Silent years speak loudly in troubled teens' lives

Published June 3, 2005

Joe Troupe calls them the silent years.

Troupe, a counselor for the Youth Opportunity Movement, has heard all the accolades about Middleton High graduate O.J. Murdock.

In fact, just about every local sports fan is familiar with Murdock. He helped his football team reach the regional finals, earned a scholarship to the University of South Carolina and won the 100- and 200-meter races at the Class 3A state championships.

But Troupe, whose program is part of the Corporation to Develop Communities of Tampa, knows no one would be talking about the high school standout if Murdock hadn't survived the silent years.

Long before Murdock was being touted as one of the nation's best high school athletes, he was a struggling ninth-grader at Hillsborough High. No one was talking about Murdock back then, but his 1.3 grade point average spoke volumes about his future.

"I was just not doing any work, whatsoever," said Murdock, who just graduated. "I don't want to say I hung with a bad crowd, but I hung with a lot of seniors. They didn't go to class, so I didn't go to class."

The silent years were on the verge of silencing Murdock's potential.

One Sunday at First Baptist Church of College Hill, Hillsborough High assistant coach Charles Roberts approached Troupe about working with Murdock. In addition to counseling students through the Youth Opportunity program, Troupe, a former South Carolina defensive back, works with athletes on speed and conditioning.

He saw the possibilities but needed Murdock to show more than athletic promise.

"There's always potential, but to change something, you have to change the way you think," Troupe said. "You can't keep doing the same thing over and over and expect different results.

"With O.J.'s situation, we thought the best thing was for him to change his environment and get a fresh start."

So Murdock transferred from Hillsborough to Middleton. He also started daily tutoring at Youth Opportunity's Audrey Spotford Center at Lake Avenue and 29th Street in east Tampa. Troupe and fellow counselors Romey Battle and Mike Brown rallied around Troupe, becoming a sort of "Team O.J."

When a tearful Murdock announced he was going to South Carolina during a February ceremony at Middleton, it was one of the center's proudest moments.

But it wasn't the only one.

A map of the United States in the Spotford Center is covered with push pins, each one representing one of the students Youth Opportunity has helped get into college. The pins represent not only athletes but all kinds of kids who just needed guidance.

The program helps more than 400 community children annually. Services include tutoring, computer training, occupational skills, job placement, college preparation courses and financial assistance for those headed for college.

Its biggest offering, however, is hope.

"It's helping the community because we're building relationships," Troupe said. "And you can't just build a relationship with the child, you have to build a relationship with everybody who is important to that child, especially the parents."

Ask Troupe about the silent years, and he will tell you that everybody has to go through the fire. Murdock didn't get burned thanks to "Team O.J.," and plenty of other kids are willing to credit Youth Opportunity.

Yet for every success story, there are others who didn't endure the silent years. Kids with just as many athletic gifts or just as much academic prowess are lounging on street corners instead of learning in schools. Troupe and Battle say that with more resources, they might be able to help more students.

As Murdock hopefully rises as a football star, I wonder if the NCAA will ever consider lending a hand to the Youth Opportunity Movement. As he emerges as a proud graduate of Middleton, I wonder if the school district is interested in partnering with the program.

Most of all, as I spot kids on street corners whose futures don't appear as bright, I wonder if they could have survived the silent years and become the next Murdock - with a little help.

That's all I'm saying.

--Ernest Hooper can be reached at 813 226-3406 or Hooper@sptimes.com