- Mitch Sherman, ESPN Staff Writer
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SPRINGFIELD, Mo. -- Steam rises from patches of wet grass on the ragged practice field behind Hoyt Shumate Stadium as the mid-morning August sun perches over Hillcrest High School, barely a cloud in sight.
The temperature pushes 85 degrees already, and the humidity reading isn't far off. It's a slight reprieve from the triple digits of July but stifling nonetheless. Coach John Beckham cuts short his three-and-a-half-hour practice, calling together a tired bunch of offensive players to hear a final message in this week before classes resume and the football season opens.
Just then, a striking figure emerges from the far end of the field. He doesn't appear to fit here, standing a head taller than almost everyone and seemingly cut from stone at 220 pounds. A blue belt hangs over his shirtless shoulders, practice jersey in his left hand as the 18-year-old wide receiver walks slowly toward his teammates.
Many on this field came from backgrounds similar to Dorial Green-Beckham, their families shredded by poverty and drug abuse, but he has risen above it all -- literally, at 6-foot-6 -- to earn his spot as perhaps the most prized recruit in the nation and the best high school athlete anyone has ever watched in Southwest Missouri.
"Around here," said Darrell Johnson, Hillcrest athletic director, "we don't see the full package very often."
Green-Beckham is the full package and more.
A complex mix of triumph and tragedy, love and abandonment, resiliency and rejection, Green-Beckham is a proud son, dedicated brother, elite athlete and coveted target of every major college football program.
Experts say he's the next Randy Moss or A.J. Green, though he's built more like Calvin Johnson, arguably the most physically imposing receiver in the NFL.
One more thing: "He's a high school senior," said John Beckham, the Hillcrest coach and Dorial's adoptive father. "I tell my kids the worst thing about being that age is that you're stupid, but you don't realize you're stupid.
"He's a typical teenager."
People forget, because so much else defines Dorial Green-Beckham.
More than foster parents
Several years ago, before Dorial and Darnell, his younger brother by two-and-a-half years, came to live with John and Tracy Beckham, another set of brothers stayed with the coach and his wife.
One day, John, while traveling, got a phone call from the younger one -- hysterical. His big brother, an eighth-grader from a broken home, urinated on him.
John rolls his eyes at the memory.
He said he'd deal with it when he got home. But when John returned to Springfield, the older boy had packed his bags.
"Without anybody saying anything to him," John said, "he knew he was leaving."
John sat down with the boy and explained that no one wanted him out. Every family faces problems, he said.
"That's the culture we deal with," John said. "Their dad was on meth. He would just leave for weeks; ended up in jail. We see a lot of kids like that."
John and Tracy Beckham have fostered about 20 children over the past two decades. They've adopted five -- soon to be six, with the addition of 17-year-old Scott Smith, a senior linebacker at Hillcrest who landed with the Beckhams last year when forced to leave his family in nearby Webb City, Mo.
In addition to the foster children and adoptive cases, dozens more have lived at the Beckham's three-bedroom home. And countless others show up periodically for a meal or comfort.
John and Tracy don't turn away kids.
"They're great people," Dorial said.
And Springfield is full of kids who need help. At Hillcrest, principal Jay Rush said, 70 to 75 percent of the students face some form of poverty.
"The myth is that we're a suburban school," Rush said. "The reality is that we sit in a suburban location, but we're an inner-city school.
"We have a great bunch of kids here. They try very hard, show up every day and persevere through some circumstances that would make a lot of us shudder."
Culturally, the city of nearly 160,000, Missouri's third largest, sits at a crossroads -- 55 miles from the Arkansas border and 75 from Oklahoma. With its red dirt and parking lots full of pickup trucks, Springfield feels more like Little Rock than Kansas City, a three-hour drive north.
Some have called it the nation's northernmost southern city.
Dorial walked an equally fine line between success and failure. John and Tracy nudged him the right way.
"They're the key to everything," Rush said.
John, 49, and Tracy, 48, met in 1981 after he moved from Miami. They married in 1984 and started raising cattle. Soon, the couple learned they couldn't have children, so they investigated adoption.
In 1987, Sarah was the first. She's now 23 and on track to graduate from college.
Rick, 22, arrived next. Then the onslaught of foster children arrived.
"When I see these kids, there's something in my heart that tells me I need to fix this," Tracy said. "We don't spend time worrying about it. We just take them. When you've been in this system long enough, you know there is not another person waiting in line behind you."
Life at the Beckhams is never dull.
The grocery bill? About $600 a week, according to John.
"At least," said Tracy.
They go through two gallons of milk a day and a box of cereal in 10 minutes.
"I'm sure most people think we're completely nuts," John said. "And we are completely nuts. But we don't take being foster parents lightly."
Tracy, a Hillcrest graduate, drives more than four hours round trip to her job as the lone anesthetist at Salem Memorial District Hospital in Salem, Mo.
She worked several years ago in Joplin, Mo., at St. John's Regional Medical Center, which was destroyed May 22 in a massive tornado. Tracy knows dozens of people afflicted by the disaster and wishes she could do more to assist.
