It was the shoes. It was all about those wonderful shoes, and everything they represented.
At age 6, Andrew Spencer got the one and only gift he wanted for Christmas.
Having watched his older brothers play youth football, Spencer couldn't wait for his turn. His dad Reginald told him that he would have to wait until he was 7 to play, but that Christmas, Spencer got hooked up with the one thing he needed to be ready once his time came.
"That Christmas my dad bought me some football cleats," Spencer said. "That was the best thing ever. I mean, the best. It was so fun watching my brothers play football and I saw how happy my dad was and how much pride he took in that.
"I was so excited about my cleats and I couldn't wait until it was my turn."
Spencer, in a sense, is still waiting.
Sure, he's playing football. He has since he was 7 years old, and now, 10 years later, he's a superstar senior wide receiver and defensive back for a Lakes team that is 4-1 and on its way to its best season in school history.
But Spencer is still waiting for his dad to see him play. He's still waiting for his dad to watch him with the same pride that he did with his older brothers, Keon and Phillip.
Within months of getting those cleats, Spencer saw his world turn upside down.
His dad was suddenly in prison.
Reginald Spencer was 34 years old when he was convicted of armed robbery and kidnapping for an attempted car-jacking that took place around the holidays in 2002 outside a store in Gurnee. He is serving a 25-year sentence at the Danville Correctional Center downstate.
"We know now that my dad got involved with the wrong people and he made a horrible decision and a terrible mistake," Spencer said. "I mean, I was so young at the time, but I thought we had a pretty nice life back then. We were living in North Chicago and we had a nice house, a nice backyard. We had a nice family and my dad was a Godly man who was funny and always cracking jokes and making my mom laugh.
"I remember that I wasn't sure why this all happened, but I knew that my dad was in a lot of trouble and that things would definitely be different."
The biggest difference for Spencer is the void. He feels it every time he sees his friends with their dads, every time he craves a fatherly pat on the back for a job well done, every time he needs some stern fatherly guidance.
Spencer has not seen his father since all the hell broke loose. Not once.
That's more than 10 years of missed holidays, missed report cards, missed touchdown catches…and everything in between.
"It's been pretty rough," Spencer said. "Sometimes, I'll look up in the stands and see all the other dads up there. I think in a way, I've been playing all this time just hoping that someday I might see my dad in the stands watching me, that he'll get to see me play at least once. It bums me out that I know that probably won't ever happen."
Father and son outings are also tough on Spencer.
"We just had a father-son thing with the football team and all of my friends had their dads there," Spencer said. "But I was lucky that a close family friend took my dad's spot. I have a lot of good people in my life that have helped me through things like that."
Older brothers Keon, now 24, and Phillip, 19, have both been role models and father figures for Spencer. The fathers of some of Spencer's friends have also stepped up. Ditto for Spencer's current coaches, and those who coached him during his early years.
"A lot of those guys have taught me about good character, about following your faith and what it means to be a good man, and a good father," Spencer said. "Some of my friends … their fathers have made me feel like a son and that helps a lot. I have such a strong bond with them."
Spencer's mother Phyllis doesn't even know how to begin to express her gratitude. She says she couldn't have raised young boys, and gotten through the day-to-day struggles of life all by herself.
Phyllis had four young children in the house when Reginald Spencer left for prison. She's taken on multiple jobs to make ends meet and has still faced having her water, lights and heat turned off, not to mention threats of eviction.
"It hasn't been easy for any of us, and the statistics aren't good for a kid like Andrew, growing up without a father," Phyllis said. "But I think we've made it through because of our faith and because we've been surrounded by a really big support system of beautiful friends and neighbors.
"You know how they say that 'it takes a village?' Well, we've really experienced that."
Sports, particularly football, has also been a salvation for Spencer. As counterintuitive as it sounds about a sport that is all about crushing hits and pain-staking assignments, the football field represents a peaceful place.
"It's like my safe house, my getaway," Spencer said. "You can ask any of my teammates. I think I'm probably my most energized and outgoing and probably the happiest on the field. I just love football so much."
It shows in the way Spencer plays the game.
He was moved up to varsity at the end of his sophomore year and has been starting the last two years. He's the Eagles' No. 1 utility player, able to catch passes, run out of the backfield, return kicks and defend receivers.
Spencer is coming off of one of his best games of the season. He had 4 catches, including a 35-yard touchdown reception, in a win over rival Antioch last week.
"Andrew is one of the best athletes at our school," Lakes coach Luke Mertens said. "He has arguably the best hands I've ever seen. I mean, he can catch any ball within his reach. And he's so dynamic in that he can play so many different positions. He does so much for us.
"But I think the thing that has impressed me most as I've gotten to know Andrew and his story is how determined and focused he is in the face of some really tough challenges. I'm blown away by it. Sports has been the structure in his life that a lot of times I'm sure he felt he was missing because of his dad not being there."
One thing that has never been missing for Spencer is his mother.
They couldn't be closer. One of Spencer's dreams is that he can be successful enough at football to one day buy his mother her own house as a thank you.
He's already getting looks from some mid-major colleges, so, for him, that dream is still very much alive.
"When everything happened with my dad, I just remember feeling so bad for my mom because I'm a huge Momma's boy and I saw how sad she was," Spencer said. "But she is huge in her faith and even though she hit rock bottom like we all did, she got stronger. She does so much for me and everyone in our family. She does the work of a mother, and a father. She has made sure that I know what to do, and what not to do. And she has always been there for me.
"My mom is my hero."
It takes one to know one.
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