Adrian Colbert’s life went hurtling in a new direction the day he rode his bike down a service road in Wichita Falls, Texas and crossed in front of an oncoming car.
Colbert, 9 years old at the time, went through the windshield with such force he broke the car’s steering wheel. The impact left him with a fractured nose, collarbone, shoulder blade and ankle, and he was flown 80 miles to a hospital in Dallas.
It left his father, Adrian Colbert Sr., just as battered.
Adrian Sr. declined to go into detail about how he grew up on the troubled lower east side of Wichita Falls and what he did for a living, but it wasn’t good. He bears bullet wounds that hint strongly at the story. The home in which he raised his son does, too. It was sprayed with gunfire one night when Adrian Jr. was a baby. Two bullets struck the crib where he was sleeping at the time but didn’t penetrate it.
“It was bullet holes from the front to the back of my house,” Adrian Sr. said. “My house was like Swiss cheese.”
The father spent days, then weeks, at his son’s bedside feeling alone and abandoned. The guys he ran with on the streets of Wichita Falls – “all the friends and so-called gang members,” he said – never showed up in support. In fact, while he was tending to his son at the hospital someone broke into his house.
Adrian Sr. had a lot of quiet time – time for contemplation. And while the son’s bones mended, the father’s soul did, too.
“God was trying to punish me … well, trying to open my eyes,” Adrian Sr. said. “It was like, ‘OK, if you don’t want to learn through the things you went through, I’m going to take your son through this.’ ”
Adrian Sr.’s own father had built a menacing reputation in Wichita Falls and the respect he was given transferred to him. So, too, did the violent lifestyle. He worried that if things continued, his son also would be ensnared.
So he changed.
When they got back to Wichita Falls, he got a job at the local Wal-Mart. And a few years after that took a management position at a new store that was opening 90 miles south in Mineral Wells, Texas.
Adrian Jr., 24, said he was resentful at first because the move took him away from his family and friends. He was close to his mother, who had three other children when Adrian was born. But he was raised by his father and later, his step mother, Monique, who made the move with them and helped Adrian Jr. assimilate to the new town.
“It was a bad situation for my dad, which would have trickled down to me – putting me in a bad situation,” he said. “It just wasn’t a good environment for either of us. It was a good move.”
Adrian Sr., 44, has not been shy about sharing his dubious and dangerous past with his son, always with the message: You can forge a new path if you want it badly enough.
Adrian Jr. applied it when he went to the University of Texas. He played safety there but never had much opportunity to show off for the NFL. When he tried for a fifth year of eligibility, the coaches advised him to move on.
“I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t know where I was going,” he said. “Then the fact that my coach told me I wasn’t going to make it to the NFL – it was kind of like I hit rock bottom at that point.”
He said he was depressed at the time, and leaned heavily on his faith and his father.
He decided to spend his final season at the University of Miami. The Hurricanes placed him at cornerback and he showed enough talent that the 49ers spent a seventh-round pick on him in April, their final selection of the draft.
General manager John Lynch figured Colbert might get on the field via special teams as a rookie. He’s done that and a lot more.
Colbert is set to start his third game at free safety Sunday against the Houston Texans. He broke his thumb in his first start on Nov. 12 and played through the injury. He returned last week in Chicago with the surgically repaired thumb bandaged and didn’t miss a snap.
Lynch, a tough-guy safety when he was a player, has been impressed with the rookie’s resolve.
“I kind of admire that,” Lynch said. “So he’s been excellent for us on special teams and then given the opportunity, he’s shown that he can do a little more than that.”
It’s a five-hour drive from Mineral Wells to Houston, but Adrian Sr. and Monique will be among Colbert’s fans in the stands on Sunday.
It’s been a little more than a decade since they said goodbye to Wichita Falls, and he said it’s hard to believe how far he and Adrian Jr. – who has an undergraduate degree in corporate communications and who is working towards a master’s from Miami – have come.
Adrian Sr. said he plans to go back to Wichita Falls and take photographs of his old two-bedroom house, the one with the bullet holes from top to bottom, as part of a documentary he’s planning about his son’s journey.
“People won’t even believe the things this boy has been through,” he said. “Nowadays, that’s the kind of thing that people get their kids taken away from them. But that’s where we grew up. We didn’t have money. You know what I’m saying? We grew up in the ’hood. It was drugs, gangs and guns. That was the normal. There were no picket fences and white houses and brick homes where we grew up.”
That’s the beginning of the story. The essence of it, however, is that it doesn’t need to be the end.
“You have to want it,” Adrian Sr. said. “That’s the bottom line and one of the things that I’ve always told Adrian: It’s not about where you come from and what you’ve got. It’s about what you want and what you’re going to do to get there. Nobody owes you nothing and no one’s going to give you anything. You’re going to have to work for it.”