Corvell Poag

Armstrong High School Principal Willie J. Bell Jr. congratulated Corvell Poag after he won The Times-Dispatch/Sports Backers scholar-athlete of the year award at The Jefferson Hotel on Monday. Poag grew up in public housing and will attend UVA this fall.

On the wrestling mat, Corvell Poag’s desire to win is practically all-consuming.

No matter the opponent, no matter the situation, no matter if he’s wrestling through injuries that might sideline someone else, Poag is determined to come out on top.

“I’ve seen him come back from 13 points down,” said Armstrong High School wrestling coach Cezar Carvalhaes. “He has tremendous drive and amazing will. But the big X-factor with Corvell is he wants it more than anyone else.”

Everyone wants to win. Want, though, is a secondary reason Poag craves success.

He needs to win.

“I would say in life, growing up was like taking a loss,” Poag said. “Every time something bad happens, I take another loss. In football or wrestling, I don’t want to take another loss. I don’t want to lose again. I have to win. I need to win for my mental health, for my confidence.”

Poag, who will be 18 this month, lost his childhood, much of his adolescence and some of his teenage years. He lost his mother to the streets and jail because of substance abuse. He has lost friends to violent deaths and homes to fires and evictions.

He lost laptops, shoes, video games and clothes, taken by his mother to feed her drug habit.

On Monday night, though, Corvell Poag was a big winner. He was selected as The Times-Dispatch/Sports Backers male scholar-athlete of the year, which comes with a $7,500 scholarship.

It is an amazing accomplishment, a testament to an unwavering sense of survival and the idea that there is a better way of life available that has enabled him, his older brother and one sister to overcome a chaotic home life.

“I think ‘chaotic’ is an understatement,” said Poag, who is the class president at Armstrong and will attend the University of Virginia this fall.

There have been 66 winners since the scholar-athlete award began in 1987. Poag is just the third to come from a Richmond city school. Molly Grube, a standout student and pitcher for the Manchester High softball team in Chesterfield County, was selected as the female scholar-athlete winner. She also will attend UVA.

‘A second family’

Like most other scholar-athletes, Poag has had full athletic, academic, club and community calendars. But his reasons to stay busy probably had little or nothing in common with his fellow student-athletes’.

“I joined as many activities as I could to keep me away from home and keep me occupied as much as possible,” Poag said. “I’ve had a lot of problems growing up. Being in clubs and teams is almost like a second family, especially when you really love it and everyone else really loves it. You connect with people. It’s something you want to be around.

“I have a family, but not the best family, so why not find another family, a second family to be there when your family can’t? And, honestly, I don’t like being around my mom. Last April, I moved in with my big sister.”

Poag went from the Fairfield Court public housing complex to a two-bedroom apartment just beyond the edge of the Whitcomb Court complex, not far from Mosby Court.

In Fairfield Court, he said, he lived in a two-bedroom house with his grandparents, mother, father, a younger brother and his mother’s godson, who is like a brother.

The family also had a dog.

“It was pretty rough,” he said.

He asked his sister Norwanda if he could live with her, and she didn’t hesitate to say yes. Norwanda is one of the many heroes in Poag’s story.

His mother is not.

“My mom is currently incarcerated,” he said. “She’s been locked up for a good amount of time now, maybe five or six months. I’m not really sure. We don’t keep in contact. When someone told me she was locked up, I was like, ‘OK.’ I care, but I don’t really care. We bump heads a lot. It’s a long story.”

His mother, Towanda Carter, has been in and out of jail for various lengths of time for about the past 10 years. After being arrested and jailed in December, she pleaded guilty Thursday in Henrico County Circuit Court to a felony larceny charge. It was her third larceny conviction. She was given a sentence of four years and five months, with the four years suspended. She was placed on supervised probation for seven years.

Online court records indicate she has charges pending in other localities.

“When I was in about the sixth grade, my mom started doing drugs,” Poag said. “At first, it was controllable. As I got older, it got way worse. She started stealing money from me. Or she would sell my clothes, my [video] games, my laptops. She took my laptops twice. These are my personal laptops. My school doesn’t provide us with a laptop.

“I had to beg my teachers to let me make up the work. When I got older, I realized I didn’t want to be around that. That’s not what a mother should do. And we would argue about it a lot. Before she started doing drugs, she was a great mom.”

On Thursday, Carter told the judge that in the past 4½ years, she let drugs take over her life. She said she didn’t realize her addiction was so bad and that in the past six months, she had realized the things she had done and was getting the help she needed.

