By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
When Tony was thirteen, his family moved to Cleveland, and Clara went to live with relatives in Arizona. She'd write, though, and encourage Tony to continue exploring his heritage. His search led him to the Nation of Islam, an Americanized version of the religion that incorporated the teachings of the prophet Mohammed with the notion of black separatism. At fifteen Tony converted to Islam: He liked its simplicity compared to the complexities of the Catholic faith in which he'd been raised.
But Tony's spiritual growth nearly came to a halt in 1970, when his great-grandmother died. He felt lost at her funeral. Clara Murrell had been his best friend and teacher, had warned him about staying away from the gangsters who hung out in the local pool halls, drinking cheap whiskey, committing petty crimes and frittering away their lives. Now that she was gone, he felt like it didn't matter anymore. So he quit school and began hanging out at those pool halls.
Finally, an aunt sat Tony down and told him to quit feeling sorry for himself. "When he couldn't find a job, your Grandpa Evans moved his whole family to Arizona and helped build the Hoover Dam," she told him. "They lived in a tent in the desert, and he built them a home with his own hands...Now what are you doing with your life?"
Once out of the corps, Tony got a job washing trucks. Most of the other workers were old men, transients who had pretty much given up on getting anywhere. One day one of those men pulled him aside. "Tony, most of us are old and washed up, and it don't matter much what we do," he told Tony. "But you're young and smart. You could do something with your life. You just got to make up your mind and do it."
That evening Tony went out and picked up a newspaper and began searching the employment ads. One in particular caught his attention: A national restaurant chain, Church's Fried Chicken, was looking for management trainees. The next morning Tony marched down to the recruiter's office. A few days later he was on his way to California for training.
Church's was a good operation to work for, but by 1976 Tony was growing restless. His early marriage had ended in divorce; they both had been too young. So Tony moved to Colorado and got a job managing a Kentucky Fried Chicken store.
He was glad to be back in the Rocky Mountain West. He bought a cowboy hat, followed shortly by a pair of boots from the Denver Stock Show. And every birthday, he drove to an Estes Park riding stable to relive the dreams of his childhood. In the back of his mind, Tony thought that someday he would like to get some land and start a farm or a ranch. In the meantime, though, he was serving up fried chicken by the bushel.
He was also dating. Shortly after his arrival in Denver Tony started seeing a young woman, but he grew uneasy around some of her relatives who were involved in drug dealing. He also found it increasingly difficult to reconcile her habits with his Islamic beliefs that prohibited the use of alcohol and drugs. Finally he broke off the relationship and, discouraged, prayed to Allah that he would someday meet a woman who would want to settle down and raise a whole bunch of kids.
In the summer of 1977 Tony was visiting a friend when he met Sharon, a short, dark woman with big, beautiful eyes who laughed a lot and was interested in what he had to say about Islam. She already had an infant son named Elijah; his father had abandoned them both.
Sharon had been raised on a farm outside of Dodge City, Kansas. Although there wasn't much money for the seven kids in her family, there had been a lot of love and support. Now she wanted her own big family and a big garden and lots of animals--and a good, honest man with whom she could share these dreams. When Sharon met Tony, she was sure he was the one. The only thing that marred their courtship was a telephone call from his previous girlfriend, who said she was pregnant with Tony's child. Six months later Jamal was born.
In 1978 Tony opened Denver's first Church's franchise at 34th Avenue and Colorado Boulevard. The business was a success, and in September he and Sharon were married, with little Elijah in attendance. A year later the family grew by one when a daughter, Malika, was born. She was followed two years later by Ali.
Three years later Sharon was again pregnant. At 5 a.m. on a bitterly cold January day, she told Tony that the new baby seemed to be in a hurry to arrive. Tony went out to warm up the car for the drive to the hospital. When he returned, it was to the sound of Sharon yelling for help: The baby was on the way. And so Luqman, future cowboy, was delivered into his father's hands, eager to get started with the business of living. The hospital birth of Kareem two years later in 1986 was tame by comparison.