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Ask any 13-year-old what they want to be when they grow up, and you’ll get a lot of different answers. A doctor or a firefighter. A movie star or a pop star. An astronaut or even the President. In my neighborhood, most of us wanted to be pro athletes, and some of us — myself included — accomplished that.

But that’s not all I wanted to be. When I was 13 years old, I decided that when I grew up, I wanted to be a father. A loving, involved, present father.

Growing up, my dad wasn’t around. I didn’t even know who he was. I have three brothers who have the same father, and he was around a little bit. Without my mother telling me, I knew their father wasn’t my dad. You just know, you know?

When I was 13, the fact that I didn’t have a father really hit me the hardest. When I was at my eighth grade graduation and looked around at all the other kids taking pictures and videos with their dads, I realized I didn’t have that. When we’d lose a football game and I had nobody to talk to about it, I talked to my mom, who wasn’t really into sports, and my grandmother, but I didn’t have a father figure to talk to about sports and teach me how to cope with losing.

One event stands out that really put what it meant to be a father and to have a father into perspective. It wasn’t something I endured, but something I actually observed from the outside. Something a good friend of mine experienced. We’ll call him Ray.

Ray’s dad was one of the biggest drug dealers in all of South Florida; despite that, he was always there for his son. He and Ray’s mom weren’t together, but he always made time for Ray. He rewarded Ray for earning good grades and doing well in sports. Even if he partied all night with his drug-dealer friends and Ray had a football game at 9 a.m. the next morning, he was always the first dad there.

Ray didn’t have a favorite basketball player or football player. He had his dad. Drug dealer or not, that was his hero.

I knew that when I grew up, I wanted to be my kids’ hero.

I don’t believe there’s a bad person in this entire world, just people who make bad decisions, and they get labeled for them. Ray’s dad made numerous bad decisions — he was a drug dealer — yet he made the decision to be an active father. Everyone in the neighborhood knew Ray’s dad was a drug dealer and eventually would end up shot or in jail. That was the reality of the lifestyle he lived. Nevertheless, he was always there to be a father to Ray.

He was there until the day that the entire neighborhood predicted would come finally came: the day Ray’s dad was murdered.

I’m not sure how it occurred, but it didn’t matter. The fact was that Ray, who had the one thing I wanted more than anything in the world — a father — suddenly didn’t. I saw how it tore him up, and I knew why. I knew what he was about to experience. From that day on, he’d learn what I’d known my whole life. He’d learn what it was like to not have a father.

I decided then that when I grew up, I was going to have children and be involved in my kids’ lives. I didn’t want them to grow up idolizing somebody else because they didn’t have a father they could look to for guidance. My children would never feel the emptiness I felt when I was a kid — the emptiness Ray would feel for the rest of his life.

I was only 13 years old, but I knew that when I grew up, I wanted to be my kids’ hero.

I grew up with almost nothing, really. My mom was a single parent raising four kids, so I somewhat bounced from home to home and relative to relative. I never had any kind of consistency. I’m the oldest of my mother’s four sons, so I was thrust into a leadership position that I wasn’t really prepared for, mostly because I didn’t understand what being a leader meant and didn’t have a father figure to teach me how to be a leader.

When I was young, I was one of those people who made bad decisions. I fought regularly. I had a horrible attitude and didn’t care very much for authority. It was so bad at times that people told me I’d never accomplish anything and would be dead or in jail by the time I was 17. As I got older, I realized all of my problems and anger didn’t stem from being a bad kid; they came from making bad decisions and being in a bad situation.

However, I wasn’t the only one in my position. When I looked around, I saw kids who didn’t have fathers, and we all gravitated toward our coaches as father figures. It wasn’t until I saw the difference those coaches made in my and other fatherless kids’ lives that I realized the importance of the male role model. Regardless of race, economic background or gender, everyone needs a father figure. Even as an adult, I still have father figures in my life, such as my pastor, who gives me fatherly guidance.

My mother was a wonderful a woman and did everything she could for me, but the one thing she could never do was be a man. She could never teach me the things that men taught me growing up — the things a father would have taught me had mine been around. She could never understand things from a male perspective.

You see, it happens all too often: A child grows up without his biological father. Then, when he grows up and starts doing well, his dad surfaces seemingly out of nowhere.

That never happened to me…

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Titus and his family will celebrate family this Labor Day Weekend at the Allstate Tom Joyner Family Reunion!

(Photo Courtesy of Thaddeus Bullard)