KRAVITZ: UIndy’s Iman Tucker is a picture of perseverance, strength and the power of belief

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Bob Kravitz

INDIANAPOLIS (WTHR) — Iman Tucker will not be running the hurdles in the upcoming 2020 Tokyo Olympics. He made just one all-conference team, will not be remembered at the University of Indianapolis for any of his awesome feats on the track. He was, by his own admission, an ordinary high school runner in Seymour and an ordinary runner at UIndy, in large part because of the myriad health problems that nearly killed him and instead produced an extraordinary pillar of strength and inspiration.

No, they won't remember the 24-year-old Tucker, who just last week received his MBA from UIndy, for his greatness as a track athlete.

But they will remember him for the way he touched that program for the past six years, for the way he impacted people in ways both spiritual and mystical that it often leaves his peers in tears as they recall his contributions as a long-time captain and cherished teammate.

Let's begin at the end with Tucker, who was abandoned by his parents at age 11, was raised by his grandparents in Seymour, survived two bouts with cancer, a heart condition and fractures to his back and pelvis along the way.

On May 5, 2018, he ran his last race for UIndy. The meet was at Lewis University in Romeoville, Ill. He wasn't expected to do much of anything; after all, he had never won a medal at UIndy for coach Scott Fangman's track team. Fangman, though, had a feeling as he put together the 4x400 relay team near the end of the meet. His best runner hadn't been performing particularly well that weekend, and Tucker had been showing some speed, so after long consideration, Tucker was put on the third leg of the relay.

"I wasn't thinking about the six-year struggle we'd been through together," Fangman said. "I'd be lying if I said that. But I could tell, when I put him on that relay, it meant something really dear to him."

Then he laughed.

"I'm not going to lie," he said. "I was really worried about that third leg."

The race began at a breakneck pace, and Fangman’s concerns were redoubled. Could Tucker maintain the speed that had been established the first two legs of the relay? Could this young man, who had been through so much, who had battled his way through so many personal and health issues, help his team in this event? Fangman started to wonder: Was he guilty of maybe, just maybe, putting Tucker on the team because of his strong relationship with the young man, all in the outlandish hope that he might help bring home a winner?

When Tucker received the baton, UIndy was in sixth place.

"I just got this kind of tunnel vision and ran as hard as I've ever run in my entire life," Tucker said. "I just kept thinking, 'I've got to do this, I've got to do this.' Then, handing off to Allen Wright, the fastest guy in the conference, I had this overwhelming sense of confidence. 'We may not win this meet, but we're going to get some hardware.'"

Fangman's emotions spilled over with tears as he told the story of Tucker’s last race. I asked him if he’d ever seen Tucker run like he did at Lewis that day, and he stopped and sobbed for around 20 seconds.

"No," he said, unnecessarily apologizing for the tears. "After all those years, six years, all the struggles he'd been through, he ran like" – another long pause, more tears – "the track man he's always wanted to be. It was the fastest split he'd ever run (49.58 seconds) in six years. It just finalized everything for him and for us. It was a memory for a lifetime. I'll never forget it. Because those six long years and they were hard at times, but like, I do mountaineering, and after a long, hard climb that kicks your butt, you feel more exhilarated than you thought possible. It's like, 'It almost killed me' but that's what it was about. 'We survived, man! We survived!' To do what he did was unbelievable."

Tucker took the baton in sixth place. When Wright got it for that final leg, the Hounds were in third. That's where they finished.

But it meant points. It meant hardware. A medal. His first and only one in six challenging years in school.

After the race, Tucker and Fangman embraced in a way that still makes both men emotional.

"I've never been hugged like that my entire life," Tucker said. "Never. It meant so much."

Said Fangman: "I'm not sure I've ever felt that way before. We waited six years for this. He just wanted so badly to be a contributor. He just wanted to score a damned point. He wanted to be counted as an athlete and not as the guy who overcame illness and injury through his whole career. 'That’s Iman, he's fighting cancer, he's gonna be slow, he can’t do anything for us.' No. I've never seen anybody work and fight so hard. If anything, I had to slow him down because he worked so hard. He was absolutely obsessed by wanting to be normal, to contribute, to be part of this."

He had contributed in so many other ways throughout his career, including acting as the team’s captain through four of his six years. Now he had a medal hanging around his neck.

As it would happen, UIndy had one final meet coming up, but Fangman did not want Tucker to compete.

