This past fall, Mario Hornsby Jr., then a senior at Springfield Central High School, wrote an essay for English class. In neat handwriting on ruled paper, with a couple minor spelling errors, he took stock of his relationship with his father, Mario Hornsby Sr., and his responsibilities toward his mother, Monique, and younger brothers, Drevon and DeAundre.
Just last year I noticed a change in my father’s demeanor. He started to get moody and lathargic. So my first thoughts as a man was to drop out of school and get a job to ease the load of my parents. My father, knowing the power of education, told me to continue school and get a job part-time after school. . . . I always listened to my father’s advice, and it paid off. Now I’m a promising student with a great job, that’s going to suit up for the Central Golden Eagles basketball team this year. My father influenced my life in a great way; he made me a great man who can handle a bunch of tasks. It’s funny, because I was going to be another stastic on the drop-out list, but now the sky’s my limit.
“When I read that letter, it just took me out,” recalls Hornsby Sr. now. “You really don’t know what’s happening in your kid’s life until you get something like that.”
This past fall, Hornsby Jr. started to turn his life around. For most of high school, he was a poor student whose report cards were litanies of D’s and F’s. But senior year, he somehow orchestrated a minor academic miracle. That first semester, his GPA skyrocketed. He made the honor roll. And, having never before played more than a couple of JV basketball games, his newfound confidence and leadership qualities led to his being named captain of the boys’ varsity team.
Then, thanks to the intercession of a helpful coach, something was on the horizon for the hugely popular 19 year old that only a few months earlier would’ve seemed unthinkable: college.
Right about now, Hornsby Jr. should be practicing his jumper, and gearing up for a preparatory year at Brandeis. But he never got to trade the chipped paint and cracked cement of Springfield’s violent Mason Square for the tree-shaded lawns of Waltham. He didn’t live to see his high-school graduation.
On the night of May 17, Hornsby Jr. was hanging out on a friend’s porch, just 30 feet from his own home. From the darkness, shots were fired. The bullets were meant for someone else. Hornsby Jr. ran. He was hit once in the back. He died a short time later.
Now, Hornsby Sr. is making a promise to his son: “I cannot allow this to be in vain.” In the 105 days since Mario’s death, Hornsby Sr. has spent nearly every waking hour — every hour when he’s not working overtime shifts, piloting Peter Pan buses from Springfield to Boston and back — working to set up the nonprofit Do It For Mario Foundation.
He’s learned to navigate the complexities of 501(c)(3) forms. He’s becoming adept at finagling corporate largesse. He’s cashed in his 401(k). His aim, in tandem with other Springfield community and anti-violence groups, is to set up a comprehensive family-resource center and an outreach program for at-risk youth.
“You can’t stop the violence, but you can try to curb it,” he says with quiet certitude. “I know we can’t save the entire Springfield community. But if I can get out there and impact just one child’s life, I’m willing to do whatever I’ve got to do.”
‘Who’s this kid?’
A DREAM CUT SHORT: Hornsby Jr.’s youth basketball photo
“He wasn’t the perfect child,” Hornsby Sr. says of his son, while sitting in a conference room in Springfield’s Puerto Rican Cultural Center (whose members are helping him get his own foundation off the ground), flanked by his wife, Monique, and Chelan Brown, the founder of the anti-violence group AWAKE (Alive With Awareness, Knowledge, and Empowerment). “But the reason he’s getting so much attention now is that he made this full 180-turn at a critical point in his life.”
To understand how and why Mario Hornsby Jr. made such an about-face so quickly, just talk to his high-school basketball coach, Mike Labrie.
“Our relationship was special,” says Labrie by phone from his Chicopee law office, his voice occasionally cracking with emotion. “I’ve been doing high-school basketball for 25 years, and a lot of times you make positive changes in kids’ lives on a gradual basis. Some of those changes aren’t realized for many years. But this was a significant turnaround, and I’m just privileged to have been part of it. I was in the right place at the right time to help him change his life — and he did. I’ve never seen a kid turn around so drastically, in such a short period of time. It was just fun to be part of. And it makes this tragedy even more difficult to swallow.”