When Mark Walton’s 45-year-old mother died suddenly from a stroke 14 months ago, Quinton Flowers sent him a text.
“I told him I’d been through it too,” Flowers said. “I said ‘It’s gonna be hard, but if you need anything or need someone to talk to, I’m always here.’
“Just like him, I’ve gone through situations of having my dad killed and my brother, too, and also losing my mom. I know the feeling of losing the people closest to you.”
Sadly – and remarkably, too – Walton and Flowers share an almost inconceivable bond that has been built not only on numbing family loss, but also rousing football glory, the latest chapter of which is playing out now with the Cincinnati Bengals, where the pair has been assigned side-by-side lockers in the special dressing room for rookies at Paul Brown Stadium.
Walton is a fourth-round running back taken out of the University of Miami.
Flowers is an undrafted free agent from the University of South Florida and is being switched from quarterback to running back.
Both are about the same size – Walton is 5-foot-9 and 205 pounds; Flowers is 5-10 and 214 — and both have a staggeringly similar story.
They grew up just a few blocks apart in Liberty City, the crime-plagued area just north of downtown Miami, Fla. By the time they were eight, both had had their dads murdered. Both eventually would have brothers shot and killed, too. And both their mothers have died of illness.
Flowers’ mom, Nolita “Nancy” Mans, died six years ago from cancer and Walton’s mother, Kim Rogers, perished after a stroke on March 2, 2017.
Each player said he found strength and guidance amidst the heartbreak from a father figure who had come into his life.
For Walton it was Detective Sean Horne, a former youth league coach and school resource officer, who is now a homicide investigator with the Miami Gardens police department.
In Flowers’ case, it was Antonio “Dayla” Brown, a former wide receiver for the Buffalo Bills and Washington Redskins who became his youth league and then high school coach.
“Coach Sean saw some potential in me,” Walton said. “He knew I was missing a male figure in my life, so he stepped up and took on that role. We had a great connection with each other and it began over football.
“Football became my outlet, my coping place. I could take all my built-up anger, my pain. and use it on the field.”
After rushing for 2,769 yards and 45 touchdowns and winning a state title at Booker T. Washington High School, Walton was poised to join the litany of great Miami Hurricane running backs of recent years – guys such as Edgerrin James, Willis McGahee Clinton Portis, Frank Gore and Duke Johnson – when he suffered a season-ending ankle injury after four games in his junior season last year.
The season before, he had run for 1,117 yards and 14 touchdowns and 2017 had started out even more prolific.
In four games he’d run for 445 yards and was averaging 7.6 yards per carry. That’s when he was carted off the field at Florida State’s Doak Campbell Stadium and soon after underwent surgery.
Flowers, meanwhile, was becoming the greatest player in USF history. He now holds 42 game, season and career records there and is one of just six FBS players ever to top 8,000 yards passing and 3,600 rushing in his career.
Yet both players entered the recent draft with some question marks. For Walton, it was whether he was fully recovered from his surgery. And with Flowers, there was some debate on his height and his passing accuracy.
The Bengals feel they got a steal with each player. Walton has shown his old quickness, can catch passes and likely will be the third back behind Joe Mixon and Giovanni Bernard.
Flowers’ path onto the roster is tougher — especially with learning a new position – but he began proving himself at last weekend’s rookie minicamp when he also played special teams and lined up in the wildcat formation.
Worrying about staying alive
To fully appreciate this side-by-side situation in Cincinnati, you need to know just where the pair came from.
Luther Campbell, the famed rapper turned prep football coach who grew up in Liberty City, likens the place to Iraq.
And the six square mile area does have the feel of a place under siege.
According to statistics from the non-profit Miami Children’s Initiative, the per capita income of Liberty City is lower than 97 percent of all other neighborhoods in the U.S. and 62 percent of the children 18 and under live below the poverty line. The unemployment rate is 13.4 percent.
As for violence, in 2014 one of the most notorious projects in the area – the 700-unit Liberty Square complex known in the neighborhood as Pork ‘N’ Beans – had 43 shootings in the first six months
Three students from nearby Northwestern High and a 19-year-old former student were just shot there in April. Two died. In 2015, four Northwestern students were shot and killed.
At this year’s graduation – like every year — the Northwestern High ceremony will include a memorial tribute for “Fallen Bulls,” the students from the class who have been killed.
No one knows the violent cycle that plagues Liberty City any better than 40-year-old Antonio “Dayla” Brown. He grew up on N.W. 61st Street, just across from the Pork ‘N’ Beans.
“My father got home invaded,” he said. “They waited for him behind the bushes, then duct taped him, took what he had and killed him.
“My younger brother, he was just 14, he got shot in the back of the head at Edison Park so they could take his shoes. I found him.”
“One of my sisters died of AIDs and the other from a drug overdose. I buried my mom three years ago So now I’m her only living child.”
After high school Brown played at West Virginia University and then joined the Bills as an undrafted free agent. Once he returned from the NFL, he found little had changed.
“Growing up in Liberty City is about waking up each morning and going outside and there are two sides to the sidewalk: the good side and the bad side. And every day you have to figure it our which side you want to end up on because it’s all about survival.
“Kids shouldn’t have to be in such a survival mode all the time. They still should just be kids and do the things they love. But too often you just worry about staying alive.
“And, oooh, I can tell you some stories.
“Like coming home from football practice one day, pulling my bicycle up the stairs and being caught in a drive-by. You see the bullets hitting the steps as you’re going up the stairs. And when I make it to the top, I turn around and see four or five guys who got shot.”
