent eight years in a convent but left before taking her final vows. "My mom and dad never should have gotten married," Drozdek says. "My old man was smooth, man. Very well traveled. He was like the mayor, buying everybody drinks, very charismatic. And my mom was very naive. Eight years in a nunnery doesn't help that."

When Drozdek was 2 1/2, his brother Anthony was born. Peter Colapietro recalls that Drozdek's parents seemed to decide to concentrate on Anthony and leave Greg to fend for himself. "They threw out the good and held on to the bad," is how the priest puts it now. Drozdek says, "To me, there wasn't a decision. It was just always that way. He was their fair-haired boy. It's like they didn't have enough parenting in them for both of us."

They left Greg free to roam the streets, which he did. While still in grade school, he'd be out until 1 or 2 a.m., hanging out, drinking, stealing fruit from Korean vendors: "I grew up a nomad, and that sort of stuck with me. I was a little bad-ass. I was Little Tomislav." Colapietro, who taught religion at Drozdek's grade school, says, "Greg was not very popular with the administration of the school. He was a little tough-guy. But I liked him."

"I was angry, pissed," says Drozdek. "I was hard."

The family moved from tenement to tenement, from Yorkville to another bad neighborhood, Alphabet City, and back to Yorkville. While Tomislav worked now and then and bought rounds of drinks for the boys in the neighborhood bar, Gloria began acting as if she didn't have children. She attended college, and Colapietro remembers her coming to the rectory to study instead of looking after her kids. Drozdek says his parents fought violently, with Gloria, who was a large woman, giving as good as she got. He remembers her sleeping at friends' houses, and once arranging a room for herself in the basement of one of the tenements and all but living apart from her family. She earned a degree in social work. The irony of that is not lost on him.

Meanwhile, his little brother was apprenticing as a drug dealer. Says Drozdek, "Anthony was always given what he wanted. My parents created a little monster that nobody could handle. My father could beat 10 men in a bar, but couldn't stand up to his own son."

One day when Drozdek was 15, Anthony and his friends were brazenly selling drugs on a corner not much more than 20 feet from the family's door. "My father came home and said, 'Go get your brother,'" Drozdek recalls. "I went and grabbed him, and he was high as a kite. He said to me, 'When you go to sleep tonight, I'm gonna slit your throat.' When we got home, he spit at my mother. I lost it and went to hit him, but my father hit me first. Laid me out. When I came to, I called my friend Chris Dietz and said, 'I'm leaving. Let me come over.'"

Drozdek stayed for a month with the Dietz family, and retains a special fondness for Chris's mother, Josephine. "When I think of 'Mother,' I don't think of mine, I think of Chris's mother," he says. "I don't know how much she knows that. On Mother's Day, she's who I send flowers to."

Then Anthony was arrested and sent to a group home. Tomislav came to the Dietz house and begged Greg to come back. At Josephine's urging, he did, but he says that a week or two later he saw Anthony on the street and learned that Tomislav had helped arrange his release. When he went home and found Anthony's belongings moved back into the house, he flew into a rage and began throwing his brother's clothes and unpacked bags out the door. A crowd gathered, and Drozdek claims that Anthony showed up and pointed a gun at him. When Tomislav came upon this scene, he collapsed. Anthony ran off, but Drozdek waited with his father for an ambulance to arrive. Tomislav had suffered a mild heart attack. A day or two later, when his parents still insisted on allowing Anthony to live at home, Drozdek left the house for good. He claims to have had virtually no contact with his parents since.

He moved in with the Dietzes again, paying a little rent when he could. After seven or eight months, the family, which had meager resources, hinted that if Drozdek had someplace else to stay, it might be easier on them. He left immediately, not wanting to be a burden. "I told Josephine I had a place to go, but I didn't," he says. "I slept everywhere, like rooftops, basements of buildings, hallways." Colapietro recalls him sleeping at the rectory for a week at a time. The priest tried to talk him into going home, but Drozdek wouldn't do it. "For him," Colapietro says, "the situation was unbearable." He recalls the tough teenager sitting in the rectory, crying.

Sixteen years old but big for his age, Drozdek supplemented his income from a video store by working in clubs as a bouncer. He fought in "smokers"--unsanctioned boxing matches held in warehouses. He needed money not just to live, but to keep himself in Catholic school. Says Colapietro, "He really worked hard trying to improve himself. He didn't look like the kind of kid who would know about poetry, art, or literature, but he did. He scares you that way sometimes."

