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How 5 LDS basketball stars from Lone Peak model success amid America’s ‘war on boys’

SHARE How 5 LDS basketball stars from Lone Peak model success amid America’s ‘war on boys’
I think as a general rule, the world criticizes boys today. Even in commercials, men are the butt of the joke. I can see that even in my own boys, the temptation would be to believe that. – President Rodney Ames, Texas Fort Worth Mission

Editor’s note: Following is the second of two stories on the 2012-13 Lone Peak High School boys basketball team. Part 1 focused on the influence of faith on the young men and their development outside of basketball. Today's story focuses on how these players have thrived, even though young men in the broader culture face significant personal, educational and economic challenges.

PEÑITAS, Texas — Inside Marisol Castillo's trailer home, the light dims as the sun sets along the Rio Grande River. Bald lightbulbs reveal that sheets are all that separate the trailer's rooms.

Outside, a car crunches over the long dirt road leading through the dusty plain and past other widespread trailers. This is the poorest area of this rural speck of a border town, where 98 percent of the population is Hispanic or Latino. Now and then, a goat bleats.

In the cramped kitchen, Elder Talon Shumway sits with his back to an aging stove. At 19, he's tall and still appears lean, despite putting on 20 pounds in the year since he started at forward for the best high school basketball team in America. He had scholarship offers to play major college football or basketball this school year. Instead, he is here, speaking nothing but Spanish, a language he didn't know at all seven months ago.

There is a lot to talk about. Across from Shumway and his missionary companion, whose back is to a battered white refrigerator, Castillo sits next to Esteban Fernandez, whom she married the previous night. Four hours ago, Shumway baptized Castillo.

The couple and the two missionaries laugh together as Castillo teases Shumway, yet again, with the Mexican term "guero," which describes a white man with a fair complexion, reddish-blond hair and, in this case, freckles. Her playfulness and quick smile delights Fernandez and the missionaries. Soon, though, the talk will turn to more serious subjects. The couple is working hard to save money to renovate the trailer home. Both earn little, and finding better pay in Peñitas is difficult. Castillo wants advice from the missionaries about how to be Christ-like with a co-worker who bothers her and others at the flower shop where she works. When they leave, Shumway and his companion cautiously walk to the road in blinding darkness.

Basketball is the furthest thing from Shumway's mind.

Cloudy future

Across America, boys and young men are adrift and losing ground.

Study after study shows they are doing worse in school, falling behind in the workplace and are more likely to be depressed or suffer other mental health issues than girls. Boys have delinquency rates three times that of girls and, between the ages of 15 and 19, a suicide rate five times higher than girls.

"The crisis has deepened over the past two years," says Warren Farrell, author of "The Myth of Male Power." "All the jeopardizing dimensions of boys' lives are still with us. The rate of boys with ADHD increased. Video game addiction is worsening. There's more video porn to seduce teenage boys. More boys are being raised without fathers."

The results are staggering, and yet Farrell is concerned that what some have termed a war on boys "has not been recognized as a crisis" by most Americans.

The data is easy to find and tells the story of a problem decades in the making. For example, high school grades and college attendance rates for boys and men have stalled or faded for 30 years. The impact is dramatic. Last year, 140 women graduated with some kind of college degree for every 100 men, according to a U.S. Department of Education estimate.

Today, men earn just 38 percent of all associate degrees, 43 percent of bachelor's degrees and 40 percent of master's degrees. The college achievement gap between men and women has been widening since 1982. During that time, women have earned nearly 10 million more college degrees than men.

The trend shows no signs of slowing. Last May, the National Center for Education Statistics projected female college enrollment would grow 16 percent by 2021 while male college enrollment would increase 7 percent.

Women are behaving the way economists would expect in an era where a college degree is increasingly vital to earning potential, "going to college in record numbers," the New York Times reported last year. "Men, mysteriously, have not."

Predictably, men are falling behind in terms of wages and unemployment. An MIT analysis found a "tectonic shift" in male employment.

"Over the last three decades, the labor market trajectory of males in the U.S. has turned downward along four dimensions — skills acquisition, employment rates, occupational stature and real wage levels," according to the study "Wayward Sons: The Emerging Gender Gap in Labor Markets and Education."

The study projected a "cloudy future" for boys. It was particularly notable because the researchers suggested a link between fatherlessness in America and the downturn in male education and employment outcomes.

These statistics and anecdotes don't apply to all boys. Some buck the trend.