Basically, all she does is help people -- at work and at home.
Rush describes John and Tracy as "humble servants."
Still, Johnson, the Hillcrest athletic director, said he defends the Beckhams to people who rush to judgment upon learning that the family adopted Dorial, the star athlete.
"They think it looks like this is the end of the master plan," Johnson said, "like it's all coming together."
Far from it.
Dorial and Darnell, the middle two of Charmelle Green's six children, shuttled often between their native St. Louis and Springfield as young boys.
"Growing up," Dorial said, "we didn't have choices."
They lived in group homes, basements, tiny apartments and hotels before John and Tracy had seen enough in 2005.
Charmelle Green's two older boys, Sam and Vincent, had also spent time with the Beckhams, but the couple was reluctant to take on more as Tracy battled thyroid cancer.
In the end, they couldn't say no.
"It was scary, but you just have to keep on going," Tracy said. "You can't put people's lives on hold. Those boys were in a seriously bad situation. Pretty soon, they were going to be a bunch of kids where everybody wondered what happened to them."
Life, she said, is never convenient.
The Beckhams failed to establish a feeling of trust with Sam. He's since been in and out of rehab. Dorial's oldest brother, Vincent, is in prison. Neither of them graduated from high school. Their mother, Charmelle, has also spent time in jail, though Dorial maintains a relationship with her.
John said the Beckhams got to Dorial "just in time," at age 13.
"There's a trust factor," John said. "When you get a kid who's been in countless bad situations, it takes time."
In the middle of it all, Tracy got pregnant, a shock.
Eliza Grace was born in June 2005, the Beckhams' only biological child.
Dorial can't get enough of the little girl. He walks in the door at home and goes right to her. And she loves to watch him play football. Her first opportunity of the school year comes Saturday, when Hillcrest faces Seneca High School at Missouri Southern's Hughes Stadium in Joplin. The game, at 9 p.m. ET, will be televised on ESPNU.
Win or lose, Eliza's happy if she gets a seat on the team bus.
Back in Springfield, she'll head home with the Beckham gang: 21-year-old Mikael Cooper-Falls, Dorial, 18-year-old Quiandre Robinson, Scott, Darnell and Malachi, 13, who was adopted at 6 weeks old.
But even under that cozy roof, all is not well.
Celebration on hold
John and Tracy Beckham looked at their calendar at the start of 2011 and figured this year would rank as the busiest of their hectic lives -- what with the pressure-packed decision about Dorial's college future to loom large.
They had no idea.
In February, 15-year-old Darnell, a superior athlete in his own right and a varsity basketball player as a freshman, complained of pain in his hip. It spread across his pelvis, and a few days later, Darnell limped into his father's office at Hillcrest. He could hardly walk.
Hours later, an ambulance raced Darnell and Tracy to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, 500 miles from Springfield.
Doctors quickly diagnosed him with acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
He faced more than three months of intense treatment. John took a leave of absence from school. They lived at the Ronald McDonald House in Memphis.
"It just hit us out of nowhere," John said. "That first week, I couldn't believe it was happening. I was in a daze."
Darnell's prognosis is excellent, but he required 120 weeks of treatment after the initial induction phase. He's got 108 left.
"We get caught up in what we think are problems," said Rush, the high school principal. "But what I'm worried about just isn't a problem after that."
Darnell takes chemotherapy daily and receives treatment every Tuesday in Springfield. He's set for an extended trip to Memphis in September for re-induction, another painful period before his quality of life should improve.
But it's excruciating now, with seemingly no end in sight. Darnell hoped to make it back to the football team by the end of this year. That looks unlikely. Basketball is doubtful, too, for another year.
Tracy said she had to drag him to get his team photo taken last week.
"He wouldn't even put on his pads," she said. "It breaks your heart. But I think with these things, there's a bigger picture."
Darnell's condition hit Dorial hard. This year was supposed to be a celebration for the family. Instead, they suffer with Darnell. Some master plan.
"He knows I'm there for him," Dorial said. "It's just hard to have him in my thoughts like that and to think that he has cancer."
At St. Jude, Darnell and the Beckhams met Shon Coleman, an Auburn offensive linemen. He was diagnosed with the same type of leukemia shortly after signing with the Tigers in 2010. Coleman's progress provides hope for Darnell.
And the Beckhams notice change in Dorial's little brother, too. When he moved into the house, Darnell was angry. Slowly, his mood lightened -- even after the leukemia diagnosis.
"He's a totally different kid," Tracy said.
Darnell has grown closer with his parents in the past seven months, they said. He posts encouraging words on Facebook and travels with Dorial to visit college campuses when possible -- even got to meet Alabama coach Nick Saban. This fall, he's back at Hillcrest.
There's something else to consider. If the Beckhams hadn't adopted Dorial and Darnell in December 2009, at the request of the boys, Darnell would have faced a more circuitous path, as foster parents are denied some rights in making medical decisions about children in their care.
"We're just very fortunate," John Beckham said.
"It gives our life purpose," he said. "We feel like we benefit from this more than the kids."
