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Jarvis Landry's past is clouded, but his future is bright

The Miami Dolphins star receiver had a complicated past, so much so that he and his family have different recollections of what happened.

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

There in his room, one of about five in the house belonging to a man who was not his father but with whom he was living with at the time, the words just began to flow. Jarvis Landry had never written poetry before. Suddenly, though, this confused 11-year-old boy found himself dealing with a whirlwind of emotions. Out came a pen and pad.

Anguish was nothing new for Jarvis. His father left town when he was young. His mother spent the majority of her time punching a clock at various blue-collar jobs. But here he was, just a child and living under a new roof, in a new town, and no longer with the woman who had always given him everything he needed, who regularly worked until 3:30 in the morning so that her two sons could afford the bare essentials.

So why, Jarvis wondered, had his mother, who loved him, suddenly sent him to live with his youth football coach?

"There were points when I was living there where I didn’t think my mom wanted me anymore," Landry said during an interview in June. He was referring to the time his mother temporarily signed over custody of her son to a man by the name of Elmo LeBeouf III. "I think my mom saw a better life for me there, a place with a little more structure."

Landry said that the decision to give up custody was his mom's. At the time, Dietra Landry felt that her home wasn’t the best place for her baby boy to live. LeBeouf’s was safe and stable. He lived there with his wife and their 4-year old son. Jarvis had his own room, did chores and addressed the LeBeoufs as ma’am and sir.

"It was a huge sacrifice for her to make," Landry said. "It hurt me at first, and took me a bit to understand, but after a while I was able to appreciate what a selfless act that was."

But a child’s memory can be a funny thing. Over time it can be molded, and, like an old painting, some of its colors may fade. Conversations are forgotten. Motives and intentions can be misunderstood.

When he was 11 years old, Jarvis Landry left home and moved in with his football coach. That part is true. As for why he went to live with Elmo LeBeouf, well, it depends who you ask.

* * *

Jarvis' dad abandoned his family just a few years after Jarvis, his youngest son, was born. He left Dietra, Jarvis, his brother Gerard and Dietra's mother behind in Convent, Louisiana, an industrial town on the east bank of the Mississippi River.

The family’s first home was a single-wide trailer with busted pipes snaking underneath. The Landrys had to use buckets to catch all the leaks. Sometimes the boys had to boil water to take a bath. To support her family, Dietra, who has short dark black hair and a warm face, took any job she could find. Gas station employee, janitor, construction work, home aid, security guard. She spent years working the phones at a local sugar plant. She usually held multiple gigs at the same time.

"I always told them, ‘I chose to have you, y'all don’t owe me anything,’" Dietra said. "I told them, ‘I’m gonna provide you everything I can’" — she points out that she paid for their cell phones and bought them cars — "‘until you get to a certain age. Then you’re on your own.’"

Eventually, Dietra was able to move the family out of the trailer into white doublewide one. The new house sat on a patch of green grass on Central Project Street, about half-mile up the dirt road from the projects. It had air conditioning and working water, and a wooden staircase leading to the front door. The soothing scent of baked shrimp, or pork chops or gumbo or jambalaya, or whatever Cajun specialty Dietra had going in her kitchen, permeated the entire home.

When they weren’t eating or attending church, the Landry boys could be found outdoors, always playing ball, always smiling. They’d play whenever and wherever they could. On the dirt road outside the house, where they’d have to pause for passing cars. At the local park. On the nearby levee. Gerard is seven years older than Jarvis but always picked his little brother first when choosing sides. Jarvis, who was big, fast and physical, and blessed with myriad talents, soon developed a reputation for being a star, even in his secondary sports.

"He was one of the best baseball players in the area," Gerard said. "He could throw with both hands and switch-hit."

Eventually, Gerard left to play football for nearby Southern University, leaving the rest of Jarvis’ pigskin education in the hands of one of Dietra’s brothers, Ernest Clayton III.

Clayton, a house of a man who weighed 250 pounds, had taken it upon himself to fill the shoes that Elvis Landry left behind. There was a competitive recreational league up in Dutchtown, a bigger and more affluent town about 25 miles northwest in the Ascension Parish, that Clayton heard about — he figured it would be a perfect place for his nephew to learn the game. There, Jarvis was introduced to Elmo LeBeouf, an executive director at the United States Department of Agriculture who in his spare time coached one of the Dutchown Elite Football League’s youth teams. The two families quickly hit it off and Jarvis and Elmo grew close.

