Charlotte Country Day freshman Twan Flip Jr. is 5-foot-5 and 130 pounds, and every time he runs the football, Buccaneers coach Drew Witman holds his breath.
“He runs hard,” Witman said. “He tackles hard, but when you’re 130 pounds, you never know. But (earlier in the season), before we put pads on, I just didn’t know how it was going to go. But, you know what? He’s fearless, and I wonder if that’s a byproduct of what he’s been through.”
Flip – who has 724 yards total offense this season – comes from an area in west Charlotte near Thomasboro Academy, a school that starts in kindergarten and runs through eighth grade. The median family income in the area, at $34,500, is nearly $17,000 less than the city average. His mother, Juliet, always worried about the quality of education that Flip and his older siblings – Sha-asia Brown and Craig Leverette – were getting. She also worried about the things her sons might encounter in their environments.
Five years ago, Craig, a former West Mecklenburg High football player then attending Central Piedmont Community College, was shot and killed in a fight over a girl, Juliet Flip said. He was hit by one bullet and bled to death about a block from the family’s home. Twan Flip Jr. was in fifth grade.
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“I came home from school,” Twan said, “and the streets were blocked off, and I got off the bus, and my dad told me to go in the house. My sister, Sha-asia, was crying. On the way to the hospital, my mom called us and told us (Craig) didn’t make it. I couldn’t even cry. It just didn’t feel real at all.
“I’ve moved on. Trying to overcome that adversity. I took that pain and brought it to the game of football. It just motivated me and made me want to go even harder and work even harder.”
His mother said the memory is still fresh.
“It affected us a lot,” Juliet Flip said Wednesday. “Even today, we still think about it and it’s something we won’t forget. I can always hear (Craig) saying to me, ‘Mom, I’m OK as long as my brothers and sisters are OK.’ ”
After those events, Juliet Flip said she and her husband, Twan Sr., were determined to provide their younger kids a different academic and social environment. Sha-asia is 22 and done with school, but Twan Jr. enrolled at Country Day and his baby sister, Taliah, 6, will start there soon.
“It’s a big change for Twan at Country Day,” Juliet Flip said. “The workload is so much more and he has to get used to using books again. At CMS, they don’t have books (at Twan’s old school). I can’t understand how they teach without books. So it’s teaching him balance and prioritizing his life. Twan had a 4.0 in middle school at Ashley Park. Right now, on his first progress report, he is close to a 3.0.”
On the field, Flip is jitterbug quick and Witman he said is a “brilliant” route runner. Flip has run 18 times for 123 yards, caught 11 passes for 190 and has 411 return yards for Country Day (4-5, 1-1), which can win a share of the Charlotte Independent Schools regular-season championship with an upset of Charlotte Latin (9-0, 2-0) Friday night at home.
Like coach Witman, Juliet Flip gets worried when her son is out there with the varsity-level football players. Or, at least, she used to.
“I don’t get nervous anymore,” she said. “Up until now, he had always stayed with his age group. Now in high school, these are 11th- and 12th-grade boys. They’re pretty big. But I don’t worry anymore because he’s good at what he does. God gave him that gift for a reason. He’s protected out there.”
Twan said he gets by at his size by using his speed and quickness.
“People say, ‘Speed kills,’ and I’ve been working on my speed with people faster than me,” he said. “It’s been coming in handy. And there are a lot of people who underestimate me because of my size. When I run the ball, people will come at me really – how can I put this – they try to run me over because I’m a small guy. But it doesn’t work like that. But I’ve heard that a lot, that I’m too small and how can I play running back. I was like, nothing is impossible.”
Witman marvels at how well Flip is handling what’s been a tough academic and athletic transition.
“The first time I met him,” Witman said, “I said, ‘So where do you want to play ball in college?’ He said, ‘At Clemson because they have a good engineering department.’ I was blown away by an eighth-grader saying that.
“Listen, the rigor of this school is incredible and he’s embraced it. He’s up until 2 o’clock in the morning trying to do his homework to catch up from all the stuff he’s missed over the years. It’s spotlighting and shining the true colors on how hard a worker he is. The environment here, he thrives in. Kids love him, teachers love him and I love him, too.”
Langston Wertz Jr.: 704-358-5133; @langstonwertzjr