Drozdek wanted to keep himself in parochial school for two reasons. One was a yearning for order in his life, which the nuns imposed. The other was football. He had discovered that he was good at the game. He attended Cardinal Hayes High School, near Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. Nick Schloeder, now at the Gilman School in Baltimore, was a teacher and football coach at Cardinal Hayes while Drozdek was there; he says of the neighborhood, "There's no place in America as infested with crime, drugs, and AIDS." Nevertheless, Cardinal Hayes was one Catholic school that Drozdek could afford, and by the end of his sophomore season he'd made it onto the varsity football team. Schloeder recalls him as one of five or six white kids in a school of 1,300. Recalls Drozdek, "The first time I got there to football practice, the coach asked me if I'd got off the wrong bus." Schloeder says, "The black and Hispanic kids took him under their wing. They had no problem with Greg."

Football gave Drozdek not only an outlet for his anger, but a new identity. Mark Kriegel, a New York sportswriter who knows him, says, "In that peculiar way of young men, sports sustained him because he could think of himself as a ballplayer. It gave him structure." Drozdek now had a strong new reason to preserve himself. For the first time, he began to like school. For the first time, he began to think about college.

You can view Drozdek's life as one long walk on a ledge. In November of his senior year at Cardinal Hayes, he stepped off, and the fall was a hard one. Each year on Thanksgiving, Cardinal Hayes plays Mt. St. Michael, another New York school. It's a big traditional rivalry, and Schloeder says the game was especially important to Drozdek that year because it was the last game of his high school career, and football scouts from several universities would be there to have a look at him. The day before the game, the school principal suspended him from the team.

Drozdek says he was behind in his tuition, but Peter Colapietro doubts that money was the problem; he says the school would have worked something out. Drozdek also says the principal, a priest, knew at least vaguely how he was living, and believed he should be either with his parents or be a ward of the state; to Drozdek, neither was an option. Finally, he was having trouble staying awake in class. He claims, "One time, once, I fell asleep in class. A nun complained to the principal. He suspended me. I had an 85 average. I was doing all right. But I rented a room in Hell's Kitchen and was working as a security guard in the Bronx, watching over a construction site, keeping all the crackheads out. It was a midnight shift. From the job, I'd go to school and doze off in class. What could I do?"

The contradiction in his remarks suggests he had trouble with classroom naps more than once, and he concedes that there were days when he didn't make it to school at all--but made it to football practice. The principal may have thought he was doing the best thing for the boy's welfare. But when Drozdek speaks of the incident today, he is still angry: "He had to be consistent with who he was. But I think he knew that was the worst thing he could have done to me, and he did it. Everything I'd worked for, I lost. Then the next day I lost my job."

Though he'd been suspended only from the football team, Drozdek quit school. He says, "I had some things I had to get together." Another viewpoint might be that temper had overruled reason; says Colapietro, who may know him better than anyone, "This is not Francis of Assisi here. He's got his own ideas. He's strong headed, but you need that in life."

Now out of school and out of work, Drozdek crashed. He says, "I had no place to live. I kind of gave up. I started hitting the bottle pretty hard. One night I was pretty drunk, and I was thinking about everything. I went up on a rooftop and went up to the edge. But I didn't go over it.

"I'm a person of extremes. I always see that moment as when I chose one extreme over another. I saw myself there as being like my father, and if I jumped, I was going to fail. I think at that moment I decided I would be that other extreme, the ultimate success. I don't know if it was God, but something clicked in me."

He scrounged work wherever he could find it. He earned his GED, and with an eye toward using football to lever open the door to college, he stayed in shape, lifting weights in a neighborhood gym. Then Nick Schloeder provided a major piece of assistance: he helped arrange an admissions interview at Franklin & Marshall, where he'd been a student and football player. Peter Van Buskirk, the dean of admissions, recalls meeting Drozdek: "He was rough-hewn, if you will. He spoke in the dialect of the streets. But there was something that said you had to go beneath the surface with Greg. I listened to him tell me about his life, and I remember thinking that people like this don't really exist."

Franklin & Marshall admitted Drozdek to a special summer trial program. He did well, and was accepted as a full freshman for the 1991 fall term. Suddenly finding himself at a small, affluent college in pastoral Lancaster, Pennsylvania, was an adjustment. "It was like a J. Crew catalog," he says. "These people came from the suburbs. You could tell once I opened my mouth that I wasn't from there. I got the sense I was the first person like me that they'd ever met. It was lonely. You'd go out with a girl, and she wants to know where you're from, and how do you tell her this? She's from a family that went to Yale."