'Your example'

Five hundred miles north of Peñitas, sunrise mingles with the smell of pancakes and sausages in a one-bedroom apartment shared by Elder Conner Toolson and Elder Jacob Beard.

The two young men jogged in the cool stillness before dawn here in Fort Worth. Now, while his mission companion cooks, the tall, slender Toolson showers, dresses in slacks and a blue T-shirt and then pulls an ironing board out of the bedroom closet. He assembles it between the two beds and begins to iron the white shirt he'll wear for the next 14 hours.

One-third of American children now live in homes without a father. As that number has grown, so too has evidence about the importance of fathers. A boy who spends more time with dad shows more empathy as an adult. A boy with an involved father is less likely to need medication or therapy for behavioral or emotional problems. He is less likely to smoke, drink alcohol or abuse drugs. He is more likely to stay in school, stay out of gangs and jail and to go to college.

"The No. 1 thing most likely to increase a boy's possibility of success is to have an involved father with an equal amount of say as the mother," says Farrell, who also wrote "Why Men Are the Way They Are."

Toolson is following in the footsteps of his father, Andy Toolson, whose own two-year mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints interrupted his education and a basketball career that took him to the NBA and pro leagues in Italy and Spain, where Conner was born.

This son is a pure basketball junkie, a chip off the ol' pick-and-roll. Conner Toolson started on the same team as Shumway at Lone Peak High School. The Knights regularly drew laughter when they walked into gyms last year for games against nationally ranked opponents in tournaments in Chicago; Milwaukee; Springfield, Mass.; and Fort Myers, Fla. They beat teams from eight states, winning the MaxPreps national championship and drawing the attention of the New York Times, which offered a review of the team's performance: "Its style is a fearless, careening brand of basketball, built on 3-pointers, lobs and dunks...."

Still, his father demanded more than basketball from Elder Toolson.

"My parents always expected the best out of me," he says. "I had to miss games and practices when I wasn't doing well in school. My dad had a big influence on me. He's your example. He's the one you look at. If your dad's doing well, you're more likely to do well."

Different road

Shumway's parents divorced in 2010. He doesn't want anything to do with his dad. "He made some mistakes and created a lot of problems for my family. I don't have contact with him. I have a restraining order against him."

A judge ruled his father's conduct at games caused "emotional distress," according to court documents, and issued a civil stalking injunction.

Many who work with boys today see a generation in which a lot of young men, especially those with absent fathers, lose their vision and drive.

"It just may be that boys growing up where fathers — and men more generally — appear superfluous confront an existential problem: Where do I fit in? Who needs me, anyway?" researcher Kay Hymowitz wrote in a Los Angeles Times op-ed article in November. "Boys see that men have become extras in the lives of many families and communities, and it can't help but depress their aspirations."

Boys with absent fathers can find it more difficult to set and achieve goals, but with his father gone, Shumway maintained ambitions that included college, sports and a church mission with the help of his mother, Cathy Shumway — "She knit my family together really well" — his teammates and others.

"The Lord really put some great men in my life," he says. "The dads of my friends, coaches, seminary teachers, people in my (LDS) ward. My bishop had a huge impact. The Lord seemed to say, 'There's things you need to learn,' and I've learned them from my grandpa, my sisters' husbands, all the men around me."

He has a deeply meaningful relationship with his older brother Colton. Separate from adults, he and his friends harbored the shared goal of winning a national championship ever since they had come close to an AAU title one summer.

Right now, Elder Shumway is driving himself to serve others. He has only played basketball twice in seven months. He lifts weights in his temporary apartment most mornings, but only for energy. He rarely thinks about the scholarship he has to play wide receiver for BYU when he gets home. He's too invested in his mission, in helping people like Castillo.

"You really come to love a lot of people," he says.

A leader

Shumway was 10 when he lost the 1-on-1 tournament at a summer basketball camp to Nick Emery. He burst out of the gym and into the hallway and was fuming when an arm came around his shoulder.

"Well," Quincy Lewis said, "at least you'll be playing together in high school."

Lone Peak's basketball coach was right; the boys started on the national title team.

Still just 42, Lewis has short red hair, a big heart and a demanding set of values. Emery has described him as "precise." Shumway once called it "OCD." Lewis distributes a handbook each season. It explains that his program demands goal-setting, effort and accountability. One page is devoted to John Wooden's legendary "Pyramid of Success," another to his own "Winner's Tree" of "Pinnacle effort," with entries about focus, reliability, enthusiasm and serenity.

"It's a book of blessings," Shumway says.

