USA TODAY High School Sports and the Army National Guard have teamed up in search of high school athletes who embody the same values. We’re sharing stories of athletes whose personal courage has enabled them to overcome insurmountable odds -- born leaders who go above and beyond in their communities, and whose loyalty has inspired others to make the most out of every opportunity.
Railroad Park is a 19-acre green space in downtown Birmingham, Alabama. Often called “Birmingham’s Living Room,” the park serves as a venue for families, concerts, recreational activities and cultural events. On Sundays after church, it’s where members of Wenonah High School’s 5A state champion basketball team hang.
Wenonah principal Regina Carr-Hope described Railroad Park as a “warm environment known for its family-type setting.” On March 17, it was anything but. At approximately 7:20 p.m., 15-year-old Jarmaine Walton was shot in the head. Walton was taken to UAB Hospital, where he died the next morning.
Nearly 300 people attended a vigil three days later, and Walton’s family and friends pleaded for witnesses to come forward with any information.
Wenonah’s basketball players, who didn’t directly know the victim, responded to the tragedy by posting an anti-violence public service announcement on YouTube.
With help from Picture This Media Group, five team members — seniors Artis Cleveland, Isaiah Maston, Tyquan Bonner and De’Runnya Wilson, and junior Justin Coleman — created a two-minute video in which each player encourages viewers to “stop the violence.” The video has been viewed more than 2,600 times.
“We were just trying to send a message and fight back,” said Maston, a two-time all-state player.
Wenonah is the first Alabama prep basketball team to win three consecutive state titles. Coach Cedric Lane said the team’s success propelled his players into the spotlight. This past season, Lane said the school and community would flock to fill Wenonah’s 1,500-seat gymnasium. And it was just the same for away games — supporters would arrive early to watch the Dragons.
“People around Birmingham look at us like stars,” said Wilson, who was named Mr. Basketball, the state’s highest prep basketball honor. “We’re not just basketball players though. We’ve got good character, too. We really care about others.”
During the All-Team Tournament, Wenonah players wore special jerseys with the initials “H4G”, which stood for “Hope for Gabe” in honor of a 7-year-old boy with Duchenne muscular dystrophy.
Lane said his players are all-around leaders, as evidenced by the PSA.
“I was overwhelmed the guys were so candid and expressed their feelings about violence in the community,” Lane said. “It was good to see them be so compassionate about someone who they didn’t even know.”
Coleman and his teammates recognize the shooting could have been one of any one of them — another reason they wanted to share the message.
“You’re supposed to go to the park to have fun and play around — not to go out there and get killed,” Coleman said.