What do you do when your father is sent back to Jamaica by the U.S. government when you're four-years old? How about when you're 16 and your older brother is sentenced to 29 years in prison? How do you help your mom working two jobs to support three boys?
These are all questions to which Lerentee McCray had to find answers. The Bills linebacker saw his family fractured at an early age by circumstance and then later by his brother's poor decisions. For most it might turn one bitter, angry, resentful. McCray, at a young age, stepped forward to fill a void for his mother and brothers.
Now he's on a quest to pull his long separated family back together.
Too young to understandHe was only four when his mother explained to him that his father had to go away, back home to his native Jamaica. McCray's father, Claude Richardson, did not have a green card and he was brought up on a conspiracy charge.
"They gave him the opportunity to either go to prison or go back to Jamaica," said McCray. "He chose to go back because he didn't want to go to prison."
"It had to happen," said McCray's mother Sybil.
McCray understood his father would be going away, but the concept of time, let alone forever, cannot be grasped by a four-year old.
"I had a strong mom," he said. "She was the backbone of the family and made sure we were all good. You've got to have a strong woman to take care of some boys."
McCray and his older brother Leonardo Simpkins were tasked with helping mom wherever they could. One of six children herself, Sybil McCray fortunately had a support system. While she worked two jobs to support her family as a single parent, her mother and sisters helped with the kids.
"I stayed with my grandma a lot," McCray recalled. "My grandma helped raise me. I used to go to my auntie's house. My mom had mostly sisters. They all helped each other out."
As he got older he helped more around the house, cutting the lawn and doing the dishes. He'd even try to cook for his mom on occasion.
Guiding handsWithout a father figure in the house, McCray would lean on his older brother and uncles for guidance and advice. Among the most influential was his uncle, Tracy Glover. He served as a fatherly influence and helped McCray develop a sense of responsibility.
"They were the people I would talk to about how to handle certain situations," said McCray.
"He was the kind of kid who was always responsible," said his mother. "He would prepare all his things for school the night before. Lerentee always did well in school, made sure his homework was always done."
Getting up at six o'clock every morning for school was a little rough sometimes, but his mother had to take him to his grandmother's house to catch the bus so his mom could get to work on time.
"I told her one day, 'Mom I don't feel like getting up and going to school in the morning.' She told me, 'If I've got to get up and go to work you've got to get up and go do something.' And that was school," McCray said. "So every time I've got something to do, I remember back to her telling me that. If she can get up and do it then I can get up and do it, whatever it is."
It was McCray's older brother however, who was the day-to-day influence.
"He showed me a lot," said McCray. "He actually got me playing football. He was the reason I played because I always looked up to him. He used to play."
Seeing the wrong path up closeThe reason McCray's older brother stopped playing football was because he began running with the wrong crowd in his later teenage years. It eventually landed Leonardo Simpkins in trouble with the law. He faced robbery and weapons charges. Simpkins was convicted and sentenced to 29-years in prison. McCray was 16.
"My oldest son has a good heart, but he got caught up with the wrong people at the wrong time," said Sybil McCray. "God doesn't make any mistakes."
Once again an important male influence in McCray's life was going away.
McCray however, didn't wallow in self-pity. He got on with life the best way he could, especially now that he was the man of the house.
"It was just second nature," he said. "We never really had a father to be there. I always stayed in touch with my uncles and they helped steer me in the right direction and told me what to do. It was just something I had to do. I had to step up to the plate and do it. I couldn't make excuses for myself."
If there was anything that Simpkins misfortune did show McCray it was that the straight and narrow path was the one he had to take.
"It definitely showed me the way not to go growing up seeing him go down that road," McCray said.
"Growing up with him and us just being together all the time and then he had to go to jail. It just showed me that I can't go that route and do the opposite of him and be successful for the family and try to help my mom out. It kind of helped me grow and mature as a man."
Sacrificing for familyOne thing that was working in McCray's favor was his high school football career. It was taking off at Dunnellon high school in Ocala, Florida and McCray had developed into a productive player and team leader.
