Some kids are good at puzzles. Some learn to read early. Mozart wrote a symphony when he was eight, and now and then you hear about some Doogie Howsertype who, at 15, is chairman of the math department at Cal Tech.
Marcus Houston is a different kind of prodigy—a kid with a preternatural understanding of leverage. When he was in kindergarten in Aurora, Colo., his teacher gave all the kids a mock $1 bill and asked them to finish the sentence, "If I had $100 I would buy...." Marcus crossed out the word buy and wrote in "go to a colich." Another time, the little boy went shopping with his father, Herman, at a Cub Foods store near their home. Staring at the long aisles packed with food, Marcus asked, "How much does one of these cost?"—meaning, the store. Herman said, "I have no idea. A million dollars?" Marcus thought about it and said, "I'm going to get me one. I could feed a lot of people."
Leverage is an empowering concept; a little push here produces a big result there, and before you know it, you think you can move mountains. When Marcus was a junior at Denver's Thomas Jefferson High and on his way to the first of two all-state selections as a running back, 12 freshman footballers were flunking two or more classes after the first six weeks of school and lost their eligibility. Disturbed by their failure and looking for an avenue of action, Houston created a program called Just Say Know in which he delivered a talk and showed a football video at six middle schools, using his credibility as a star athlete to motivate the younger kids academically.
He then funded an eighth-grade essay contest at each of those schools with money he had earned mowing lawns and shoveling snow. "Win $50!" read the flyer. "Write an essay letting us know what success means to you and what you are doing to make sure you are successful." To encourage involvement by the kids who didn't write well, he added, "If 75 percent of the class enters, your class will be given a free pizza party!" The essays poured in, and the middle school teachers raved about Marcus's skill as a motivational speaker. Just Say Know is now a nonprofit corporation, and Houston, at 19, is a budding Arthur Ashe, soliciting corporate donations and making plans to go national.
It is his skill at leveraging his athletic talent, not his selection as the nation's best high school running back last year, that makes Houston the most celebrated freshman athlete ever at the University of Colorado. "Marcus has the longest freshman bio in the history of the athletic department," says Colorado sports information director David Plati.
At a civic event in Denver two summers ago, Houston was introduced to a visiting princess from the village of Matsekopi in Ghana, who invited him to attend Ghana's Emancipation and Panafest celebrations later that summer. Before Houston returned home from the eight-day trip, the village appointed him its development chief, in effect asking him to take the lead in helping it secure goods and services from America and other countries. Houston has since shipped donated farm tools and books back to the village, and he plans to seek monies to help fund a technological school located there.
Then you have Marcus Houston, civil rights activist. Three years ago he was one of the plaintiffs in a police-brutality case brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, alleging that Denver police used excessive force to break up a fight at a chaperoned dance Marcus attended with his dad and two older brothers. One year later the human rights group Amnesty International invited Marcus to the Netherlands for an 18-day speaking tour, during which he gave a presentation at the Holland Police Academy in Zevenaar and a keynote address to a convention of human rights delegates in Amsterdam. He also spoke to members of the ministry of foreign affairs in The Hague and appeared on the BBC and other European media outlets. "It gave me an opportunity to speak out about what I had witnessed [with the Denver police]," Marcus says.
Houston gets his idealism from his parents. Herman and Patricia met in the late '60s at Washington; he was a running back and 440-yard sprinter majoring in business administration, and she was working toward a master's in public administration. For the past five years they've run the Youth Education Institute, a nonprofit organization that conducts betterment programs for young people in Denver. Herman is also an artist, a cartoonist and the author of a self-published book of observations called As I See It. "We taught our children that if you have blessings, you have a responsibility to share those gifts," says Pat.
The Houstons also encouraged their children (Marcus has a younger sister in addition to his two brothers) to develop more than their athletic skills, entering them in oratorical contests and requiring them to run for class offices. "The kids would stand on the fireplace to practice their speeches," says Herman, pointing at the hearth in the Houston's book-lined family room. Pat leaves the room and comes back with an example of the kids' resourcefulness, a papier-m�ch� slave ship that Marcus built in middle school. The sails are made of sheets and the lines are made of yarn; the masts are sunflower stems from the back-yard. "You want your kids to have a sense of personal wealth," Herman says—his point being that poverty is sometimes a spiritual condition rather than a lack of assets.
The Houston children are walking advertisements for their parents' approach. Polica, a redshirt junior wideout at Northern Colorado, is an English major who plans to go into elementary education and administration. Lovell was a free safety and kick returner at UCLA before transferring to Colorado this fall as a junior to pursue a political science degree. Then there's Nicole, a senior who has played basketball and run track and cross-country at Jefferson High. She has her own weekly interview program, The Nicole Houston Show, on Denver public-access channel 58. ("I call her Little Oprah," says Marcus.) Colorado's football coach, Gary Barnett, looks at the job Herman and Pat have done and says, "If I had any more kids, I'd give 'em to them to raise."