This is Part 2 of a two-part series on the life of Kentucky Warriors wide receiver Michael Weber. Read part one of the story online at www.portsmouth-dailytimes.com/sports.
All Michael Weber has ever wanted to do was play football. Since he was a child, when his stepfather sat him down and taught him the game, football has always been there; the invisible hand that has guided him throughout his life. As a child growing up without a dad, football was there to inspire him. In high school, with temptation all around him, football was there to keep him “busy.” And when Weber graduated high school in 2002, football was there with a chance to continue his education.
Weber would spend just two seasons at West Virginia State (he ran into what he describes as “normal college troubles: no money, no guidance, bad grades”), but football would be waiting for him with another opportunity. For two seasons, from 2004-2005 he would get his first taste of semi-pro action with the West Virginia Lightning.
Around the same time, Michael would marry his girlfriend Kelly Archer and start a family. With two beautiful daughters, Maleah and Keyonna, it finally seemed his life was turning around after a difficult childhood.
For the first time in his life, Michael no longer needed football to be his guiding light. Needing to take care of his new responsibilities as a father, he knew he had played his last snap with the Lightning.
Weber joined the Army in 2006. The military provided a good, stable income for his family and molded him into a model citizen. The lifestyle seemed to suit him well. He rose quickly through the ranks, reaching the rank of staff sergeant in the minimum four years. But the success he experienced in his new career path came with a price.
The honeymoon phase he experienced early in his marriage was over. The Army demanded a lot of Michael’s time, keeping him away from his wife and children. There’s an old adage, “absence makes the heart grow fonder.” That couldn’t be further from the truth for Michael and his family.
“My marriage wasn’t great,” he said. “It was just kind of stale, and there wasn’t much I felt I could do about it. I felt kind of hopeless.”
The tipping point came in 2011, when Michael was shipped out for his second tour in Iraq in just three years. As he said goodbye to his family yet again, his daughters, unsure if he would ever come home, couldn’t contain their emotions.
“I saw my girls bawl their eyes out at the airport, and I just couldn’t get that image out of my head,” he said. “That second year I was there was just torture.”
Though he wasn’t done with his obligations to the military, Michael had had enough. In 2012, he was granted a “general discharge under honorable conditions” from the U.S. Army. Archer had had enough, too. She filed for divorce soon after he returned.
Without his family or football to guide him, Michael was lost.
“Those were some dark days for me,” he said. “All I could think was to put on a book bag and start walking and get as far away as I could.”
That’s exactly what he did.
With little more than $300 dollars and a backpack full of supplies, Michael set off on foot from River Park in Huntington in early summer 2012. His goal: Los Angeles, California.
According to a July 13, 2012 article in the Morehead News, Weber used his journey to raise money for March of Dimes, a charity involved in helping families of prematurely born babies. The inspiration for the trip came after an encounter on his flight home from Iraq.
”When I saw the baby in an incubator on my return flight I knew that I had to do something,” he told the News.
Weber’s four-month journey was not without its perils: narrow roads, careless drivers, snakes, dogs and severe weather. But Michael never feared for his life.
“There was danger all the way, but I wasn’t in a good place so I wasn’t scared,” he said. “That was good for me, and it allowed me to feel like I could do it.”
But for all the dangers he faced, there were just as many people who were willing to help him on his way.
“I met some great people out on the road,” he said. “It showed me that there are still good people in the world, and you can’t give up hope.”
Four months after he left Huntington, Michael arrived in Santa Monica, California. Overcome with relief, joy and pride, he took the final steps of his 2,430-mile journey into the Pacific Ocean. For the first time since he returned home from Iraq, he felt a sense of purpose.
Reinvigorated, Michael caught a plane back to Huntington. After four months on the road, he missed his friends and family from his hometown. Thinking his trip had made a difference in his life, he expected a grand homecoming when his plane landed at the airport.
Lora Weber, his mother, wanted to be there for his son’s return, but was stuck waiting for a bus in Ironton, Ohio. She called her son to tell him that she would be late.
“He said, ‘Don’t even bother coming, there’s no one here,’” she said.
It turns out, Michael’s trip didn’t have quite the impact he had thought it would have on his hometown. He hoped his journey would raise awareness for March of Dimes and inspire his friends and family. His dream didn’t come true; life had moved on without him. Nothing had changed.
“It kind of brought me down a bit,” he said. “I’ve seen more people rally behind me throughout 11 states. But the one place I’m from, born and raised, it didn’t make much noise. Quite frankly, people didn’t care.”