He found solace boxing in Stumpf's, a Lancaster gym. Stumpf's was full of poor Puerto Rican kids, and Drozdek says, "I needed to feel kind of at home. But one night I had a fight in Harrisburg. When I got up to fight, I thought, 'What am I doing? This isn't my world anymore. I'm going to college. I'm studying Russian literature. I don't have to fight.' I found myself not needing anger as much."

He still needed money, though, and that became a problem. He was attending Franklin & Marshall on a combination of financial aid, student jobs, and loans. But the money wouldn't stretch far enough, and Drozdek admits that he was into a New York loan shark for $2,000: "[Paying that back] was kind of an immediate need, let's say. I needed to get a lot of things straightened out. So once again, I took a little sidestep."

Partway into his sophomore year, he dropped out and returned to New York. He took a tiny room in a fleabag hotel and found work again as a bouncer, and pushing clothing racks through the streets of the garment district. "I just wanted to get back to school without getting killed," he says.

Peter Colapietro, who as much as anybody has been Drozdek's guardian angel, called a woman he knew at the New York Daily News, hoping to find him better, not to mention safer, work at the newspaper. She referred the priest to a sports columnist at the New York Post, Mark Kriegel, and Colapietro called him.

Kriegel wasn't sure what Colapietro thought a sportswriter could do for Drozdek, but he arranged to meet the kid anyway, at a German diner on 86th Street. Recalls Kriegel, "He ate like an animal. He was a big kid and he needed to be fed, man. I was talking to him for a few minutes and I realized this was something I had to write. I don't mean that to sound so melodramatic, but it's the truth."

Kriegel began hanging out with Drozdek. He went to the young man's room: "He was reading War and Peace. There was something about that so absurd--but also so revealing of a depth of character--that it approached surreality. I found Greg to be a combination of extraordinary things. He wanted desperately to learn. He was also very comfortable on the street. I was just astounded that one minute he could be talking about fighting in smokers in Harlem, and the next minute be talking about Joseph Conrad."

Back at the Post, Kriegel cajoled his editor into giving him three pages for a story on Drozdek. (Observes Colapietro: "If the Holy Father came to New York, he wouldn't get that much ink.") Because it was a signed column, Kriegel could dispense with objectivity, and he did. There are places in which a skeptical reader suspects Drozdek, the street kid, of cannily feeding Kriegel some good copy. Talking about visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art as a 10-year-old, for example, Drozdek is quoted in the story: "I loved them, Degas, Renoir, Monet. The colors were so soft. The world was like a dream... Everything flows into everything. There's no pain." Kriegel concedes that Drozdek might have been laying it on a little, but adds, "Look, I bought it. I saw enough of him to make a decision as to whether he was a bullshit artist or not. I trusted my instincts for good people."

Kriegel's column appeared on December 21, 1992, and now Drozdek's life story really took a Hollywood turn. Riding the evening train back to Connecticut, Michael J. Cirasella, a managing director of CS First Boston Corporation, happened to read the Post story and decided he wanted to meet this kid. He got in touch with Drozdek through Father Colapietro, and invited him to First Boston's office on 52nd Street in midtown Manhattan. He also invited a friend of his from Lehmann Brothers, Stanley Ciemnicki.

On New Year's Eve 1992, the two businessmen sat down with Drozdek. Says Cirasella, "Greg comes in wearing dungarees and a sweatshirt. We talked about 45 minutes. We were looking for holes in the story, but we didn't find any. Stan and I excused ourselves and went to another room and talked. We decided right there we were going to guarantee his college education."

When they told Drozdek that they wanted to help him, he didn't understand. He looked around the First Boston office and said, "Thanks, but I can't see myself working here." When they explained that they meant help for college, Drozdek says, "I thought, Yeah. Right."

Cirasella and Ciemnicki were serious, however, and began making calls. John D. Dadakis '73, a partner at the law firm of Rogers & Wells, suggested establishing a foundation to help Drozdek without jeopardizing his athletic eligibility, and agreed to do the legal work pro bono. A partner at Coopers & Lybrand agreed to do the accounting, also for free. By the time they were done, they had established the Believe In Me Foundation, with Drozdek as their first project. (The foundation has grown since then to support seven students at various colleges.)

