September 8, 2009

Kaleb Eulls' heroic action a decade in the making

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Lucille Boddy brought the school bus to a stop, and the 14-year-old girl waiting in front of a white house climbed aboard. In 30 years of driving buses in Mississippi, Boddy knew body language almost as well as she knew her route, and she knew the girl was hurting.

She was a transfer student so withdrawn that she refused to tell most kids her name. As Boddy pressed her foot on the accelerator and bus No. 8502 picked up speed along US-432, she checked the rear-view mirror. The girl had her head down. It was roughly 6:50 a.m. on Sept. 1, and as the bus grew noisy Boddy checked the mirror again.

The girl still had her head down.

Minutes later, a cry let out that could be heard above all others.

"The girl's got a gun!''

Kaleb Eulls, a football star asleep in the back of the bus, was about to awaken.

*****

It was right around the turn of the century, but Lucille Boddy didn't feel like celebrating. At least she didn't when she steered her school bus onto Lemon Road, past the farm on her left and the cemetery on her right, onto a winding road that took her to the dreaded pickup spot.

Onto the bus climbed the four sisters followed by their brother, Kaleb Eulls, a scrawny kid in elementary school. He would dance in the aisle, incite other children and, from the bus driver who thought she'd seen and heard it all, trigger a repeated refrain.

"Sit down, Kaleb!''

Some days, when the school bus emptied, Boddy was so overwhelmed by Kaleb's antics that she drove home in tears.

She discussed Kaleb's behavior with his mother, sometimes three days in the same week, and things would improve. But soon he was back to his disruptive ways. Boddy was determined to connect with the boy, in part because he was no ordinary troublemaker.

She knew otherwise.

Occasionally Kaleb left behind papers that included graded tests. Mostly A's and B's. He also was smart enough to stay away from the boys who drank, smoked and got into serious trouble.

When Kaleb reached junior high school, Boddy noticed he took special pride when he boarded the bus wearing his football uniform. Because practice ran late, he didn't take the bus home, and Boddy often spotted Kaleb sitting at a distance from the men drinking beer outside Berry's gas and convenience store. He was waiting for a ride home, and Boddy later learned why he'd be waiting so long.

Kaleb's family had no car.

It had been repossessed.

*****

The 14-year-old girl, who pulled the handgun from her book bag, stood up and popped the clip in place.

"What's going on back there?'' Boddy cried.

In the back row, one of Kaleb Eulls' sisters elbowed him awake.

"Girl's got a gun,'' she said.

About the same time Boddy pulled the bus to the side of the road, Kaleb realized what was happening.

He rose to his feet.

"Just give me the gun,'' he said.

*****

One day, during the morning route, Boddy drove down Lemon Road and discovered Kaleb and his sisters waiting in front of their grandmother's mobile home rather than the one they lived in with their mother.

They'd been evicted.

Come winter, Boddy noticed the grandmother's four-bedroom mobile home where Kaleb and 11 other family members now lived was as dark as the mornings for weeks at a time. They couldn't afford to pay the electricity bill, she learned.

Kaleb's disruptions continued. But Boddy decided it was pointless to take it up with his mother yet again. When the bane of her existence boarded the bus the next morning, she issued no threats. She handed him $3 instead.

He looked at the bills. Stunned.

"Thank you,'' Kaleb said, and he headed to the back of the bus where he sat during the 75-minute ride to Yazoo County High School in blessed silence.

Children teased Boddy, saying the only way to keep Kaleb quiet was to pay him. But she gave him even more on game day, sometimes $15 or $20, especially if the football team was traveling out of town. Some weekends, she paid him to wash the bus.

"I wanted him to have a few dollars in his pocket like the other boys, and I wanted him to know I cared about him'' said Boddy, 61 and a single mother of three grown children. "I know his mother loves him, but..."

Ora Lee Eulls gave birth to Kaleb when she was 17, a year after having her first child, and she'd been out of work for several years. The family subsisted on food stamps and the $674 check Ora Lee Eulls got every month because her youngest daughter has Down's syndrome.

The same year Boddy started giving Kaleb pocket cash and paying him to wash the bus, the Eulls family started giving Boddy Christmas gifts in what Boddy figured was a show of appreciation. What she didn't know is Kaleb was using most of the money to help pay family bills.

*****

One of Kaleb's sisters pulled the handle on the emergency exit. Kaleb kicked open the door.

The girl with the gun was cursing, threatening to take out the classmates, one by one.

