Single parents are finding support in a West Akron man with the hard-earned reputation of a rapper, caring father, heroin dealer, college football star and convicted felon.

“I grew up not much different than the average black kid,” said Timothy Richard Anderson Jr., whose parents separated when he was 2. Anderson picked up on the drug dealing that ran through his family as a way to fill his pockets and support loved ones.

It was a natural fit. “Most of my friends were in the streets. A lot of their parents were addicted to drugs. We didn’t have that love at home. So, we’d go searching for it,” he said.

A talented student-athlete with a future that once burned brightly, Anderson has been on either end of the gun violence rattling Akron.

In 2014, he was sucker-punched by a disgruntled business partner on the streets outside Helen Arnold Community Learning Center. At point blank range, he shot the man in the chest twice. While serving three years for felonious assault in the Lorain Correctional Institution for what could have been a murder charge, Anderson reflected on the scores of black men around him who would never see their sons and daughters grow up.

With an early release in 2016, he wasted no time building a movement to “Save Our Community.” Three months before completing his probation in June, he started the Fallen Fathers Foundation to help single parents and children. “It’s rare that we have someone complete that judicial release probation without a single violation,” said Tiffany Morrison, the bailiff for Judge Tammy O’Brien, who shaved a year off Anderson’s prison sentence.

Reformed?

Anderson has done more for the community this summer than most accomplish in a lifetime.

In June, he held a lottery to pay the rent for a resident living in poverty. At the event, he connected local businesses, community service providers and residents while raising $3,500 to give backpacks and school supplies to 1,000 children in Akron. In the past two weeks, he’s sent 50 kids to Disneyland and the Zips home opener at InfoCision Stadium.

For $16.66 a month, parents of 38 students enroll their children in Anderson’s mentoring program, which keeps kids safe and learning 12 hours each week after school. He’s now engaging Akron Metropolitan Housing Authority and the United Way of Summit County to bring financial education to the single parents he notices are often too busy working and raising families to focus on their futures. “I think we need people like him … someone that other people trust,” said Angela Lowery, the United Way’s director of financial empowerment.

Yet for all the good he’s doing, those who know Anderson best — the loved ones he kept in the dark about his drug dealing — understand that the past is never far behind. “As far as the street life, I want to make sure that’s completely over with,” said Monique Cook, Anderson’s girlfriend of eight years and a caseworker for at-risk mothers at the Summit County Department of Job and Family Services.

Engaged to be wed, Cook and Anderson have a son and each bring two children from previous relationships to their new family. But before they get married, Cook needs to see the foundation consume Anderson’s life.

“I am his toughest critic,” she said. “But I am also his number one supporter. I’ve always pushed him.

“Hey, you’re better than this,” she tells him. “We don’t have to live this life.”

Building ‘The Brand’

Friends and family call him Richie. Music fans know him as “Rich P: The Brand Himself.”

He runs his own entertainment and publishing companies, building on a reputation as a record-setting football player and famed rapper, at least in Akron.

But before all that, Richie was a just a kid with a dad in the Hilltop neighborhood around Copley Road and a mother in the valley around Summit Lake, and a family history steeped in drugs. “In our family, we had a lot of people who sold drugs,” said LaToni Yates-Grandison, Richie’s mom. “He knew that was a quick way of making money. He loved money; he loved nice things. He got into it. I tried to tell him about the bad parts of selling. Before my addiction, I was selling, too.”

After a death in the family when Richie was 9, his mother started using the crack cocaine she’d been selling. She recalled a particular day around 1992 with Richie, then 12, and his half brother in the backseat of her car. A man approached and she shooed him away.

“He was trying to buy. I knew Richie was smart and he would catch on,” said Yates-Grandison.

But she failed to convince her son that hustling literally is quite often a dead-end job. With money for groceries and the utilities going instead to mom’s addiction, Richie saw actions speak louder than words.

Before she gave her boys back to their fathers, Richie’s mother would buy from his classmates. “They got the new shoes, the new clothes,” said Richie. “They’re driving already. And they don’t even have a driver’s license yet.”

Richie took two lessons away from living with his mother: don’t do drugs and there’s a lot of money in selling them. “I don’t know why this is, but people will give you drugs before they give you a job,” he said.

By his senior year in 2000, he had the nice clothes, fancy watch and a 1999 Cadillac Eldorado.

