FORT PIERCE — The coming weeks mark a time of the year when this area’s youth will start the next chapter in their lives. As they walk across the stage and receive their high school diplomas in front of cheering family and friends, the moment is soaked in excitement.
Now, the real world awaits.
For Fort Pierce Central defensive lineman Lafayette Ashley, he’ll have one tool at his disposal to help deal with the challenges ahead many others won’t — his poetry.
“I love football,” Ashley said. “Football was my way to get out of Fort Pierce and get a scholarship, but I feel like the gift God gave me was poetry. I feel like everyone is born with a gift. Your gift might be singing or drawing, but my gift happened to be poetry.”
Ashley, who will play football at Warner University in Lake Wales this fall, began writing poetry under the guidance of local poet Heather Wells.
Wells volunteers and coaches multiple schools in the area. She also serves as a local liaison for the Jason Taylor Foundation and the Louder Than A Bomb Florida poetry program.
“The biggest thing early on was getting Lafayette to open up and not be ashamed of what he has dealt with,” Wells said. “Once he was able to connect with his emotions, be open and completely raw, he took off.”
Ashley will be on stage during Wednesday night’s Best of PrepZone event — honoring All-Area high school athletes in all sports — at the Sunrise Theatre, joining former Miami Dolphins All-Pro Jason Taylor during his keynote speech.
“He (Ashley) is writing from a place that is eye opening, tragic and inspiring, all wrapped into one,” Taylor said. “I think it is great that our program appeals to such a diverse group of young people, and to see someone who has had success on the football field also enjoy success (in poetry) has been fantastic.
“The other thing about Lafayette that really stood out was just how respectful and polite he was.”
Ashley said it was hard times that pushed him to poetry.
“Something just told me to sign up for the poetry program because at the time, I was going through a lot of pain in my life,” Ashley said. “There were a lot of lost love ones and depression.
“With everything I was going through and everything I’ve seen — people and loved ones I lost, the pain I’ve felt growing up in my neighborhood — I just decided to put it on paper and speak it. It just blew up and here I am now.”
Ashley has received strong support from his teammates and classmates, and through his poems he has helped them deal with their inner feelings.
“Most of my teammates live right around the corner from each other and they’ve basically been saying thank you for giving us a voice,” Ashley says. “They feel the way I feel, but they don’t know how to say it the way I say it.
“I’ve had so many girls coming up to me almost in tears saying ‘thank you, I went through that.’ “
In April, Ashley placed second in the finals of the Louder Than A Bomb Florida poetry program in Fort Lauderdale. He was initially down on the result. For a moment, his competitive streak often seen on the football field took over, but afterward, Ashley was able to appreciate what he just accomplished.
“In that moment, for about 10 seconds, I was a little disappointed, I’m not going to lie,” Ashley said. “But once I got my emotions together and on the car ride back home, I was just thanking God ’cause all of this started in my bedroom just writing down notes.
“From the notes I write on a piece of paper, I feel like I’ve touched so many lives and I helped myself. It’s been therapy for me because I was depressed, but I made it through and I’ve met so many people through this.”
At the event, Ashley had the chance to meet a trio of football players from his favorite team.
“I’m from Fort Pierce and I grew up a Dolphin fan,” Ashley said. “To meet Jason Taylor, Ronnie Brown and Mike Pouncey, it was a childhood dream come true. I thought I might meet them through something related to football, but I met them through poetry.
“We took pictures and I told them how I grew up watching them. It was amazing.”
Taylor, whose foundation has contributed nearly $5 million in youth programs and services, was highly complimentary of Ashley.
“I just met Lafayette for the first time during this year’s (Louder Than a Bomb Florida) festival, and I will say this, it is hard not to notice him,” Taylor said. “The young man certainly has a presence about him. Just sitting in the back of the theater watching him, you see this big kid sprinting to the stage like he’s entering an MMA fight and he immediately stands out, before he even says a word.
“Of course, his delivery is powerful, electric even, but the most memorable thing about Lafayette is his voice — his poetic voice.”
For his efforts at the festival, Ashley will travel to Chicago to compete in the Louder That A Bomb event — the largest youth poetry competition in the world.
“That’s going to be a great experience,” Ashley said. “That’s somewhere I’ve never been. Anytime I get a chance to go see something new, it’s great.”
Follow Patrick on Twitter: @PatBernadeau
Who: TCPalm.com Player of the Year awards for 25 different high school sports; Treasure Coast Sports Commission awards to two student-athletes from 18 schools
What: Best of PrepZone
Where: Sunrise Theatre, 117 S. Second St., Fort Pierce
When: 7 p.m. May 25
Keynote speaker: Jason Taylor, former Miami Dolphin and NFL All-Pro defensive end/linebacker