Someday, VCU freshman JeQuan Lewis could end up being most famous basketball alumnus of Dickson County High School. But even then, he won’t be the institution that Earl Denton is, and Lewis knows it.
While Lewis may not be able to lay claim to being his Tennessee hometown’s favorite son, he’ll have Denton’s friendship to drive him toward whatever success lies ahead. Even while he’s hundreds of miles away, Lewis’ connection to Denton inspires him.
“Earl, he has the ability to get me hype like no one else really does,” he says.
For most of his life, the 24-year-old Denton has been confined to a wheelchair. When he was a year old, Earl’s parents, Al and Sherry Denton, noticed a deterioration in their son’s physical abilities following a bout with a virus. After a battery of tests and meetings with specialists, Earl was diagnosed with leukodystrophy, a group of disorders marked by a degeneration of the myelin sheath – which aids neuron function – surrounding the brain. Children with leukodystrophy can experience a gradual and irreversible decline in physical skills, speech, vision, hearing, behavior and cognitive abilities. There are believed to be around 40 different types of leukodystrophies, and there is no cure.
Sherry Denton says the family’s doctors originally gave Earl only about two years to live.
“It was horrible,” Sherry says. “We were 22 and 24. It was horrible. We really thought Earl wasn’t going to make it. We put him in our bed and slept with him in our bed every night. If we only had two years, we were going to make the best of it.”
Sherry says doctors didn’t expect Earl to respond to therapy, but she and Al shuttled him to session after session anyway. Eventually, Earl began to show improvement, and the Dentons began to question the initial diagnosis. Today, Earl has restricted movement and difficulty with speech and cognition, but is otherwise healthy. With the help of a special education program, he graduated from Dickson County High School in 2008. Today, Sherry Denton says the family’s neurologist believes a virus may have damaged the myelin in Earl’s brain, which led to symptoms similar to leukodystrophy.
Earl Denton can’t play sports, but that didn’t stop him from becoming an avid sports fan. Sherry Denton says Earl is like most male sports fans his age: loud, demonstrative and prone to remote-control throwing. He loves the Tennessee Titans, but Earl lives for Dickson County High School basketball.
During his freshman year at Dickson County, then-coach Kevin Tuck invited Earl to practices and games. Eventually, Earl was having lunch every day with the coaching staff, giving pregame speeches to the players and traveling on the team bus.
By the time Lewis joined the team as a freshman in 2009, Denton was already an institution. Lewis says he first noticed Denton at practices. Earl was always there. While Lewis is known at VCU for his visually loud, high-top fade haircut, the 6-foot-1 guard is actually soft-spoken. As a high school freshman, Lewis was a typical teenager, very few of whom understand the challenges of people with special needs. Lewis says he kept his distance from Earl at first.
“It was just me as a kid not giving people chances,” Lewis says. “When I was young I was real bad, judging people by looking at them, not knowing anything about them.”
But Lewis saw his teammates’ interactions with Earl. There was a warm rapport, an undeniable mutual respect and affection.
“I noticed my teammates, the upperclassmen, they would all run up, give him a hug, say ‘what’s up Earl’, and have him laughing and stuff, but I never really did that at first until I got to know him.”
After a few weeks, Lewis says he opened up. What he learned about Earl was nothing compared to what the experience taught Lewis about himself. Assumptions and judgments melted away. Earl’s perma-positive demeanor eventually won Lewis over.
“I just wanted to have a personal conversation with him, get to know him a little better, and ever since then, we’ve been super close, like I’ve known him forever,” he says. “I’ve never seen him down. He’s super humble. He’ll always put someone else before him. He cares about everyone. I’ve never seen him neglect anyone or not want to be around him. He’s just a good person.”
Over the course of his four-year high school career, JeQuan and Earl became close. Today, Lewis calls Earl one of his best friends.
“Earl has his certain favorites,” Sherry Denton says. “He really liked JeQuan…probably because JeQuan had such a heart. He always made Earl feel like part of the team.”
On Dec. 1, VCU and Lewis played at Belmont, which is about 45 minutes east of Dickson. The Dentons wore Belmont apparel to the game, because their daughter Hannah attends the school and runs on the cross country team, but they cheered hard for Lewis, who responded with a breakout 12-point performance.
“It was so exciting. Hannah wanted Belmont to win, but Earl said, ‘I’m sorry Hannah, I’ve got to clap for JeQuan,’” Sherry recalled.
Afterwards, there were warm greetings and hugs. With Earl, there are always hugs.
Thanks to VCU’s television-heavy schedule, Sherry says Earl has been able to closely follow Lewis this season. Since it’s difficult for Earl to use a keyboard, he’ll often send Lewis well-wishes and words of inspiration through his mother.
Lewis appreciates Earl’s words of encouragement, and says the friendship has made him a better person both on and off the basketball court.
“He taught me how to be humble. He taught me how to be grateful. He taught me how to work hard,” Lewis says. “He taught me to never take any second of my day for granted, to just be thankful and treat people the way you want to be treated because you never know. Everybody’s different, but everybody should be equal.”