"You're going to have to shoot me before you shoot anyone else,'' Kaleb said. "Just give me the gun.''

While Kaleb had the girl's attention, Boddy ushered children out the front door. Then she locked eyes with Kaleb and called to the girl.

As the girl approached Boddy, Kaleb waved the other children out of the emergency exit.

Together they all but emptied the bus.

The girl began to talk.

She told Boddy someone had thrown a piece of paper and a pencil that almost hit her in the eye. In soothing tones, Boddy said everything would be OK, and then the girl looked around in bewilderment.

"Where the kids at?''

They were on another school bus across the street, Boddy having coordinated the transfer during the chaos.

*****

Boddy heard the coaches at Yazoo County High School had taken an interest in Kaleb, too, as the boy grew into a 6-foot-4 and 255-pound football star. But the bus driver never would have known about his exploits unless she'd read about them in The Yazoo Gazette or seen reports on TV.

It was no surprise coming from Kaleb, who accepted help but never asked for it. He never bragged about his accomplishments either, but he sought opportunities to show what he could do.

Entering his junior year, Kaleb volunteered to play quarterback. The coaches watched him fire spirals downfield with his left arm. Then he did the same with his right arm. An ambidextrous quarterback? The fun was just beginning.

In addition to taking over as the starting quarterback, Kaleb handled punts, extra points and kickoffs. But he attracted a parade of college scouts with his sterling play at defensive end.

He got scholarship offers from Florida, LSU, Georgia and other football powers. But in July, he committed to play for Mississippi State.

He has left the state only twice in his life - once for an unofficial visit to the University of Alabama and a second time for a football camp in Mobile, Ala.- and saw no reason he should leave to play college football. He also saw no reason for TV interviews.

Matt Williams, the head football coach at Yazoo County High School, declined the interview requests from local TV stations on Kaleb's behalf.

College scouts appreciated his humility, his combination of strength and speed and something Boddy could have predicted when she found those graded test papers on the bus. Unlike many of the country's top prospects, Kaleb was academically qualified to play college football next year before the 2009 high school season even began.

"Don't forget about the people who encouraged you,'' Boddy told Kaleb when he boarded the bus one recent morning.

Kaleb said he wouldn't and headed to the back of the bus where he sat next to his sisters. Quietly. Kaleb's days of being disruptive had long since passed.

*****

Kaleb sprung.

With the girl's attention momentarily diverted, he knocked her to the ground.

Boddy held her breath. She feared the worst.

"I got it,'' Kaleb said. "I got the gun.''

Back on his feet, Kaleb exited through the back of the bus. The 14-year-old followed.

"Give me my gun,'' she ordered.

Boddy called out for the girl, who got back on the bus. Again, in soothing tones, she said, "We'll give you the gun when we get to school.''

When Boddy looked up, the bus was empty - except for the back row.

Kaleb was in his usual spot.

*****

Unleashed dogs, broken chairs and a rusted barbecue grill await visitors of a mobile home on Lemon Road, where the pavement turns to dirt and the backwoods of Mississippi thicken.

The hero lives here.

TV satellite trucks and reporters for "Good Morning America'' and "The Today Show'' swooped in last week. They wanted to hear Kaleb's account of the incident. They wanted to know how he wrested away the gun from the girl, who faced 22 counts of attempted aggravated assault and kidnapping and was arrested when the bus reached its final destination.

Kaleb told reporters he simply reacted and did what he thought was right.

"I just tried to talk to her and calm her down.

"I was just scared for the younger kids and my family that was on the bus.

"It was just crazy.''

In the two days that followed, a woman from Hawaii called the Yazoo County sheriff and said she wanted to send a check to Kaleb; a man in Starkville, Miss., said he and friends intended to start a trust fund to pay for necessities and incidentals that Kaleb's scholarship at Mississippi State would not cover; the sheriff, Tommy Vaughan, used his own money to buy a plaque that will be presented to Kaleb during an official ceremony Tuesday.

*****

With the 14-year-old girl back in her seat, Boddy approached Kaleb.

"Are you all right?'' she asked.

Kaleb nodded and handed her the clip he'd removed from the gun.

With no sign of police in this rural area about 35 miles north of Jackson and about 260 miles south of Memphis, Boddy decided it was best to stay calm, finish her route and get to her final stop, where school officials were waiting. Boddy closed the door, turned on the ignition and steered No. 8502 back onto the road with a sense of security.

With his sisters and the other students accounted for and safe, Kaleb Eulls stayed on the bus.

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