A legend is born
The moment when it all became clear occurred not on a dusty, Southwest Missouri football field, but at glitzy Mizzou Arena in March 2010.
The Hillcrest basketball team trailed Oakville of St. Louis late in the Class 5 title game when Dorial took over. His 10 points, five rebounds and two blocked shots in the final 4:17 secured a state championship and established his legend.
And he doesn't recall much of it.
"I know I was in my own mindset," Dorial said. "I was zoned out, just playing. I remember dribbling through everybody."
Isn't that how it works for the most special athletes? Their greatness comes so naturally, they don't even know it is happening. Dorial has accumulated 181 receptions in three seasons for 4,120 yards and 51 touchdowns, but he counts only one catch as a worthy highlight -- his first one.
"We knew he was going to be a good player, but we didn't know how good," Hillcrest offensive coordinator Andy McFarland said. "So we ran him on a go, first play after the kickoff in the first game of his freshman year."
Dorial went up to grab Mitchell Jenkins' throw 45 yards downfield. Touchdown. The game at West Plains marked perhaps the only time in high school he's faced single coverage, McFarland said.
After that catch, it's a blur to Dorial. Others won't soon forget his achievements.
"I remember he looked like a college player as a freshman," said Will Christian, coach at rival Lebanon High School. "When we assessed them on tape, I thought he was a big, athletic kid. But when we saw them live, I could not believe how huge his legs are. And when you watch him run his routes, he's so fluid and effortless.
"That's the thing you see really in special athletes; they almost look like they're loafing."
Those legs propelled Dorial to dunk as a seventh-grader. He won the 100-meter dash at the state track meet as a sophomore and placed first in the triple jump without more than a handful of practice attempts all year.
He runs the 40-yard dash in 4.37 seconds.
Two years ago, the Lebanon defense often committed three players against Dorial. He scored four touchdowns.
"None of it worked," Christian said.
McFarland said he's impressed by the tenacity with which Dorial blocks. The coach has not once seen a defender successfully jam Dorial in press coverage.
"There's never been anything like him here," said Johnson, the Hillcrest A.D., and a graduate of the school. "He's just a kid who happens to be very large and very fast. And he's pretty smart, too."
Not prepared, though, to decipher all that college recruiters throw at him.
The Beckhams have filled four cabinets at home with mail from football programs. Last week at school, he received four items in one day from Florida State, three from Oregon and Tennessee, two from Missouri, Alabama, Texas A&M, Texas and East Carolina and one apiece from North Carolina State, Georgia Tech, Oklahoma, Nebraska and Florida.
John said he expected another pile just like it at home.
"If it was another kid, I wouldn't have as much control," John said. "But with Dorial, he's also my son, so I have a little more say in how I want the process to go. I've been around long enough. I've seen the dog and pony shows. I just don't want it to be that way. That's not how we do things as a family."
Dorial could grant five interviews a day if he said yes to everyone, his father said.
"I understand there are people out there who want information," John said, "but we're not going to let it take over."
Despite Darnell's condition, the family made several recruiting trips this year. Dorial enjoyed the visits. He met former college stars Sam Bradford and Jermaine Greshman at Oklahoma, Colt McCoy at Texas and Julio Jones at Alabama, not to mention the coaches.
He's also visited Arkansas, Auburn and Missouri, which started recruiting him before the others. He mentioned those six schools last week, plus Ole Miss, Florida State and Florida. The Gators, by the way, sent offensive coordinator Charlie Weis to Springfield recently. He spent eight hours at the school.
Dorial said he plans to narrow his list to about five by Sept. 1, when coaches can call prospects once a week.
"I think he's close," John said. "Could there be six or seven? Yeah, but we don't want 15 calling."
How and when will it end?
John said he doesn't know. "We'll cross that bridge later on, but I want him to be able to have some fun."
But it's not all fun. The Beckhams visited Fayetteville and the Arkansas campus last week for a news conference to promote Hillcrest's Sept. 1 game at Razorback Stadium against Rogers Heritage High School.
After the news conference, John, Tracy and the kids stopped for pizza. As soon as they walked in the door, Dorial said, people were on their phones, talking and texting about him.
The attention makes him uncomfortable.
"Every step that I take, I feel like somebody's watching me," Dorial said. "I'm going to have to get used to it eventually. But some days, it's tough. There can be a group of people, and I just have to leave."
He's back in Springfield now, firmly inside his comfort zone.
Life awaits. It's never an easy road for him, but Dorial enters the next chapter as a product of his environment -- more prepared to face challenges because of his experiences.
The last player to leave the practice field on that steamy morning, he passes over grass scorched by the summer heat and into the stadium toward the Hillcrest locker room.
At his side walks John Beckham. They're talking quietly. About recruiting or another of the kids. Maybe the big game in Joplin on Saturday night.
It doesn't matter, really. What matters is this: It's the first place Dorial Green-Beckham has ever known as home.
Mitch Sherman is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Follow Mitch Sherman on Twitter: @mitchsherman
Dorial Green-Beckham has been through a lot including foster homes and his brother's battle with cancer. But he stays positive, writes Mitch Sherman.