Poag is in touch with his father, Norvell Booker, and thinks he lives with one of Poag’s older sisters. Booker has been helpful with questions regarding financial aid forms for college.

“If I need him, he’s around,” Poag said of his father. “My dad tries. He’s been in jail, and it’s hard for him to get jobs. When he does, they’re minimum-wage or temporary. But he tries to take care of us.”

Another older sister had mental health problems as a teenager and was hospitalized for years, then was released when she was 18.

‘No one should have

to go through that’

Considering the life Poag has lived, it’s impressive, bordering on amazing, that he has managed to graduate from high school with a 4.06 GPA and is headed to UVA.

His life is unbelievable, but it’s true. His sister, family friends, coaches and advisers at Armstrong confirm Poag’s story. They also add that Poag is not the only student they see dealing with similar issues.

And yet Poag has hope. He’s going to one of the best colleges in the country, with the cost covered by federal, state and institutional dollars.

So how is this possible when Poag has lived a life most only see on television or in a movie, a life filled not just with poverty, but every issue that afflicts public housing, where there are too many people with too little hope?

“I get asked that a lot,” Poag said. “The answer is always different. I think the most reasonable answer is my brother [Lydell Poag]. He’s a junior in college now, at Old Dominion, and I think he motivated me because he was the first person in my family to go to college.

“I was always smart enough to understand we come from the same life, and if he can do it, I can do it. When he got his first [college] acceptance letter, I was happy for him. But I probably was happier for me because I thought, ‘In three years, that’s going to be me, and I can get away from all this.’”

“All this” is not just his chaotic family life, where moving from house to house was commonplace and disruptive to the educations of Poag and his six brothers and sisters. One house was destroyed in a fire and all the family’s belongings along with it. Once, Poag’s mother took the family to Hampton, dropped them off at a house and left.

Eventually, the electricity and water were turned off. Somehow, Poag managed to finish the sixth grade. Then, the family returned to Richmond.

“All this” also is life in public housing.

“I’ve lived in the projects most of my life, and it’s tough,” Poag said. “It’s gangs. There’s always a fight over nothing. People are always fighting and arguing. There are shootings. Somebody’s dying every other week for no reason.

“But I’m used to it, sad to say. I hear gunshots, and I don’t even get scared anymore. You walk down the street and you see people fighting. That’s normal. You don’t even react. It’s poverty. Everyone is low-income. People don’t make it out of the projects. They don’t have high school diplomas, so they can’t get real jobs. They go to a life of crime.

“No one should have to go through that, especially a child, not even an adult.”

Much of Poag’s success can be attributed to his intelligence, dedication and realization that, for the most part, he’s on his own, just like in wrestling, and he needs to win.

But part of the reason for Poag’s success is a network of family, friends, teachers and community support programs that saw his potential and demanded he reach it.

First, there is his sister Norwanda.

When she was 16 and still in high school, she understood her family’s dysfunction. She got two jobs at fast-food restaurants, one immediately after school and another on an overnight shift.

“I had time to sleep sometimes,” she said. “I would wear my uniform to school so I could go straight to work.

“It did start affecting me. My grades started to slip. But I still made it across that [graduation] stage.”

The money from her two jobs paid bills and rent and bought food. At 17, she got her own apartment.

She still provided for her family.

“If it wasn’t for her, I would have been homeless five or six years ago,” Poag said.

When he finally had to get away from the chaos of his home, his sister welcomed him. Eventually, their younger brother moved in as well.

“We have two bedrooms, and he doesn’t mind sleeping on the couch,” Norwanda said of Poag. “I’ve never been a selfish type. I paid for Corvell to go to the prom and wherever he needed to go because he deserved it. I know my money’s not being wasted.”

Norwanda, 22, now works at an upscale grocery store. She’s currently on maternity leave, awaiting the birth of her first child with her partner, Brandon Cooke.

Cooke also plays a significant role in Poag’s life, helping him financially, giving him rides to appointments and offering encouragement.

Norwanda does more than provide Corvell with a place to live. She gives her brother a curfew of 9:30 p.m. He has to be home or call to let her know where he is.

“I don’t allow him to roam the streets at night,” Norwanda said.

Next there is JaQuan Winston. He’s the owner of T.A.G. Inc., a mental health, skill building and crisis intervention company. He met the Poag family in 2011 when Carter was in his program.