Flowers said growing up in Liberty City was “nerve-racking….You get caught up in a life where anything can happen at any moment – even in broad daylight.”
Walton agreed: “You’re just trying to get up out of there and once you get to college, you’ve already been through so much, and you know you’re almost out. So you just keep pushing. You don’t want to get caught up in that cycle of death or going to jail.”
Sports, he said, can be one way to do that.
And just as there are a lot of sad stories in Liberty City – where the high school graduation rate is under 45 percent and only eight percent of the people go to college – there’s also an impressive litany of guys who went on to the NFL.
Walton and Flowers rattled off a few of those names that came to them: “Chad Johnson, Amari Cooper, Teddy Bridgewater, Elvis Dumervil, Antonio Brown, T.Y. Hilton.” And there are a lot more.
Detective Horne has spent the past two decades dealing with guys who walk on both sides of that sidewalk Brown mentioned:
“You have so many talented kids there, but it’s very difficult for them to stay on the right path because there’s so much else going on. Liberty City is just a tough place.”
‘Always be you’
When he was 7 years old, Flowers said he was sitting on his dad’s lap on the front porch one Sunday watching a Miami Dolphins game on TV.
“I had just gotten some money from him to go to the store and I went in to use the bathroom first,” he said. “Everybody was outside barbecuing and all of a sudden I hear a shot and everybody was screaming.
“My dad had been shot in a drive-by shooting. They weren’t aiming at him, but he was killed. Just a few seconds earlier and it could have been me shot out there, too.”
In November of 2014, two nights before he made his first start for South Florida, he got word his 24-year-old step brother, Bradley Holt – who had been a cornerback on two Northwestern High teams that won state titles – had been shot while looking out for young kids.
Flowers said kids were playing on the street in front of an apartment complex when a yellow Mustang sped in fast and reckless and the driver started trying to spin donuts next to the children:
“My brother went up to the car and said, ‘Hey, there’s little kids out here. Could you please slow it down?’ The car drove off, then came right back and they killed my brother.
Two teenagers eventually were arrested for the murder.
Flowers’ mom worked at Liberty City Elementary, both in the cafeteria and as a custodian. When he was a sophomore she was diagnosed with cancer. Eventually the disease blinded her.
“I remember once when Quinton was in high school, I was called to the hospital on one of his mom’s last days,” Brown said. “I was amongst his family – the sisters, the preacher, uncles and brothers – but she wanted to speak to me.
“She raised up and said, ‘Coach Dayla?’
“I said, ‘Yes Ma’am,’ and she said, ‘You make sure my baby is OK.’
As he was recounting the moment, his voice began to fill with welling emotion
“I’ve tried to hold up my end of the bargain,” he said quietly.
Playing for Brown at Jackson High School, Flowers threw and ran for 8,044 career yards and drew college offers from schools like Florida, Alabama, Texas, South Carolina and Miami. He wanted to play quarterback, but they all wanted him as a running back or a wide receiver.
Recalling his mom’s advice – “Always be you, don’t let no one tell you different,” – he held out until South Florida agreed to keep him at quarterback
He had a standout career there and now, with a 1-year-old daughter, Amayah, to look out for, he’s trying to make it in the NFL any way he can.
The baddest 8-year-old
When he was still a school resource officer Horne went to Liberty City Elementary one day and asked the principal if he could meet “the baddest eight year old” in the school.
As it turned out Walton already was in the office for an infraction.
Horne figured he could give the kid a little guidance and maybe end up with a hard-nosed football player for the team he coached at Gwen Cherry Park.
“The thing that struck me about Mark was that during that first conversation he never took his eyes off me,” Horne said. “He just took everything in.”
Around then, Walton’s father – divorced from his mom, but still a part of his son’s life – had been killed by his girlfriend who, as Mark once explained, “stabbed him in the heart.”
Horne sought out Walton’s mom and told her he would drive the boy to and from school and football practice in his police car. He said Walton never balked at the idea:
“He wasn’t a bad kid. He just wasn’t focused.”
The two soon formed a strong bond that never wavered, even when Walton’s older brother Marcus, then 18, was shot and killed by a Miami-Dade police detective investigating a robbery scam in 2010.
When Walton was in the eighth grade, his mom allowed him to move in with Horne and his family and they raised him until he went to college. Even so, he said his mom played a big part in who he is today:
“Until Sean came around, she was the mother and father in my life,” he said. “She taught me those first lessons on growing up to be a man. I miss her spirit, her energy, everything about her.”
Six months after his mom’s death came his ankle injury and some initial self-doubt.
“For a while I couldn’t even move my leg. Some days I was very depressed and wondered if I’d ever play football again. But when rehab came around, I just attacked it and now it feels great to come back at the highest level.”
No one is happier for him than Horne:
“When he was a kid, I met with his mom and his grandmother. I remember telling them, ‘I can’t promise you the NFL, but I can promise you he’ll have the opportunity to graduate high school and move on to college and be the family’s first-ever college graduate.”
And like Flowers, Walton – with his fiancé Jasmin Thompson — now has a 1-year-old daughter MaLani. He’s also planning on bringing his 15-year-old sister, Viola, to Cincinnati to live with him and go to school.
“She’s a good student so I want to try to get her in the best school up here,” he said. “God has blessed me with ability and an opportunity to take care of her. This is something my mom would want me to do.”
Horne plans to come up here next month to help him find a house and after that he said he’ll be making regular trips to Cincinnati.
“Oh yeah,” he laughed. “I am a season ticket holder now for the Cincinnati Bengals.”
After savoring that thought in silence, he quietly added:
“Seeing him run out there will bring tears to my eyes…Tears of joy.”