"Sacrifices must be made," Lewis wrote in last year's handbook. "Petty jealousies and differences must be eliminated."

"We were not worried about individual stats," says T.J. Haws, another starter on last year's team. Haws, whose own father played college and pro ball, is wrapping up his senior season at Lone Peak this month. He recently scored 40 points in a game to break Emery's year-old school record. Last year's other starter, Eric Mika, is starting at center for BYU as a college freshman this year. Like Shumway and Toolson, Emery is an LDS missionary now, in Frankfurt, Germany.

Chip Koop, Lone Peak's principal last year, said the team's talent and its "lack of internal conflict, or ego" were what made it special. Strong families and school support contributed. Lewis provided vision and opportunities. The players accepted responsibility for each other, too.

Mika said the players watched each other to make sure nobody's head grew too big. "We kept each other in check.”

"Because we were so involved with each other," Toolson says, "and we all had the same values and we held each other accountable, if things were going wrong we'd tell each other.

For example, he says, "We'd say, 'Why are you swearing?’ ”

Boy power

That kind of socialization is a major benefit of team sports, Farrell says. After an involved father, the most important elements that can help boys are sports and vocational opportunities for those without an academic orientation.

"We call them competitive sports," Farrell says, "but in fact the most important contribution of team sports is learning how to play as a team, learning how to pass the ball off to someone who is better than you are or who has a better shot than you. That cooperation is crucial to social-skill development."

For those not interested in team sports, single-participant sports teach self-starting skills, he adds. A third type of sports is disappearing from American culture: Pick-up games.

"Pick-up team sports are valuable preparation for being an entrepreneur," Farrell said, because boys and girls have to solicit participation, organize teams, set rules and boundaries, and decide who can be trusted. "You start from nothing and you build and create and you adjust constantly. That should be in every school system for both our sons and our daughters."

The key in all sports, Farrell says, is to make sure the emphasis is on character and values development. Those kinds of activities should be a part of every school every day, Farrell says, but only six states require physical education in every grade and just nine require recess.

"P.E. and recess are crucial to boys," he says. "Boys have much more need to have their physical energy dissipated before they can concentrate and focus."

Farrell is intrigued by Urban Dove, an alternative high school in Brooklyn where at-risk students play sports in the morning and their coaches remain in the school throughout the day, encouraging their charges through academic challenges, too. More than 98 percent of the students graduate, and 95 percent attend college.

Next stage

Native Spanish speakers struggle to pronounce Shumway's last name. One boy calls him "Elder Sandwich." Some in the city where he served before Peñitas called him "Elder Chamoy." Chamoy is a Mexican salsa made of pickled fruit.

Count 18-year-old Jose Rodriguez among those who can't say "Shumway" and knows nothing about the missionary's football and basketball career. Rodriguez sometimes joins the missionaries to teach others about Jesus Christ.

"He barely got to Peñitas, but he's given me the motivation to talk to people more and share the gospel," Rodriguez says. "Whenever I go with the missionaries, he always makes me feel good. He tells me he's glad I came with them and they are better off when I'm there."

Toolson's mission president is Rodney Ames, 46, who left his practice as an attorney in Liberty, Mo., last summer to spend three years guiding the work of 275 missionaries in Fort Worth.

"I think as a general rule, the world criticizes boys today," President Ames says. "Even in commercials, men are the butt of the joke. I can see that even in my own boys, the temptation would be to believe that."

He suggests the young men, and women, in his mission can handle more than American culture presumes.

"These missionaries love the challenge of having real responsibility," he says. "They love the opportunity to try to do something big and difficult."

President Ames assigned Toolson, just 12 weeks after he arrived in Fort Worth and while still 18, to train a brand-new missionary. Now Toolson is a district leader, responsible for several companionships. Just a few hours after he ironed that shirt, he watched as a woman he had helped teach was baptized, a ceremony that required detailed coordination with the local congregation. There was another sensitivity to navigate: The woman hadn't told her sister and brother-in-law about her conversion because they don't allow Mormons in their home.

Less than a mile from the U.S.-Mexico border, Shumway regularly deals with some stemming from two of America's thorniest issues, illegal immigration and poverty. He and his companion, Elder Kyle Merrill of Centerville, Utah, even did some wedding planning with Castillo; she married Fernandez the night before her baptism to fulfill the requirement for chastity expected of each new convert.

"It's the reason we're here, to see people change, to accept the gospel," Shumway says in the parking lot after the baptismal service. Then he smiles.

"A little joy in the journey."

Email: twalch@deseretnews.com