“And so please help them with their youth, They seek the truth ...”
— Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
Bonny Dorough laughs as she tells the story.
“My son Sanders came home from school for the summer, and he wanted to get ready to play basketball the next year,” the Albany Realtor said. “He and his dad (attorney Bo Dorough) had talked with Dontonio Wingfield about his AAU program, and we all thought Sanders could learn a lot and get better by playing with Dontonio.
“My mother went with me to one of Sanders’ games at Mitchell-Baker High School in Camilla, and we crammed as many kids as we could into our van and tried to keep up with Dontonio on the way down. When we got there, we got out of the van and fell in line behind Dontonio. As we walked up to the gym, it was like the sea parted ... the kids were in absolute awe of him. I think they saw in him someone who’d grown up where they did, who’d lived a hard life but made it to a better place.”
Wingfield, who was a legend at Westover High School, a star during his brief stay at the University of Cincinnati and an NBA draftee who had his pro career cut short by a tragic accident, is something of an enigma in his hometown. He’s revered for the skills that made him the greatest basketball player in a city renowned for its hoops stars, but many use terms like “wasted talent” when they speak of him.
At 38, Wingfield is still an imposing figure of a man. He’s 6-foot-8, somewhere north of 230 pounds, and there’s only a trace of white in the whiskers of his trademark goatee. He walks now with a noticeable limp as he adjusts to the prosthesis that serves as his lower left leg. Wingfield recently had his foot removed due to complications associated with diabetes.
But even the loss of one of his limbs hasn’t kept Wingfield off the hardwood. On Saturday, he started back working with his beloved Albany Hawks AAU youth basketball program.
“I tried to come back too fast and I fell a couple of times,” Wingfield said Monday. “But I was determined to get up and get back out there. Doctors say I’m a month or so ahead of schedule in my recovery.”
The man who once amazed scores of adoring fans with his athletic abilities hasn’t had time to feel sorry for himself as he’s adjusted to life without his left foot.
“There are people I’ll run into who maybe haven’t heard (about the surgery), and they’ll try to feel sorry for me,” Wingfield said. “I don’t have time for that. I’m happy to be walking. I’d been living in such pain for so long, it’s a big difference to walk around and not feel pain.
“I’m not 100 percent yet, but I felt my presence was needed with the kids in our program. They relate to me. I grew up knowing my father, but he left me when I was in the third grade. He suffered with alcoholism and diabetes, and so my mom had to raise us three boys by herself. She worked at night, so we pretty much had to raise ourselves. I’ve been where most of these kids are now, and I feel I have some things to offer them.”
The Hawks are not just about basketball. Volunteers meet with students in an after-school program, held at the Henderson Gym, and offer help with homework and guidance in activities that stimulate their minds while keeping them off the streets.
“We want our kids to do their school work, and also hard and make their middle school teams,” Wingfield said. “If they do that, hopefully they’ll stay in school and make their high school teams. If that happens, many of them will go to college.”
Wingfield runs his program on a shoestring budget. He and his kids hold car washes and barbecue fundraisers, and there are a number of organizations and individuals who help with donations.
“We need money for our program, of course, but we also need people to donate their time to help the kids with homework,” he said. “We need supplies, snacks ... We really are appreciative of anything anyone’s willing to do.”
Persons interested in donating or helping out are urged to call Wingfield at the Henderson Gym (229-430-5241), contact him online at firstname.lastname@example.org or go to the Albany Hawks Facebook page.
If you’re not sure that an investment in his program is a wise one, just ask Bonny Dorough.
“Dontonio is absolutely the person who needs to be working with the kids in his program,” she said. “He demands respect, and he doesn’t put up with disrespect. I’ve seen him kick very good athletes out of the gym, some of them very rough kids. They can’t buckle him.
“There are some people who condemn a man like Dontonio for mistakes he might have made in his life. But we’ve all made mistakes. I think he’s an amazing person, one of those who quietly goes about the business of helping others. I’ve seen first-hand how he changes young boys’ and girls’ lives.”