The team boasted multiple future college players. But Jarvis promptly emerged as the star of the bunch. He caught everything he could get a single hand on – both weren’t required -- and tackled everyone in site. He even played some special teams, too. On the field Landry was all business and brute force. But off it he was a charming jokester with a big smile who loved to dance. It was during the team dinners that he hosted every Friday night in his home that LeBeouf got to see this side of Jarvis.

And it was during those dinners that the Landry family saw the fatherly side of LeBeouf.

Photo via Getty Images

Photo via Getty Images

When Jarvis Landry was 11, his mother gave up custody of him and sent him to live with LeBeouf. At least that’s how Jarvis remembers it. Dietra, however, tells a different story.

"I chose to send Jarvis to live with someone else," she said during a phone call in early July, a few weeks after the initial interview with Jarvis, "not because I couldn’t take care of him but because it’s what I thought was best for him."

Asked to clarify, Dietra rambles a bit. She didn’t seem nervous, but her answers didn’t always gel. First, she said she was persuaded into sending Jarvis to live with LeBeouf, by Jarvis and her two brothers. "Jarvis was all for it," she said. "He had them talk me into it. I really didn’t want to have him stay with someone else."

Later she claimed that the idea was initially hers, that Jarvis was about to enter the seventh grade, which was in the same building as the high school, and that she didn’t believe her baby was ready to deal with all the pressures that come with that next phase of life. "I chose to send him to a place where he could be in school with kids his age and not surrounded by older high school kids."

LeBeouf’s recollections of the situation are similar to Dietra’s.

"Jarvis had been playing [football] with these kids [in Dutchtown] and really developed a relationship with them," LeBeouf said over the phone in August. "He was spending a lot of weekends by me and one day he kind of asked about moving in. I told him, ‘Son, you’re always welcome here, but that’s something you and your mom have to decide.’

"He never gave me the impression that he didn’t want to move in," LeBeouf added when asked about Landry’s saying he felt abandoned. He also made it clear that he loved Jarvis and relished all the time they spent together.

"Jarvis was an exceptional young man," he said. "Those times he live with us were a blessing."

But contrary to what Jarvis says (and to the story which various outlets have reported), LeBeouf said no custody papers were ever signed. Jarvis was treated like a son, given his own room and required to do homework and chores. But technically he never became an official member of the LeBeouf family.

Instead, Jarvis remained connected to the one he left behind. Dietra said she attended nearly all of his youth football games that year. Gerard said he’d routinely drive home from Southern University on Fridays, swing through Dutchtown, pick up Jarvis and bring him back to Central Project Street for the weekend.

"They were better suited financially, so my mom thought him living there would be the best option for him," Gerard said in a July phone call. "She agreed to let him go live there for about a year just to expose him to better things. He ended up staying there about six months."

In August, two months after our initial interview, Jarvis spoke to CBS’ Miami affiliate. "When I was 12 years old, [my mom] gave up custody of me, for two years," he said in that interview. "Then I all could think of was my mom doesn’t want me anymore, she kinda gave up on me."

After hearing this clip, and after speaking to his distraught mother, Gerard reached out to me.

"It wasn’t like that, I don’t know why he’s saying it was," he said in August. "It wasn’t like a situation where my mom was so financially strained that she had to give him up. Jarvis wanted to go [to Dutchtown], it’s where all his friends were."

Gerard added that Jarvis only lived with the LeBeoufs for about six months, not two years. Also, Dietra was never so broke that she couldn’t afford to provide her children food or other basic needs, Gerard said.

"It’s making my mom really upset," he added. "It’s making her look really bad."

He then said that LeBeouf did indeed sign custody papers, "but only because if you were going to attend a school in a different parish you had to actually live in that parish."

Upon being presented with these details in a second phone interview in late August, Jarvis seemed a bit jarred.

"As far as I know, that did take place, but I was only 11 or 12 [at the time]," he said, with hesitation, when informed that LeBeouf said no custody papers were ever signed. Asked again whose idea it was for him to move in with LeBeouf, Jarvis answered, "It was a decision we made as a family."

"I wouldn’t say I originally brought it up," he added. "I think my mom saw a better life for me, a place with a little more structure." He also repeated that the impetus for him moving in with LeBeouf was his mom’s "situation." He declined to elaborate of why he believed every member of his family seems to have contrasting memories of this time period.

What is clear from the words he uses, the emotions he expresses, and tone he adopts, is that somewhere along the line Jarvis began to view his time with the LeBeoufs in a different light than his mother did.