Again without a purpose, Michael began to slip into the depression that had taken hold of him when he returned from Iraq. Out of options, ideas and money, he moved back in with the McFeeleys, the family that had taken him in as a teenager. And just when it seemed things couldn’t get any worse, Richard Cox, Michael’s step-father, passed away on November 22, 2012: Thanksgiving. Though Michael and Cox had had their problems over the years, he had just lost the closest thing he had ever had to a father.
“I never thought in a million years that it would tear me up the way it did, but it did,” he said.
Grieving, depressed and disappointed, Michael was again searching for purpose in his life. His mind was constantly racing, but it kept ending up in the same place.
“I figured, ‘Man, what if my dad is out there somewhere?’” he said.
Lora was wondering the same thing. Knowing her son needed his father more than ever, she scoured Facebook searching for her high school sweetheart Bobby Jewitt, who she believed was Michael’s father. After countless months of searching she finally found his profile and sent that fateful message in late 2013.
It turned out the Bobby was married with a family and living in Rockville, Maryland. Obviously, the news was quite jarring to Jewitt, who didn’t even recall reuniting with Lora in the winter of 1982.
“At the time, I didn’t remember,” Bobby said. “I was in shock. I was in total disbelief.”
Despite his reservations, Bobby agreed to drive back to his hometown of Huntington to have lunch with Michael. As he drove the winding roads through the mountains of West Virginia, Bobby could barely contain his excitement.
“Once I took the trip from Maryland to West Virginia, I was already starting to feel that this was real: He’s my son,” Bobby said. “I just wanted to understand what happened, how it could have taken 30 years to find this out.”
Michael, who’s recent luck had taught him to take good news with a grain of salt, kept his feelings in check.
“I was a little standoffish,” he said. “Whether it’s me or the universe, it seems like right at the last moment it doesn’t go my way. It’s like a big game of Chutes and Ladders, and I keep getting to space 99 and sliding all the way back to the bottom. It’s just frustrating.”
But from that very first meeting, both Bobby and Michael knew they were father and son. From their facial structures, to their sense of humor, to their mutual love of the old Los Angeles Raiders, the guys didn’t need the 99.9-percent positive DNA test to tell them they were related.
“It was the look in his face to…everything,” Bobby said.
Since their first meeting earlier this year, Bobby and Michael have done everything they could to make up for the 31 years they missed as father and son. Michael has now met all of Bobby’s eight siblings as well as his own family.
“The biggest emotion I felt was relief. I’ve got a family now. It doesn’t matter who they are, it doesn’t matter if I see them, I just have a family out there,” Michael said.
“He’s loved,” Bobby said. “He’s got a family that’s there for him and has got his back and can give him anything he could possibly need.”
Throughout his military service, his walk across America and his bouts with depression, Michael never lost the itch to play football. Though it had been nine years since he had put on pads, he was willing to give it another shot. Finally, Michael received a second fateful message, this time from friend and former teammate Jermaine Payton: the Kentucky Warriors were willing to give him that shot.
Months later, Bobby Jewitt sits in Spartan Municipal Stadium next to his soon-to-be daughter-in-law, Jasmine Anderson. The decent turnout for the game can be credited more to the White Castle truck parked behind the end zone than the Warriors’ matchup with the 1-8 Wildcats. In fact, Michael discouraged his father from making the 6-hour trip to Portsmouth, but Bobby wouldn’t have it. He just loves watching his son play too much.
The Warriors start out with the ball, and after a botched kickoff by Carter County, they set up on the Wildcat 38-yard line. Michael and the rest of the offense come out for their first play of the game.
Michael had told Jasmine to have her phone ready in case anything happened. It doesn’t take long.
Just as he had done in his high school homecoming game, Michael breaks off the line and slices through the secondary. Suddenly, he’s all alone, completely behind the defense. The ball is a bit under thrown, but it doesn’t matter. He could walk into the endzone if he wanted to, but he isn’t about to let the universe steal his dream from him.
Just a few months ago, Michael Weber never thought he would ever meet his father, let alone score a touchdown for him. Now, his dreams have come true.
“If you’re going through anything, if you’re waiting on someone, keep waiting. If you’re going through something, keep going, because you know what? It might take 31 years for you to find the answers to your problems,” he said. “It all starts with a message.”
Alex Hider can be reached at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1931 or on Twitter @PDTSportsWriter