"I'll let you run," he told Tucker. "But I'm just saying, I don't want you to run."

"Why?" Tucker wondered.

"Because you already gave us that memory," he said. "I don’t know why we should push this. It's like being greedy. God gave us a blessing and now we're asking Him to bless us more. And why would we do that?"

A few days later, Tucker called Fangman out of the blue. "I'm not going to be able to make that last meet," he told his coach.

Fangman smiled.

After a lifetime of struggle, of abandonment by his biological parents, of cancer scares and a heart condition and too many injuries to count, he had his medal. That would be the final chapter to Tucker's track story. If you can walk away on top, you do it. Fangman understood this and soon, Tucker did, too.

*****

Tucker does not want to share the names of his biological parents, who lived in Fayetteville, N.C. when they sent Iman and his brother Tyrei to Seymour to live with his grandparents when Iman was 11 years old. He tells stories of the times when his biological parents really hurt him, cut him deeply, first when Iman had a reunion with his mother at a half-sister's graduation, then when she came to visit him – the one time she visited him – when he was dealing with his first bout of cancer. Then he sends me a text later in the week, asking me not to use their names, not to get into any depth about those brief but deeply hurtful reunions. I tell him to reconsider, that those stories tell so much about the pain he has experienced from having been abandoned by parents who treated their children like a petty inconvenience, but he is steadfast, and ultimately, I agree to spare the harsh and painful details.

But he hurts. Damn, he hurts.

"When they dropped us off in Seymour, they said we'd be staying there for a little bit and…" He paused. "They never came back. Looking back, I was so young and didn't recognize what was happening, but getting older now, I see how it planted that seed of abandonment in my head. Why did they do it? I've never asked because I’m big on forgiveness and it's almost better that I don’t know. I still recognized them as my parents. In a biological sense, I still love them regardless of whatever it is they chose to do. I just thought it was best I never asked.

"I've thought a lot about 'why?' But I’ve never asked. I feel like they were in a different stage of life that wasn't necessarily supportive of kids. Just because you're a parent doesn't necessarily make you fit for the job. Being a mother doesn't necessarily make you a mom. Being a father doesn't necessarily make you a dad. Maybe they thought this was best for us. That's the truth I like to hold on to."

In a twisted way, though, it was a blessing. Tucker's grandparents, Louis and Debbie Kleber, are angels who gave Iman and his brother almost everything his biological parents could not or would not provide them. They gave them faith, having been raised in the Southern Baptist Church. They gave them a support system, showing up at every school meeting and sporting event. They provided for them financially — Louis worked two jobs to make ends meet — and they provided for them spiritually.

"Looking back, my brother and I had every opportunity we could ever want," Tucker said. "They're very gracious and giving people, not just to me, but to everyone around them. It was their tender, loving spirit that really helped me at a time when I was hurt and self-focused. At sporting events, I always knew where they were. Basketball, track, I always knew where to look in the stands no matter what gym or track I was at, I always knew where they were going to be. My grandpa painted on the side and I'd go work with him; he showed me what it's like to work 10, 12 hours a day, and I learned about hard work. Both of them were involved in Bible study at the church. My grandpa ran the game hour and my grandma ran the candy store. So I could walk in and he'd let me play the games or I'd go to the candy store and get candy. They always made me feel special."

There was still that sense of otherness, however, for Iman and his brother, who is two years older than Iman. They are both biracial, and now they were living in Seymour, Ind., which is not exactly a bastion of racial diversity.

"Growing up in Seymour, it was an issue, absolutely," Tucker said. "I remember one of my first days in school, I wore a Jordan jumpsuit and some of the kids were looking at me. I'll never forget this: One of the kids looked at me and asked, 'What, do you think you're street because you're wearing Jordan?' First off, I didn't recognize what he meant by 'street.' Is that a thug? Is that a gangster? What does that even mean? I was like, 'You’ve never seen a Jordan jumpsuit before? I mean, this is what we wear, what I wear.' It was always people pointing out the difference, every day, every single day so that was a challenge for me. But I think I'm glad it happened because it gave me a sense of independence, a strength at a young age. It's OK to be different. It's OK to not look like everybody else.

"But, you know, at that age, everybody wants to fit in, be the cool kid. I was the only black kid on my basketball team. After a while, I saw myself almost conforming to the image of those around me. So I started buying the jeans that they bought. I would say, 'Grandma, can we shop here instead of here?' One of the things she loved was for me to wear navy blue socks with my blue jeans, and for some reason, they always teased me for it. So I’d take my basketball socks with me so that when I got to school, I would take the blue ones off.