To Dietra, the LeBeouf home was a refuge for her youngest son, a way to support her baby and shield him and provide him with everything she thought he deserved. But to Jarvis, the LeBeouf house was something entirely different: a house that wasn’t his home, one he lived in when his mother decided that it was OK if her son didn’t live with her anymore.

* * *

The plan was always for Jarvis to come back for his freshman year of high school. But about six months after he moved in with the LeBeoufs he and the rest of the Landry family were dealt yet another traumatic blow: Ernest Clayton III, the man who had taught Jarvis how to play football and the family’s de factor father figure, died of a sudden heart attack. The Landrys were devastated. Jarvis was asked to return home.

He did, and there he enrolled in nearby Lutcher High School, about a 20-minute drive east, where he quickly made a name for himself as one of the best athletes the campus had ever seen (along with football he played baseball and ran track). As an eighth-grader he once caught five touchdowns in a varsity game. As a senior he led the team in tackles (he also played linebacker and safety) despite playing the majority of the season with fractures in his fingers and foot.

And nearly all of these feats were witnessed by Dietra, who quickly became a familiar and identifiable presence at Lutcher football games.

Landry was never the biggest athlete — even now, at the ripe age of 22, he’s just 5’11, 202 pounds – but he was always a physical one. Whether it was the result of spending countless hours working out with Gerard in the Southern University gym until he puked or all those times he got knocked to the ground while playing on Convent’s dirt roads, early on Landry developed a taste for laying opponents out, on both sides of the ball.

"He wasn’t a physically dominant receiver," said Dwain Jenkins, an assistant coach at Lutcher high school when Landry was there. "But he was adamant about being physical on the field. He brought a whole different attitude about blocking to our receiving group that rubbed off on all our kids."

"I don’t think I ever saw him taken down by one guy," said Josef Venus, a friend and former high school teammate of Landry’s. "He was never a 4.4 guy or one of the fastest players on our team. But on the football field, when he put those pads on, he was always heads and shoulders above everyone else."

Landry also had the biggest and strongest hands his friends and coaches had ever seen. "Jesus hands," Venus called them. It didn’t take long for the country’s major college football programs to take notice.

Landry caught the eye of then-Tennessee coach Frank Wilson, who in 2009 was named LSU recruiting coordinator. The thought of playing college football just 50 minutes north of his home, where his mother could attend his games, appealed to Landry. He committed to the Tigers as a sophomore — then spent the next two-and-a-half years cramming so that his grades and test scores could reach the required marks.

For this, Landry enlisted the help of a guidance counselor named Lindsay Cambre. The two quickly bonded, and over time Jarvis began to refer to Cambre as his second mother. Cambre assigned Jarvis summer reading, like Nick Saban’s Tiger Turnaroud. She drove him to ACT-prep courses when Dietra was stuck on a shift. She taught him how to deal with the text messages and phone calls that came from reporters in the middle of the night.

To help challenge and motivate him, Cambre also enrolled Landry in an honors English class taught by Hollie Jenkins, Dwain’s wife. There, Landry felt liberated — once again he was able to explore his emotions, to express and develop the voice he discovered back in the home of Elmo LeBeouf.

"He would always ask questions, always take a contrary position," Jenkins said. "And he wrote these personal essays that were full of emotions and pain. One was about his uncle who died where he just put everything down on the paper. He had all the ingredients of a good writer, especially the emotions and willingness to deal with them."

Photo via Getty Images

Photo via Getty Images

Landry showed up in Baton Rouge in 2011 ready to take the SEC by storm — only to suffer a stress fracture in his right foot on the last day of summer workouts and plummet down the depth chart. He got reps on special teams but didn’t crack the receiver rotation until a year later.

That move, coupled with Landry’s budding friendship with another wide receiver named Odell Beckham Jr., turned out to be all Landry needed to catapult to the NFL. The two friends and eventual roommates spent the 2012 and 2013 season pushing each other as far as they could. They’d use the jugs machine every day, sometimes on Friday nights too. They’d catch balls in strange positions (a drill that still lives on). Beckham has become renown for his acrobatic catches, but at LSU practices it was Landry, observers say, who put on the best show.

By his junior season he had transformed into one of the best receivers in college football. "Juice," a moniker assigned to Jarvis by teammate Josh Dworaczyk in response to the energy and enthusiasm Landry brought to the football field, caught 77 passes that year for 1,193 yards and 10 touchdowns. In a November game against Arkansas, he made a seemingly gravity-defying spinning one-handed touchdown catch that turned him into a household name.