“They were missing 40 days of school a year, but they were still making good grades,” Winston said. “When I saw I was going to get involved with the family, I referred their mother to another agency and started building a relationship with them, just doing little things for them.”

Some things were bigger than others.

“He is my role model,” Poag said. “He was like a dad to me when my mom first got hooked on drugs. We have father-son talks. If I need something, he’s going to get it.”

Winston, 36, married and the father of a 3-year-old, has provided food, clothing and shoes — even the stylish basketball shoes so many teenagers covet — haircuts and video game systems. He has provided emotional support. Corvell and Lydell check in regularly by phone. Norwanda calls on occasion.

“I tell them I don’t know how they were able to focus and maintain,” Winston said. “They don’t have any family support. They’re just survivors. Corvell knows what he wants. He has a drive. He’s been an amazing kid from the start, and that says a lot about him. He could be any kind of way, living smack in the middle of all the ‘courts.’ But he’s not a bad kid. He could be a bully and take a lot of aggression out on people. But he doesn’t. And nobody wants any problems with him.”

‘It’s hard to fathom what

he has accomplished’

What Poag wants most is to leave behind the life he has lived for 18 years. He wants an education and all the opportunities and hope that come with it.

He’s on the verge of realizing a dream he never thought possible.

An essential element in Poag’s life the past three years has been the Armstrong Leadership Program. It’s an after-school operation that is a part of the ministry of the Richmond Hill ecumenical retreat center in Church Hill.

The ALP has meant so much to Poag that if he was needed for an event or program, he would forgo a wrestling match or football game to be there.

“His brother [Lydell] came to me right before he graduated and told me, ‘I want to introduce you to my brother. The only way I can accept admission to ODU and leave Richmond is if you’ll accept him in your program. He’s not like me. He’s quiet and has a bit of an anger problem,’” said director Yvette Davis Rajput. “The first year, I barely got a word out of him.”

Three years later, Rajput says Poag is “extremely resilient. And he is very, very intelligent. He has this special light about him that shines wherever he goes. When you’re around him, you see it.”

In the three years Poag has been in the program, Rajput and assistant director Marvin Roane have helped him deal with anger management, stay focused on his goals, prepare for life as an adult and fine-tune his college essays. They also have taken him and others on college tours. Rajput and Roane will help Poag and others find medical records, records of vaccinations and other things necessary to enroll in college — tasks so many parents routinely do for their children.

The ALP will have a “College Shower” for its senior students where a church or community group will provide such things as laptops, towels, sheets and other basics for college.

“Corvell’s situation is sort of a snapshot of what a lot of students might deal with at different points in their lives,” said Seth Knight, director of the Armstrong RVA Future Center. “A teenager who deals with the situations he’s dealt with, that leaves an impact. It’s not the normal course of things. To be in the situation he’s in, to stay the course, to keep his nose to the grindstone has set him apart.”

For all his resilience, for all his toughness, for all his drive and determination, Poag still notices when parents are in the Futures Center helping their children with the sometimes overwhelming process of applying to college.

“It just makes me think that should be me,” Poag said. “My parents don’t do that. It gets stressful. Some days I have breakdowns. I just start crying because my parents don’t help me with stuff like that. They’re not there to support me, and it’s just, like, bad.

“I never thought I’d be in this position, even though I always thought, ‘I need to be in this position. I need to go to college.’

“Teachers pushed me. They told me, ‘You’re smart. You’re going to be successful in college. You’re going to make it in life.’ It just went in one ear and out the other. Now, I’ve got 18 college acceptances. I’ve been awarded scholarships. It all started coming at once, and it’s still unbelievable. I never believed I was going to do it until it actually happened.”

Despite the chaos in his life, Poag made it happen. Along the way, he had help from a sister who has a rare sense of responsibility and a mentality as strong as steel. He had a role model in a brother who showed him it is possible to go to college and have the potential for a better life.

There was help from his coaches and teachers, from the Armstrong Leadership Program and the Future Center.

“It’s hard to fathom what he has accomplished,” Rajput said. “There are a lot of Corvells out there. That’s why we have the ALP and dedicated teachers and administrators. It’s important for students to become involved with a program that supports them because without that, they will just give up.

“Unfortunately, for some kids, the connections do not happen.”

They needed to happen for Poag. He couldn’t take another loss. And he hasn’t.

pwoody@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6444

Twitter: @World_of_Woody

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