"I always felt that I was too black to be white and too white to be black. It's weird. Like I'm somewhere in the middle. I personally identify as being black but when I'm in the black community, they don't necessarily identify me as black."

The emotional hits, though, were nothing compared to what he would soon face. As he prepared for his freshman year of high school, he noticed he was suffering from terrible headaches, he couldn't eat and his jaw pain was so pronounced, he could barely open his mouth wider than a few centimeters. He had to break his food into tiny pieces so that he could consume something. He had faced abandonment and dealt with life as a minority in small-town America, and now this:

Cancer.

*****

It was Dec. 1, 2008, and Tucker was in freshman high school Latin class. Earlier, he noticed he had a lump on his jaw AND his back, and now, his grandmother was calling him while he was in school – which was unusual. So Tucker went out to the hallway, stood by his locker and dialed her.

"You have a doctor's appointment," she said.

Iman was confused. "One thing about my grandma is she's really great at scheduling things, so if we have an appointment, we know way ahead of time," he said. "This was so last minute, it threw me off, like 'what's going on?' So I called her back."

"We'll talk about it in the car," she told him. "But you’re really sick."

Tucker remembered the emotions, or lack of emotions. "I felt numb, un-present, because I didn't really know what was going on and didn't fully recognize the value of life and what could be at stake."

On the way to the clinic, his grandmother was speeding, hoping to make the appointment before the office closed. A police cruiser stopped them.

"I'm sorry, but my grandson has cancer and we have to get there before they close," she told the police officer.

There was that word, the one he never even contemplated. "First time I heard the word 'cancer,'" Tucker said.

The police officer was not moved. "If he's that sick, you can call an ambulance," he said. She received a ticket. Iman was livid. Nobody treated his grandma this way; nobody.

They reached the doctor's office in time, though, and soon, Iman noticed that as they walked through the clinic, the doors read "Cancer and blood disease."

Eventually, he got the diagnosis. Burkitt’s Lymphoma. Chemotherapy would start immediately.

"I lost my hair," he said. "I had no appetite. I was in and out of the hospital, a couple of days in, a couple of days out. I was totally exhausted. I would go to school and I'd be so uncoordinated, like I had no control over my legs, I'd be tripping over desks. It just sucked your life away.

"I wasn't afraid of dying, but I was definitely aware of the situation. I thought, 'This is what dying feels like.' Which, this is going to sound strange, was really a blessing in disguise because whenever I'm going through things now, I remember knowing what death feels like, and this isn't that.

"Emotionally, I was depressed. My grandparents have always been people who taught me and my brother to be people who serve others first. I tried my best to be happy and polite, good and strong, but I didn't want to. I just wanted to…" His voice trailed off.

Every night, his grandmother sat with him at the hospital. They were together but apart. "We both had our own sense of loneliness," he said. "I'm in there thinking I want to hang out with girls, be with my friends, play sports and not having that was tough. I just wanted to fit in."

Two years later, Feb. 2 of 2010, he was told the cancer was in remission.

But the battles were just beginning.

He regained a bit of normalcy, playing basketball and running track his sophomore year after sitting out his freshman year to regain his strength. But then his junior season, in 2011, he passed out after getting lightheaded during basketball practice. The chemotherapy had affected his heart, leaving him with 40 percent cardiac capacity. The doctors told him, "You're stressing your body out way too much. You're through with sports."

Except that he wasn’t. He was inspired to push through, despite what the doctors had told him. And by his senior year, he was back on the track team, his body finally developing, his track times improving.

That’s when he met Fangman, the UIndy coach, and it was one of those magical meetings when two men understand they have a unique connection (more on that later). Fangman didn't necessarily think Tucker would be a big-time Division II track athlete, but he knew he wanted Tucker on his team.

And then doctors found a spot on his lung his freshman year at UIndy. Cancer again. This time, though, there would be no chemotherapy. Tucker and his family opted for alternative treatment, and somehow, the spot resolved itself.

"I feel like I'm a miracle of God," he said. "That’s what I feel like."

There was more. With Tucker, who has overcome so much, who has spent his life running over hurdles, there were more hurdles to clear. His redshirt sophomore year, he needed hernia surgery and suffered a pelvic fracture, and didn't return to the track until late in the season. "I was terrible," he said. "It was like high school all over again."

