Fifteen-year-old Charles Lampton Sawyer never saw the New Orleans Saints historic Super Bowl victory – though he died wearing the team’s colors.
An honor roll student-athlete at Sophie B. Wright charter middle school in Uptown New Orleans, Sawyer was murdered before a school bus could take him from his Hollygrove area home to school for “Super Bowl Spirit Day.”
Like New Orleanians everywhere on Feb. 5, the Friday before the Super Bowl, the ninth grader wore black and gold to show support for the Saints’ championship run.
Tragically, 2nd District police and investigators from the coroner’s office were among the first to notice the boy’s attire.
Just after 6 a.m., the authorities responded to a 9-1-1 call and found Sawyer lying face up in the middle of Palm Street near Gen. Ogden Street.
A black backpack lay by his side.
“He was wearing a black and gold Saints jacket and a black shirt with a hood underneath,” says John Gagliano, chief investigator for the Orleans Parish Coroner’s Office.
Sawyer was the city’s 14th homicide victim of 2010. Police didn’t immediately say if they had a motive or suspect in the case.
News of the child’s murder was quickly swept aside amid rising anticipation over the Super Bowl.
Yet, the lost promise of youth became stubbornly evident over a historic weekend of elections, Carnival parades and Saints victory celebrations.
Interviews with a unique blend of voters, revelers and grieving teachers outside the school would lead to Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu’s first news conference as mayor-elect on the morning of the Super Bowl.
In addition, voting returns from polls set up at Sawyer’s school for the Feb. 6 primary election – the day after his murder – may set a benchmark for the progress of the Landrieu Administration and other elected officials over the next four years.
In an only-in-New Orleans moment that Saturday, Wright school (1426 Napoleon Ave. near St. Charles Avenue) was both the site of fundraising Carnival concession stands and polling stations for the Feb. 6 elections.
Voters and parade spectators alike left the campus with hot plates of fried chicken and fish, cold beer and bottled water on the tempting menu of the school’s “Mardi Gras Food Festival.”
Had Sawyer lived he might have enjoyed hearing the school’s Uptown neighbors marvel at the fundraising acumen of principal Sharon Clark.
“Food, beer and voting – all in one place!” said Paul J. Gregory, a local computer consultant. “And bathrooms!”
Kellen Smith, 27, an environmental scientist who moved here from Atlanta three years ago, expressed mixed feelings as she left the parade and the polls. “I’m very happy with the parade and I did catch a lot of beads,” Kellen said. “I wasn’t extremely happy with any of the candidates – but any change would be good.” She wants to see schools improve and crime reduced.
Behind a nearby concession stand, Wright staffers solemnly remembered Sawyer as a polite and capable student.
“I saw him Wednesday – he was going to his sixth period class,” said Shirley Carrie, a parent liaison and activity coordinator. “I said, ‘Where are you going Mr. Sawyer?’ He told me and I said, ‘Be good.’ He said, ‘Yes, ma’am.’”
“He was a good guy; you couldn’t find a more dedicated student of the game,” said Steve Williams, coach of the Wright Warriors basketball team where Charles played shooting guard. “He was well thought of by his teammates.”
Sawyer played well for the Warriors against Warren Easton High, his last game, said Williams, 64, a native of Florida and a teacher in New Orleans schools for the last 17 years.
He paused when asked how the Wright team would play on without Sawyer. “In my history of working with students, I’ve never had something like this happen,” Williams said.
He and other Wright staffers said they hope that newly elected city leaders would strengthen the New Orleans Recreation Department.
“We need a weekend NORD,” Williams said. “We need NORD to be more family-oriented. Where there’s pride there’s less crime.” Athletics teaches youth self-discipline, “structure,” teamwork and rules – such as “fouls,” the coach said.
Academically, public schools are improving post-Katrina, and teaching more trades would help, he continued. “But it’s the culture that has to change.”
Gazing across the street at a passing Carnival float, he added: “You can’t be second-lining every Saturday.”
That night, Landrieu won the primary election by a landslide. The next day, on the morning of the Super Bowl, this columnist asked the new mayor what he would say to Sawyer’s grieving family, teachers and classmates at Wright.
Landrieu offered prayers and condolences and outrage over the murder of the honor student
“The level of violent crime on the streets of New Orleans, especially among young African-American men, is an American tragedy and a national shame,” the mayor-elect said. “It’s unacceptable … and we’re going to do something about it.
Improving recreation facilities and job opportunities for youths will be part of his attack on crime, Landrieu said. He vowed to find “a great chief to reorganize NOPD;” work with parents and faith-based groups to reduce crime; tackle reform of the city’s juvenile justice system; and improve coordination among police, prosecutors and judges.
The city still has plenty of problems to fix since Katrina, but public safety must come first, he said. “If we’re not safe – nothing else matters.”
Landrieu won 66.5 percent of the vote citywide against five major opponents for a stunning primary win. His victory was more convincing in the three precincts at Wright school. In Ward 13, Precinct 7, Landrieu got 76 percent of 216 votes cast. In Ward 12; Precinct 8, he won 74 percent of 99 votes; in Ward 12, Precinct 7, Landrieu captured 68 percent of 174 votes.
Tens of thousands of New Orleanians poured into the streets to celebrate after the Saints upset the Indianapolis Colts, 31-17, to win the Super Bowl. In the French Quarter they came in waves. Blacks, whites, Hispanics and Asian-Americans, young and old, rich and homeless turned into a Utopian society of dancing, chanting “Who Dat.”
From his studio chair, veteran WDSU-TV anchor Norman Robinson narrated live pictures of jubilation until the wee hours. With earnest satisfaction, Robinson began: “Everybody loves everybody …”
It was a memorable weekend worth repeating. A new city administration takes office May 3, with the promise of safety, unity and progress – at last. No child should be left behind, cruelly denied dreams of “black and gold” and Super Bowls. None should die like Charles Lampton Sawyer.