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Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Crystal Locke, center, and her husband Robert adopted Solomon, left, and his younger brother Jeffson, right, when they were 7 and 5 years old, bringing the brothers from their native Haiti to Georgia in 2010. Robert died in 2013, and when Crystal moved to be near her parents, it also led to the brothers playing football for Christian Heritage School in Dalton, Ga.

DALTON, Ga. — Athletics come to mean different things to different people. For some it's a competitive outlet. For others it's a social activity, while some compete out of a sense of obligation.

For Solomon Locke, the decision to play football is likely the second-most important thing that has ever happened to the Christian Heritage School senior.

Locke and his younger brother, Jeffson, have already lived two lives. The first began in Haiti, where they were born into poverty and put into an orphanage; that ended when Crystal and Robert Locke adopted them at ages 7 and 5.

The scars of that first life will never go away completely. Haiti, a country noted for having the most severe poverty in the Western Hemisphere, had more than 25,000 children living in its orphanages as of April 2020, according to reporting by The Associated Press. Many more have died on the streets of the island nation in the Caribbean, forgotten before they could build a life.

Those who somehow get out, like Solomon and Jeffson, take extra time to adjust. For Crystal and Robert, helping them past the mental barriers put up from early neglect was the toughest part.

"They had a hard life before we got them," Crystal said. "Basically, in Haiti (parents unable to take care of their children) have three choices. They can let them become a child slave, they can let them be put out in the streets to starve, or they can put them into an orphanage. They decided to put them in the orphanage because they couldn't afford to feed them.

"I've heard about all kinds of misfortunes you wouldn't want to wish on anybody, from before they got into the orphanage and after they were put into it. They remember it all. They don't like to talk about it, but they remember it."

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Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Christian Heritage School running back and linebacker Solomon Locke catches a pass during the Lions' practice Wednesday in Dalton, Ga. Locke is working toward another season of 1,000 rushing yards and 100 tackles, but football is about much more than statistics or even wins and losses to the Haiti native.

Finding football

The Lockes were two years into the adoption process when the country was ravaged by an earthquake in 2010, quickly followed by a hurricane. They were able to get Solomon and Jeffson out of the country on a military humanitarian flight and picked them up in Miami.

If not for the help, Crystal is convinced the brothers' fates would have been different.

"When they got home, Jeffson was so dehydrated that they came home on Thursday and he went into the hospital on Friday," she said. "Solomon had walking pneumonia, and if they had been there another week, they probably wouldn't have made it. It was bad."

Long after the physical scars healed, though, extreme change was still causing acclimation challenges, especially for Solomon, whose early life was centered on taking care of his younger brother.

"Solomon was pretty much the caretaker for Jeffson at the orphanage and everywhere, so they had to learn what it was like to have a mom and dad," Crystal said. "That took a little time to adjust because Solomon was used to bathing him and always made sure Jeffson ate first. He was the parent to him."

That early responsibility forced Solomon to grow up early, and it also left him with a hard edge that was difficult to crack. Football changed all that.

"When I first got here I was kind of angry, so when we started playing rec ball I found it was a good way to get my anger out," Solomon said. "It just felt natural and it was fun, and I slowly fell in love with it."

Athletics were not in the plan at first, but as Crystal and Robert found out again, plans change.

"I remember telling my friends, 'My kids are not going to play football,' Crystal said with a laugh. "I tried to get them to do dance and gymnastics and everything else, but they were just not interested at all.

"The community center in Kennesaw, where we were before, had days where kids could try out for gymnastics classes and all those things, and one day there was a football coach there. He put a football in Solomon's hands and he threw a perfect spiral, and the coach said, 'We want him to come play football.' I didn't want it, but we signed him up and that's where his love of football started."

And just as before, where big brother went, little brother soon followed, except little brother soon became the bigger brother.

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Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Christian Heritage School offensive lineman Jeffson Locke looks to block a defender during the Lions' practice Wednesday in Dalton, Ga. Locke, who also plays linebacker alongside his older brother Solomon, is a 6-foot-4, 240-pound sophomore and has great potential, Lions coach Jay Poag believes.

'They are family'

Solomon Locke is a stout 6 feet and 195 pounds and is a three-year starter for coach Jay Poag's Lions at running back and linebacker. He already has 1,000-yard rushing and 100-tackle seasons and is on his way to getting another one (he had 301 total yards and 13 tackles in the Lions' third game of the season).

Poag calls Solomon the hardest-working player he has coached, and he's had to do that to become the player he is. Crystal said Solomon, who recently had a hang clean lift of 325 pounds and can squat 555 pounds, lives and breathes the sport.

Jeffson, on the other hand, is more of a natural. The sophomore is four inches taller and 45 pounds heavier than his older brother. He starts on both the offensive line and alongside Solomon at linebacker, and as he begins to take on his older brother's work habits, Poag, for one, believes the sky is the limit.

"Jeffson is a different animal," he said. "My goodness, he's one of those guys you want to look like. You will see him take off and fly the next couple of years, and he could be the best to ever play here if he wants it."

Poag first met the brothers in 2013 when they walked into a sports performance business he owned in Dalton. Robert Locke had recently died due to complications from cystic fibrosis, and Crystal had moved the boys to Dalton to be near her parents. Poag soon took the job at Christian Heritage, a GHSA Class A private school program, and the coach has become, in his own words, rather attached to them.

"We got Solomon as an eighth-grader and Jeffson was a sixth grader, and it's just been an incredible journey ever since then," he said. "They were home-schooled at the time, and since they've been here they both have developed into remarkable kids."

Poag admits Solomon's story, though far from completely being written, will always stay with him.

"I feel like they are family," he said. "I've been around them for so long that I feel they are mine. I'm just proud of them, especially Solomon. Being the older one and forging the way like he always has for Jeffson takes your breath away. Jeffson is going to be a remarkable talent. He's certainly got the measurables to be a great athlete, but Solomon has always been the one to sort of knock down all the doors.

"There are all sorts of stories in your career as a coach and we all have our favorites, but as I fade away Solomon Locke will always be one of my all-time favorites."

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Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Christian Heritage School football coach Jay Poag talks to players during the Lions' practice Wednesday in Dalton, Ga.

Past, present, future

Solomon recently received his first offer from a college football program recently from Stetson, a Division I program in Florida, and this week he got his first college acceptance letter from Abilene Christian University in Texas. He wants to become a lawyer so he can represent athletes, and he wants to find a way to provide financial help to people in his native country.

That life may be over, but it will never leave his thoughts.

"We don't like to think about it much," he said of Haiti. "We were young and it was just a bad place, I guess. We just try to keep it in the back of our heads and try not to think or talk about it much. It does motivate us to be successful. We saw what it's like over there, with people suffering and everything. It just motivates me and I remember how it was, so I just want to keep getting better and better so that I never have to worry about being like that again."

Crystal Locke, the self-proclaimed "most unlikely football parent ever," is both excited and anxious about the final weeks of Solomon's prep career. She has no doubt he will succeed in whatever path he chooses and that Jeffson will continue to follow in his brother's footsteps and realize his own massive potential.

She also knows the role sports have and will continue to play in their lives.

"Again, it's a God thing," she said, taking a quick peek to the sky before inhaling deeply. "They have made friends on the football field that will last a lifetime, so sports have changed their lives and it's all been worth it. There have been hard times and challenges along the way, but I wouldn't change a thing."

Contact Lindsey Young at lyoung@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @youngsports22.

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