The most painful wound ever inflicted on Lehigh senior running back Ronald Jean didn't come from defenders taking whacks at his 5'5", 183-pound frame. It came nine years ago from the hand of his mother, Charlene, who slashed him across the abdomen with a kitchen knife, leaving a thin, horizontal, six-inch-long scar. "It was like that when she was high on alcohol or drugs," says Jean, 22. "She used to hit me a lot and abuse me verbally, but the knife is what convinced me I couldn't take it anymore."
A short while after he had been cut, Ronald told Charlene he didn't want to go with her when she moved from West Palm Beach, Fla., to New York City. He says that Charlene didn't believe him, but on the appointed day he stood his ground. "I'm not going," he told her when their bus was called at the station. "I'm tired of getting beat. I have to get away from you."
Charlene stared at Ronald for a moment. "If you want to stay, stay," she said finally. She and Ronald's three-year-old sister got on the bus, and he hasn't seen or heard from them since.
Once in a while Ronald imagines that somehow Charlene is aware of what he has accomplished. After a two-touchdown, 116-yard rushing performance last Saturday in undefeated Lehigh's 42-35 victory over Delaware, Jean is second in Division I-AA in scoring (90 points in six games) and is 10th in rushing (127.6 yards per game). Jean and senior quarterback Phil Stambaugh, who's second in Division I-AA in passing efficiency, spearhead a high-powered offense that has produced 18 consecutive regular-season victories.
Jean is a compact combination of speed (he's been timed by pro scouts at 4.31 in the 40) and strength (he bench-presses 435 pounds), numbers he has built up through off-season work at Cris Carter's Fast Program in Boca Raton, Fla. But the number that will determine his football future is 65, as in inches. NFL teams might be scared off by the thought of him trying to pass-protect. Still, he's been a long shot before. The odds of Jean's making it to, far less making it at, Lehigh—a college with high academic standards located in Bethlehem, Pa., that doesn't offer athletic scholarships—are almost immeasurable. "Lee Who?" he asked Chris Demarest when the then Lehigh assistant came to recruit Jean during his senior year at Boca Raton High. Still, Lehigh does give need-based aid, and if any candidate ever qualified to receive the full $30,000 price tag, it was Jean.
After his mother left, he spent the next few years being shuffled from one foster home to another (six altogether) in between stays at group shelters for orphaned youths. (Jean never knew his father, who left when his son was 18 months old.) Most of the adults in the foster homes treated him poorly, and many of his peers in the group homes turned to drugs and violence. "I used my mother and all the kids who messed up as motivation," says Jean, a psychology major who will graduate in June. "I was not going to end up like them." But with all that his mother put him through, Jean, like most people, still misses that sign of approval one can get only from his own blood. "Every once in a while after a game I look up and wish my mother would be there to give me a hug," he says. "But I don't think it'll ever happen."