USA TODAY, December 11, 2012
By Yamiche Alcindor
MIAMI — The closeness between Trayvon Martin and his father was always evident — even during times of trouble.
Public affection came easy — hugs after football games, a kiss on the cheek in photographs — but to those in their circle of influence, it was during more difficult days when Tracy Martin’s stern, yet loving attitude toward his sometimes-troubled son stood out.
Before the 17-year-old’s death in one of the most racially sensitive murder cases in decades made him a household name, there was the indelible image of Trayvon Martin being escorted off the football field by his dad.
Coach Jerome Horton said the young man was one of the best players on his recreational team — the Wolverines based at Forzano Park in Miramar, Fla. But Trayvon, who played for Horton from age eight to 13, would sometimes have to sit out because his father would bench him for mistakes made off the football field.
“I’ve watched his dad take him off the field because he messed up in school,” Horton said. “We’d beg and plead, but he (Tracy Martin) would just say, ‘No, he isn’t going to play.'”
In the weeks after Trayvon’s shooting death in Sanford, Fla., in late February, the nation — indeed, the world — heard details of a young life cut short. Whether he was a typical teen or troublemaker, an aggressor or a victim, often depended on who was speaking about Trayvon. Yet in the quiet months since neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman was charged in the killing, a clearer picture of the African-American teen is coming into focus.
In dozens of interviews with family members and acquaintances, and from details available in court documents and school records, Trayvon Martin is revealed as a standout athlete with a ravenous appetite. Adored by family. Quiet and funny. And yet there is evidence of drug use, school suspensions and an interest in mixed martial arts. Tattoos and gold teeth. Attributes used to paint Trayvon as a marauding thug or defended as simply a “typical” young man.
Zimmerman has pleaded not guilty to a second-degree murder charge and said he acted in self-defense. He is free on $1 million bond. The prosecution, Trayvon’s family and his supporters say Zimmerman killed the teen without cause.
The dueling images of Trayvon will be played prominently in Zimmerman’s case. At a self-defense hearing that will take place on or before April 26, Zimmerman’s attorney will present their picture of the young man and evidence to support their claims. If the defense team succeeds, a judge could throw out the charges.
If not, the trial would begin on June 10. Then, a jury would have to determine which Trayvon died on that night in Sanford, Fla.
Trouble along the way
Trayvon had been suspended several times during his school years, usually for minor trouble. His last suspension, for having marijuana residue in a bag, led his father to take the teen from Miami to his home in Sanford, Fla., for a few days as punishment.
It was there on Feb. 26 — 21 days after turning 17 and five days into a punishment designed by his dad to set him straight — that Trayvon was shot by Zimmerman.
The next day Tracy Martin, who had hoped the trip to Sanford would help his son learn a lesson away from the comfort and friends of Miami, explained to a dispatcher in a low and somber voice that his son was missing. Less than an hour later, he identified his body.
Defense attorneys for Zimmerman, 29, have received permission from a judge to dig through the teen’s school records and social media accounts looking for any evidence of the violent attitude they argue led him to attack Zimmerman.
Zimmerman attorney Mark O’Mara’s portrait of Trayvon is far different from the teen’s family. He points to Trayvon’s recent suspension for the marijuana residue and possible “anecdotal evidence” that the teen was interested in mixed martial arts as red flags of a propensity for violence. One witness to the shooting told police he saw a man in a “black hoodie … throwing down blows on the guy, kind of MMA-style.”
The same lawyers released a color photo just last week that shows Zimmerman bruised and battered with a swollen and bruised nose and blood dripping down his mouth. The image, they say, points to the severe beating they say Trayvon inflicted on Zimmerman before he used his gun to defend himself.
However, Horton and others deny the martial arts claims and say the close relationship Trayvon and his father shared was an example of his character.
Whether they were watching a football game, talking about their ambitions or taking a road trip, Trayvon and his father shared a friendship that those inside and outside of their family remember vividly.
“Him and his dad were like two peas in a pod,” Horton said. “They were like each other’s best friends.”
When he was 9, Trayvon saved his father’s life during a fire, Tracy Martin said. The Miami truck driver had been frying fish when a fire started in their apartment. When Tracy threw a blanket on the flames, oil splashed and burned his legs, immobilizing him. He yelled for Trayvon, who pulled his father out of their home and called 911.
“He was a loving kid,” Tracy Martin said. “He didn’t deserve to die.”
Trayvon’s family says the defense is trying to assassinate the teen’s character. “Tray,” as he was called by many, was a regular teen — no better, no worse, they said.
Despite some struggles in school, his family insists Trayvon was not the violent attacker who Zimmerman claims punched him and knocked his head to the ground. Trayvon had never had any trouble with the law, his family and friends said. (His juvenile records are still sealed.)
Instead, they offer a portrait of a laid-back young man.
“Sometimes he was so quiet you didn’t realize he was in the room,” said Miriam Martin, 49, Trayvon’s aunt. “A neighbor nicknamed him ‘Mouse.’ He was like another one of my kids. He would stay over on the weekends, school breaks, summer time.”
