This week is a perfect time for Tito Harper to be thankful for his time as a Wilson High School Bruin.
Harper graduated over the summer after playing football at Wilson, and that connection gave him a chance to continue his education with a better outlook on life.
“Most of the world is going to be against you so you have to use your mindset to stay on the straight and narrow,” Harper said. “That’s what I live by.”
That outlook is even more impressive in light of the fact that Harper lost his mother, LaShonda, to COVID last year. He’s had to step up and help take care of his younger brother, Ire, who is currently playing football at Wilson.
Harper is now pursuing a business degree at Cal State Dominguez Hills with the help of a scholarship that came from his connection with Wilson.
Mike Lanterman’s sons, Kyle and John, went to Wilson just before Harper got to the varsity level. In the summer of 2020, Lanterman and three fellow alums from University High School in Los Angeles wanted to start a scholarship for underprivileged kids who wanted to go to college.
Lanterman said it took a while to get his grassroots idea to grow into Opportunities For Youth, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, which can give out one scholarship a year to a high school senior involved in sports, music or drama.
Opportunities For Youth gave its first scholarship to a University High student, and then Lanterman contacted Wilson football coach John Janzen to find the next possible awardee. Janzen mentioned Harper, and Lanterman contacted him to get the process started.
“The most important thing is the essay we have them write about their own story,” Lanterman said. “Tito’s was a tearjerker. Everyone said that we just have to get this kid a scholarship.”
“It was just me typing me,” Harper said of the essay. “It was just my story. I just typed from the heart and put it all on paper.”
Harper was born and raised in Long Beach where he grew up playing as many sports as he could. He always wanted to play football but had to patiently wait until his mom let him join a tackle football league. That meant when he got to Wilson he had only one season under his belt.
“I was playing tight end at first, but then one day a coach called me over to the offensive and defensive line at practice and I stayed there,” Harper remembers. “It made me more of a man, in a way, because you can’t be soft playing on the defensive and offensive line. If you’re soft you won’t make it. I think that’s where I got the mindset and strength to get me where I’m at.”
Harper entered his senior year as a two-way starter for Wilson, but weeks before the final game of his high school career, he got COVID. Eventually, his mother and younger brother he lived with would also get sick.
“My mom got it bad because she had high blood pressure,” Harper said. “On my birthday she wasn’t feeling good and had like purple lips so we called the ambulance. … They came and said everything was OK. But that night she was like cold and still had purple lips. … I woke up in the night to use the bathroom and we found her. She was all purple. It was crazy.”
Paramedics returned and tried to resuscitate LaShonda, but they were unsuccessful. It was up to Harper to alert the rest of the family while caring for his younger brother.
“Things happen and you just have to take it day by day,” said Harper, who reiterated that he knew he couldn’t drop out of school or stop playing football. “My mom taught us that what we start we have to finish. That’s why we’re still in school and keeping a happy mindset. She came to one game because she usually couldn’t because of work. … Every time I look over there (where she sat that night) it makes me just want to keep playing because she always loved the game and I loved it because of her too.”
Harper finished his high school football career on Senior Night as most of his family came to support him.
“Some people go years of going through adversity in their daily life, not everyone has the perfect life, but my parents always kept me and my brother comfortable,” Harper said. “We always had to work for it. But life is too short, because anything can happen. Tomorrow ain’t promised and you have to live it up now.”
That’s what Harper put in his scholarship application essay, and that’s why he was chosen by Lanterman and the rest of the Opportunities For Youth board.
“He could have quit and dropped out,” Lanterman said, “but he didn’t, and now he’s a good role model for his little brother who is on the Wilson football team.”
The scholarship was originally for $500, but now the organization is continuing to raise money for Harper in the hopes of getting him a car, Lanterman said.
These days, Harper takes two buses to Cal State Dominguez Hills for classes where he wants to major in business and possibly study the culinary arts because of his mother.
“Her cooking was something different,” Harper said. “It was that cooking that makes you know you’ve been at home. I’ve been asking Granny to write down her stuff because it’s the closest (recipes) to my mom’s. … We would watch Food Network together and always be in the kitchen … especially on Thanksgiving.”
Harper and his family are spending their first Thanksgiving without LaShonda, but she won’t be far from their thoughts and their hearts.