With a new opportunity at hand, Drozdek says, "I wanted to go to the best school I could." He applied to colleges he'd played against at Franklin & Marshall: Gettysburg, Swarthmore, Hofstra, and Hopkins.

Hopkins football coach Jim Margraff had heard good things about Drozdek from the coaches at Franklin & Marshall, and invited him for a visit. After meeting him, Margraff told the admissions office, "He may or may not help our football team, but I want him at Hopkins." The person in admissions who interviewed him was Sarah Jahries, now at the Walnut Hill School for the Arts in Natick, Massachusetts. Says Jahries, "A typical admissions interview is 30 to 45 minutes. Greg and I spent close to two hours talking. I gave Jimmy a call and said, 'We've got to take this kid.'"

Drozdek's College Board scores were only average. He hadn't attended an academically rigorous high school. And Hopkins admits maybe one student with a GED every two years. But Jahries insisted: "It was clear to me that this was a kid we needed. Admitting Greg and watching him become successful was probably the highlight of my admissions experience at Hopkins."

Drozdek had been accepted by Hofstra, and assumed he was going there. Then he got the call from Margraff telling him he'd been accepted by Hopkins and had only five days to get to Homewood for the start of football practice. When Drozdek told Cirasella of First Boston that Hopkins had offered him a spot, Cirasella told him to take it.

Margraff saw an immediate effect on the football team. "Greg's not a great college football player, he's an average player," Margraff says. "But he's a great person. He takes an interest in every player personally. He'll sense a problem before I will. The guys who are homesick, he'll find them right away." Margraff says that during the 1993 season, Drozdek posted in the locker room a poem he'd written. Says Margraff, "Poems don't usually last long in a football locker room." Nobody touched this one.

In the fall of '93, Drozdek began working as a student volunteer at Waverly Elementary, where he encountered a boy named Daavon Cox. "When I met him," Drozdek says, "he couldn't even write his own name. I taught him how to do it." In Drozdek's apartment, over his desk, are two child's drawings, both from Daavon. On the second is the boy's name, legible and spelled correctly.

"I saw myself as a tutor," Drozdek says, "but I thought I could do more. I noticed that there didn't seem to be any male teachers." He went to the principal, Te-Veria Lee, and suggested a mentoring program. Then he went back and pitched his buddies on the football team: "I went from nothing to 35 tutors in a day." Thus was born the Johns Hopkins Student- Athlete Mentoring Program. It now involves about 60 Hopkins students, both men and women, mostly athletes, who virtually take over the Waverly fourth grade for one hour a week. Says Drozdek, "All the tutors are there not just to teach, but to set an example, to be a mirror. These kids are still at the age when there's room for heroes in their lives, even if the hero's a white kid from Johns Hopkins. It shows that they're worth someone's attention."

At the beginning of a Friday afternoon session, some of the kids light up when they spot their tutors. Others are dead faced. Some are disruptive, at age 10 already advanced little hooligans. Drozdek and the other mentors are earnest and patient, but it's hard to gauge what effect they're having. There's no question in Drozdek's mind of the value of his undertaking: "You're only with a kid once a week, maybe a kid that can't read. What do you do? You try to instill a love of learning. We're students, and we try to get them to see us as students first. Whenever they see us, we have a book in our hands. You can help them raise their own expectations. If you push them the right way, they can go pretty far."

Drozdek and his fellow mentors face one fundamental problem in their desire to be models: almost all of them are white, and almost all of the kids are black. Recalls Drozdek, "One kid in kindergarten asked me, 'Is it true there are black kids in college?'" Drozdek has worked to get more black Hopkins students involved as mentors, but to most of the grade-school kids on this afternoon, race doesn't seem to matter; they obviously like their new white buddies.

Sometimes Drozdek invites kids to his apartment near campus. One time he played a little Beethoven on the stereo. A boy said, "That's girl music." Replied Drozdek, "Well, I like it."

He says, "Hopkins has displaced me from the reality I know best. I can learn things here I never could back home, but it's like being in a foreign country. Working with these kids helps me keep my sanity. One place I feel at home, if there is such a place, is with the children. It's the one state of being I can feel a resolution with."

He pauses, then says, "The one kid I most wanted to get to, I couldn't." He's referring to his brother, Anthony, who has already done time in New York's Rikers Island prison. "I see him when I go back, and it's heartbreaking. Part of me will always feel like I failed Anthony, but I had to take care of myself. I wish my brother the best, but a drug dealer is worse than a murderer, and that's what my brother does. I can't forgive him for that. Part of me hates him for it. It hurts. He looks like me. He's a Drozdek."