Months after the shooting, a truck parked at the entrance of a wide football field where Trayvon used to play paid tribute to him. The bright blue writing on the vehicle’s window read, “R.I.P Mouse.”
There, at Forzano Park in Miramar, Fla., below towering lights and across deep green grass, teammates, coaches and friends remember the former Miramar Wolverines player as the standout No. 9 who sometimes passed out free candy at the concession stand.
Miles away, inside Miriam Martin’s slate gray Miami home, remnants of Trayvon’s time there remain. The last drawer of a dark brown chest inside her son’s room — Trayvon’s drawer — holds his large gray sweat shirt. His basketball rests in the garage. Photos of her son and a young Trayvon hanging out at the park during a football game are displayed prominently on the kitchen table.
When Miriam talks about her nephew, she smiles and looks off in the direction of the scattered items. For her, the most vivid memories come as she thinks of Trayvon’s thin frame, big appetite and choice of clothing. He was 5 feet 11 inches tall and weighed 158 pounds.
“I could wrap my arms around him because he was that skinny,” Miriam, a rail clerk for Miami Dade Transit, said. “But he just loved to eat. If I knew he was coming over, I tried to make sure I had some Ramen noodles and oatmeal. He would eat that anytime of the day.”
The teen also passed time listening to music, playing video games and sharing pickup basketball games with neighbors.
His favorite subject: Math. His favorite television show: Half-hour re-runs of Martin. His favorite home-cooked meal: Steak and mashed potatoes. His standard uniform, despite Florida’s blazing sun: Jeans, a hoodie and headphones.
“It could be 100 degrees outside and he would always have his hoodie on,” his aunt said.
The night of the shooting, Trayvon wore his customary hoodie. As Zimmerman spoke to a police dispatcher, he described the teen as a “suspicious guy” in a “dark hoodie” that was “just staring, looking at all the houses … looks like he’s up to no good or he’s on drugs or something.”
In the outcry that followed the shooting, the hoodie has become a symbol of support for Trayvon. Tens of thousands of people have posted pictures of themselves wearing hoodies on Twitter, Facebook and other social media.
The Trayvon the nation first met
Trayvon dreamed of fixing and flying planes. He liked roller skating, spent hours talking and texting on his phone, and was just beginning to get a sense of independence through odd jobs.
“Trayvon was finding himself,” Tracy Martin said. “He was interested in being an independent person. He would wash cars, babysit and cut grass to earn his own money. He was coming into adulthood and in the next few years he was going to have more responsibility.”
Trayvon showed interest in aviation, so much so that he gave up football during his freshman year. As he handed in his cleats, he told teammates that he wanted to be a pilot, Horton said.
During his freshman and sophomore years at Miami Carol City High, Trayvon spent time studying planes through a school program. He later attended Michael M. Krop High for his junior year. His family members did not disclose why he switched schools.
He wanted to go to Florida A&M University or the University of Miami, his mother, Sybrina Fulton, said.
Her other son, Trayvon’s older brother, Jahvaris Fulton, 22, is a student at Florida International University.
Trayvon “was looking forward to graduation and college,” she said. “He talked about going to prom and taking his senior pictures.”
Trayvon spent his last birthday at home eating cake and looking over his presents: cologne and a pair of Levis jeans. Fulton, too, was close to her son, who called her “Cupcakes.” She took special time to expose him to activities outside his city life, such as horseback riding and skiing.
The image of her son that became wallpaper across the nation in the weeks after his killing wasn’t all that extraordinary in Miami, the family says. Trayvon sometimes wore pull-out gold teeth. He also had several tattoos, including one of praying hands on his arm: “Nana” in memory of his great-grandmother, and “Cora Mae” for his grandmother. He also had his mother’s name on his wrist.
All were part of a fad — cultural touchstones — and did not mean he was a bad kid, family members say.
“In our family, you knew what you had to do,” said Trayvon’s cousin and Miriam Martin’s son, Stephen Martin, 21. “We all had to go to school. We all had to graduate. He was on a path to that. Our parents would accept nothing less.”
The cousins were like brothers, sharing their childhoods in chapters as they grew, he said. To him, Trayvon’s potential was most apparent when he built, rode and fixed pocket bikes and dirt bikes. ” He used to put them together himself, so he was obviously good with his hands,” Stephen said.
The night before Trayvon died, Stephen, who was living in Orlando at the time, remembers the two shivering at a park.
“He was making jokes in the cold,” he said. “He was that kind of kid — brighten up your day even when it’s not going so well.”
It was the last time he saw Trayvon alive.
The next night, Tracy Martin let his son walk to a nearby 7-Eleven. Hours later, he was on the phone with police reporting him missing.
When he finally learned Trayvon’s fate, a distraught Tracy Martin shared the news with family and friends — including his brother’s wife, Miriam Martin.
“Tracy was just crying, saying, ‘My baby gone. My baby gone,'” she said.