His redshirt junior year would be different, he promised. His body was recovering, his times were improving and he had found a training partner in a transfer student-athlete named Treyvon Matthews. He was experiencing a fleeting sense of normalcy when his body failed him again: While doing a weight-lifting exercise, he felt pain in his back and his left arm and left leg went numb. He had fractured a vertebra in his back.

He was not going to be stopped, though, not this time, and continued to push through the injury, which, he acknowledges in retrospect, probably wasn't smart. "It got to the point where the girls on my team were beating me in races," he said. "I was so embarrassed. 'Am I not tough enough? Am I not strong enough for this?’ I had kind of an identity crisis. This sport had allowed me to feel relevant again and then all of a sudden, it's taken away again. Plus, I was a 4.0 student and because of the pain and back brace I was wearing, I started missing classes and my grades suffered. I fell into a dark time."

He received a sixth season from the NCAA and again – AGAIN! – he refractured the L2 in his back, but again, he pushed through. He felt like he had no choice. This would be his final season on the track team, his final year in a career that had been marked by one physical malady after another. And then, with his time winding down with Fangman's team, the Hounds went to that meet at Lewis University in Romeoville, Ill., the race when he finally earned his hardware and scored points for his team. Finally.

"I just wanted to show myself that I could persevere and be tough," he said. Then a smile. "And it paid off."

*****

To this day, Fangman can't fully explain why he wanted Tucker on his track team. Like we said, he was nothing special in high school. He had dealt with cancer. His career was on-again, off-again, one crisis after another. So why did Fangman, whose job it is to build student-athletes and yes, win track meets, want this young man who never truly figured to play a significant role for his team?

I asked Fangman straight up, "Did you think that Iman could help you as an athlete?"

He laughed at the absurdity of his statement. "Not at all," he said. "But don’t tell him that."

So how did these two men, one in his 60s, the other in his teens, come together?

"Let me tell you a story," Fangman said.

"I'll never forget our first encounter," he continued. "I saw him, we were separated by a full straightaway. He was in for a visit, so I dropped what I was doing, walked toward him and said, 'Iman Tucker,' and he says, 'Yes, sir.' I said, 'Welcome to the program.' He hadn't even decided to come here yet. I said, 'I know you’re coming.'

"He's the only kid I've ever recruited who I truly didn't think would see the end of his career here because of his cancer. I knew this could be it, that there would be a finality to all this. It was overwhelming. But there was this connection, and I can only describe it as, I don't know, I'm not sure I have the words to make you understand. Magical? Mystical? Spiritual? He's got an aura about him, a spirituality that makes you go, 'Oh, wow, this person is special.'"

Even now, Tucker isn't sure why he ended up at UIndy, why he locked eyes with Fangman like two lovers seeing one another from across the room for the very first time. "I just knew we had a connection," Tucker said. "It was like divine intervention, God putting us together."

Fangman saw some potential — Tucker had run reasonably well his junior year of high school, but struggled his senior year because of health issues — but when he looked at Tucker, he saw someone he absolutely had to have on his team.

"I thought, this kid is fighting for his life; who am I to worry about a hurdle time?" Fangman said. "I was overwhelmed by his struggle for life and his willingness to be so positive about his future. How can you not want to be around a guy like that? People think the kids glean so much from us, but in this case, I gleaned so much from him, and so did our whole team. He's our longest-standing captain, four years, chosen by his peers. He took the whole team to the Peyton Manning Children’s Hospital, where he stayed, and he coached us on how to act, what to say to these kids."

I returned back to my initial question about why he wanted Tucker so badly. Coaches bring in athletes who can help them win. Tucker wasn't one of those athletes, in large part because of his journey. Why Iman? Why recruit him and bring him into the program? Fangman noted that he adopted a biracial son of his own, just like Tucker, and he saw his son in Iman.

Then the tears returned.

"I don’t know," he said haltingly. "I don’t know why I wanted him. I just knew I had to have him on my team. God just told me to take him. 'You're taking him.' He's a silent warrior, that young man. Whatever he does the rest of his life, he's going to be an incredible success.

"I'm just so glad we've been together these last six years. There have been some tough times, a lot of tears, a lot of long talks, but thank God Iman Tucker came into our lives."

Want more Kravitz? Subscribe to The Bob Kravitz Podcast oniTunes,Google Play, Stitcher or TuneIn. If you have a good story idea that's worth writing, feel free to send it to bkravitz@wthr.com.

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