As for his parents, Drozdek says he hasn't seen them in six years, though he has spoken to his father by telephone. "He took his legacy of pain and pride and handed it over to me," Drozdek says. "He left home too, and had a father who beat him, and was the older brother always having to take care of a younger brother. I really think my father saw himself in me. That's why he was so hard on me. My mother was a good person in a lot of ways, but not as a mother. My father, at least when he hit me he was doing something. My mother did nothing, and absence is worse than anything. I love my father because he tried."

Because he doesn't yet know if he'll be at Homewood next year, Drozdek needs to prepare someone else to run the mentoring program, and that worries Bill Tiefenwerth of Volunteer Services. "It's an exciting program because of who Greg is," he says. "It's very personality driven. My question for Greg is, 'Who carries on after you're gone?'"

For Tiefenwerth, Wesley Wornom, and others who must administrate the Hopkins student volunteer programs, Drozdek is both a boon and a headache. He makes good things happen, but he's impulsive, impatient with detail and bureaucracy. "He's a bull in a china shop, but a great motivator," Tiefenwerth says. Wornom worries about him. "People who use that excess of energy are among the first to burn out," she says. English professor Allen Grossman, who has taught the young man and likes him immensely, is also concerned. He says, "Greg's a man of enormous good will, and that brings out the worst in an institution." He wonders if perhaps Hopkins found Drozdek a little too useful as a shining example, and could have served him better by convincing him to slow down, concentrate on his studies, and leave the saving of children for later in his life. Grossman doesn't excuse himself, thinking perhaps he should have intervened. "The question now is what he will do for the world," Grossman says. "And we will see that."

"I'm kind of in a rush, if you haven't noticed," Drozdek says. "I can't get too wrapped up in ideas before I want to ground them in the real world."

Part of his rush stems from a desire to finish his undergraduate degree early and save himself and the Believe In Me Foundation the expense of another full year at Hopkins. Drozdek speaks on behalf of the organization in New York and is very grateful for its help; he has received a Hopkins grant and student loans, but the foundation has kicked in about $20,000 to get him through. He also has the deep sense of urgency of a young man who has found a mission.

He may have to learn to modulate that urgency; he may find that when you try to help everybody all in the same day, you stretch yourself too thin and help no one. He responds, "I totally reject that. If I had that idea, I couldn't have gone from one tutor to the kind of program that's going to go on for a long time. I think a lot of people have benefited from the fact that I haven't been able to say no." Besides, he says, he does concentrate on a smaller group of children. Of the 75 or so kids whom his program works with, there are eight or nine who regularly show up at the football games, and at the Hopkins pool, where Drozdek is a Sunday lifeguard. He gives them books, shoots baskets with them, and has them over to his apartment for dinner about once a week; all they ever want to eat, he says, is spaghetti.

Those who worry about him burning out may have underestimated his resilience and his powers of concentration. No matter what the old guys in the neighborhood say, this is not Little Tomislav. Drozdek is tough in a way his old man never was and never will be. Mark Kriegel, the New York sportswriter who has become his friend, is betting on him: "He's a hard-headed kid, man, a hard-headed kid. He has a sort of lunatic discipline that's way beyond most people."

Hopkins wins its last game of the season, but Drozdek has mixed emotions. If he finds enough money, he plans to stay at Homewood to earn his masters degree next year. He may retain another year of eligibility that would allow him to play football during the 1995 season, but he hasn't heard yet, so this might have been his last game in a black Hopkins jersey. He badly wants one more year of football. The game kept him off the streets and in high school, and helped him get into college. Judging by the roar he lets out whenever he makes a hard tackle, it still provides an emotional release he needs.

As the light fades at Homewood Field, five or six skinny, jumpy kids, the spaghetti-for-dinner gang, are all over their hero, yelling and laughing as Drozdek high-fives them. "I gotta go take a shower," he tells them. "Did you guys eat yet?"

Seeing Greg Drozdek surrounded by squirming, happy kids brings to mind something he said two days before. As with some of his other statements, there is a measure of self- dramatization to the words. But there is no mistaking the conviction with which he said them: "If you find something you want to die for, that's really what living is. And I've found that."

Dale Keiger is the magazine's senior writer.

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