His father didn’t know about his son’s drug business until January 2010 when a man with a hooded sweatshirt pulled tightly around his face jumped Richie outside his grandmother’s house. Richie escaped with a bullet in his left shoulder — the same shoulder that had shattered, along with his hopes of college, five years earlier.

Intervention

Almost always a half-step ahead of the hits, Timothy “Richie” Anderson Jr. idolized the ankle-breaking Barry Sanders.

He never took a defender head on, unless he had to, always preferring to slice through or around the line with breakaway speed. At Central Hower High School, his running ended a 35-game losing streak as he rushed for 1,000 yards every season — and sometimes three touchdowns a game.

“What it came down to was being scared to be hit,” said Anderson, who graduated in 2001 with a 3.6 GPA and multiple college offers.

But he couldn’t outrun life.

Accustomed to the quick cash of heroin dealing and with grandparents struggling with their health bills, he took a year after high school to help his family. That fall, he dodged another hit — this time by luck.

He visited a customer to collect a debt. The man was short. So he asked Anderson for a ride to a local hardware store to sell some tools. Akron police in the Street Narcotics Uniform Division swarmed his vehicle a few blocks into the trip.

In the back of the police cruiser, Anderson wrote the headlines in his head: “Star football player busted.” The police turned him loose after finding nothing incriminating. But the experience rattled him.

Back at his grandmother’s house on Stoner Avenue, he climbed to the attic to retrieve a shoebox where he’d stashed all the college offer letters. But it wasn’t until the following summer that a friend convinced him to take a ride to Hiram College, which had been waiting to hear back.

“They played me,” Anderson said of the friend and his father who drove an inner-city kid to a picturesque campus in rural Portage County. “It was more like an intervention college visit,” he said.

Back in Akron, he was determined to not get in trouble until his student loans were approved.

The hit

He supplemented an academic scholarship with work study at Hiram, a division three school barred by the NCAA from paying its athletes. In his junior year, he took his last snap — a sweeping toss in a late October game against Allegheny College.

Rounding the defensive end on his way to the sideline, Anderson cut under the corner in search of a big gain. He never saw the linebacker.

The men crashed to the ground with a combined force that snapped Anderson’s left shoulder.

The hit ended his football career. No more help navigating financial aid, he said. Citing federal student privacy laws, the college could not discuss his case today.

Anderson couldn’t cover a $4,007 tuition bill. His father, an Akron sewer inspector, didn’t know then that he could have dipped into a pension fund to keep his son in college.

And so Anderson returned to Akron where hustling paid more than three years in college.

In Hiram, he reflected, professors made wake-up calls if students overslept. At the University of Akron, where he tried to finish, no one stopped Anderson from walking out of a lecture when a customer lit up his pager.

“You raise your kids and so do the streets,” said Tim Anderson Sr., who has grave concerns about the disregard for life he sees in youths who are quick to reach for a gun in Akron.

Rapper’s plight

Throughout his time at Margaret Park Elementary and Innes Middle School, Anderson cared for a younger half brother in a home that often lacked food, electricity and water. Except for scribbling in notebooks, he kept his plight private, as he’d been taught.

“It actually started as a way to vent,” he said. “Most people have someone to talk to about their problems. Writing them down turned into raps.”

Scars, tattoos, three children and two stepchildren (who call him pops), a busted shoulder, shattered dreams and two years behind bars now fuel his raps. But the polite Anderson can’t express his feelings without a microphone. A life of hustling has hardened his sensibilities. Anything that comes off as weak gets buried.

His fiancee calls it the “sweet and sour” sides of a father with one foot in a sordid past and his eyes fixed on a brighter future.

He packs verses with the nicknames of men who fell in the streets. “It’s like draft day, and God’s steady choosin’ n*****,” he sings in Just Give Me a Minute, released the year he shot his business partner over a cash dispute. “Ain’t no set day, simply spur of the moment/Guns everywhere. Bullets with no names on ’em/Time waits for no man.”

Shortly after his release from prison, Anderson rapped in his 2017 debut My Memoirs about life on the inside, surrounded by generations of fathers who will never be there for their children. “Commissary life. No money on the phone/Even killers break down. We just want to go home/Visits from your kids. You just try to stay strong/When your voice get to crackin‘ they can hear it in your tone.”

Reach Doug Livingston at 330-996-3792 or dlivingston@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow him @ABJDoug on Twitter or www.facebook.com/doug.livingston.92 on Facebook.