Recruiting letters began showing up at the house, but there was one school McCray had his heart set on from the time he made college football a goal. The University of Miami.
"Not long after he got to high school, all he would talk about was playing at the University of Miami," said his mother. "He wanted to go there so bad."
The Hurricanes did come calling and he made the commitment, but his brother's pending prison term changed the family dynamics drastically.
Lerentee had a younger brother, Dana, who was impressionable at 14, and would be without a male influence if McCray was more than four hours away by car in south Florida. The talented college prospect had also been actively recruited by the University of Florida. The Gainesville campus was just 40 minutes away.
"We prayed on his college decision a long time," said Sybil McCray. "With our family situation at home he eventually decided to stay closer to home and attend Florida."
Enrolled at Florida, McCray even saved up enough money to buy a car to get home twice a month to check in on his mother and younger brother. He'd also visit older brother, Leonardo at the Union Correctional facility 70 miles from home in Raiford, Florida.
"It's hard even now," McCray said of his older brother's fate. "I always think that I would never want him to do me like that. So when he got locked up I made the decision that I'm going to always have his back. I would do that time for him any day because I would hate for somebody to live their life like that.
"He would never let me do it, but that's something where I felt sympathy for him in my heart. He's going to be alright. He's learning. He's maturing and growing every day. He knows there's a purpose why he's in there.
"When he comes home he's going to have some good things to show. I told him the whole time while he's in there he has to stay focused and find his reason for being here. There's a reason he's in there. He has to find his purpose for when he gets out so he doesn't go back to that same path."
McCray said his older brother has always wanted to be a chef, and that Leonardo has plans in place for when his time behind bars is over.
"I still talk to him to this day. Anytime I get a chance in the offseason I go visit him and see him and make sure he's alright," said McCray. "He's doing good and he's about ready to come home… soon… hopefully."
**Using his career to help his family
**Coming out of Florida, McCray wasn't drafted. A long injury history in college weakened his draft stock, but now in his fourth professional season he's hoping to find a permanent home with the Bills.
"I definitely feel comfortable here. I feel right at home," said McCray of Buffalo. "I was excited about the opportunity to come here and play on defense right away. I didn't always have this opportunity that I have here, but I feel I can come in and contribute and have success here."
McCray doesn't let his mom work as much anymore, though she still works part time to keep herself busy. His younger brother Dana, lives nearby and checks on their mother frequently.
He travels to Jamaica once a year to see his father. He speaks with him by phone once a week.
"Just check on him and see how he's doing," said McCray. "I still talk to him a lot. He's watching the games from down there. He's aware of what's going on."
He's working with an attorney to get his father's immigration paperwork squared away so he can return to the United States.
McCray is also making efforts to re-examine his older brother's case, one in which there may have been some procedural missteps by law enforcement in their initial investigation.
The problems that have surfaced in McCray's life have never been of his own doing, but they have adversely affected his family. And family has always been his top priority.
"He's always put his family first," said his mother. "That has never changed. He always had the mind of an older man. He always seemed a lot wiser about things and the decisions he had to make."
Truthfully McCray never really had a choice. Doing right by his family had to happen, especially when there was no one else to take the lead. That's why spearheading the effort to pull his family back together is seen by him as just another task he has to complete.
"I'm in the solution part of it now," he said. "I'm in the process of getting to the sum of what I need to get done. I just have to put everything together and solve the problem that I have in front of me."
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A father for realMcCray still calls his mother's example of raising three kids largely by herself as his incentive in everything he now takes on himself.
"I just give the credit to God and my mom," he said. "She was a strong woman. She did it and made it happen. She is part of my motivation to keep playing and doing what I'm doing and have success so I can help her in the long run."
The other part is the overwhelming desire to be the father to his two young children in a way he never experienced as a kid himself.
Blessed with a three-year old daughter, Miyah, and a one-year old son, Lemaree, the Bills linebacker has new responsibilities. Those responsibilities however, are ones with which he's already had plenty of experience.
"He's a good man, a loving father," said McCray's mother. "He's helped a lot of people."