That April, the Miami Dolphins selected Landry in the second round (63rd overall) of the 2014 NFL Draft, brushing off concerns about his 4.77 and 4.50 40-yard dash times.

"He does so many things well," Dolphins general manager Dennis Hickey said at the time. "When you watch LSU tape, he jumps out at you as ... a guy who plays with great passion, strains to win and just does so many things that helps teams win."

Hickey turned out to be prophetic. By Week 6 of his rookie year, Landry had taken over as the Dolphins’ primarily slot receiver (and kick returner) and finished the season with a team-high 84 catches (on 105 targets for an impressive 80 percent catch rate), as well as 758 yards and five touchdowns. He also quickly became a jovial and magnetic presence around a team that just one year earlier had its season derailed by a callous bullying scandal. He’s even been known to bring in his acoustic guitar — he taught himself how to play after receiving one in a college bowl game gift package — and regale the player’s lounge with his favorite country music songs.

"Jarvis has a very contagious personality," said Dolphins offensive tackle Ja'wuan James, one of Landry’s closest friends and also a second-year player. The two live across the street from each other in downtown Fort Lauderdale and frequently hang out in each other’s condos. On Thursdays they go out to dinner — Steak 954 and Ruth’s Chris Steak House are two of their favorite spots. On Fridays this offseason they started longboarding around Fort Lauderdale. Said James, "Everyone on the team is starting to be like, ‘I wanna come down to Fort Lauderdale to hang out with y’all.'"

* * *

When it comes to tension, the Landry family prefers to sweep issues under the rug. Instead of discussing contentious topics, they ignore them. Instead of dealing with emotions, they suppress them.

Their father never called his sons on their birthdays, according to Dietra. Of the hundreds of high school and college and professional football and baseball games that his sons have played, Gerard can remember his father attending just one. Today, Gerard goes out of his way to make it clear that he and Jarvis "don’t want to humiliate anyone."

Dietra, however, feels differently.

"I came to the conclusion early on that he didn’t want to play a fatherly role," Dietra Landry said. "He was never told that he couldn’t be here or see his kids. He chose not to."

If asked as a child to pick his father out of a lineup, Jarvis Landry likely would have failed. And yet those who know Jarvis best say the topic of his dad’s absence was rarely brought up. Venus said he and Jarvis "never really talked about it." Toren Jackson, another close friend of Landry’s, echoed that statement. Jarvis’ mother and brother preferred not to ask Jarvis about his feelings either.

"Sometimes I wondered how Jarvis made it," Dietra Landry said. "Sometimes I wondered what his reaction to all that was. But I never asked."

When it came to Jarvis’ time in the LeBeouf home, the Landry family adopted a similar approach. "It’s not something we talk about that often," Jarvis said. "Maybe every now and then we will, for a moment, but that’s it."

But maybe more time spent acknowledging the past would have altered the way it’s remembered. Maybe talking about his emotions is all the boy who started writing poetry to deal with them ever wanted to do.

* * *

Today, Jarvis and his mother are as close as can be. Dietra spends about half of every month living with her son. She helps make sure his bills are paid and house is clean (Gerard pitches in, too), and has her favorite types of fish, and groceries, shipped from Louisiana so that she can prepare meals just how she likes. Sometimes Jarvis invites his teammates over for these home cooked feasts.

He and his mother have been through a lot together, but their relationship has never been stronger. Time heals scars. Age creates perspective. Every day Dietra texts her son that she loves him, and Jarvis, who continues to write lyrics as a way to explore his inner depths, repeatedly uses the word "appreciation" when talking about his mother.

Then again, that feeling is nothing new. Jarvis always felt blessed to have Dietra as a mother, and grateful for the job she did raising two sons all on her own.

Every Friday, according to Dwain Jenkins, Jarvis would quietly put in a request for an extra pair of tickets for that night’s Lutcher football game. It wasn’t for his mom, who already had her seat, or any other friends or members of his extended family. Instead, and unbeknownst to anyone else, Jarvis would take these tickets and seek out a single mom, one whose son wanted to attend the game. He didn’t publicize the action or tell anyone what he was doing. Jenkins only heard about it because a parent who was once on the receiving end of these gifts had shared the story.

All Jarvis wanted was to make the lives of these mothers a little easier. All he wanted was for these mothers to be able to come home and make their children smile.