It takes a Simon Gratz village...
There is confidence, yet no arrogance. There is competitiveness, yet no anger. There are bad memories, yet no resentments. There are opportunities which are gone forever. Yet all that remains are goals and dreams to firmly and completely occupy their place.
You wouldn't expect a young man who left his biological parents at age nine and was then forced to bounce around from foster home to foster home for the next eight years NOT to have a chip on his shoulder.
You wouldn't expect such a young man to be living independently while still in high school.
You might not expect such a young man to be more nervous about his next big race than starting life every morning alone in a North Philadelphia apartment.
And you wouldn't expect such a young man to be preparing to write the final chapter of his exceptional high school track career; all while clearly focused on his future in college and beyond.
But you haven't met Khaliff Featherstone. Simon Gratz senior – and recent signee with Barton County Community College.
Featherstone winning his heat in the 400 trials
at the 2008 NSIC Championships - Photo by Don Rich
Khaliff is far from alone.
He does have family. One he sees every day. And a younger brother he sees when he can.
His every day family is the Simon Gratz High School community. And they have, for all intents and purposes, adopted him since he successfully completed a course at the Achieving Independence Center of the Philadelphia Department of Human Services two years ago.
The choice to live on his own was Featherstone's. He felt it gave him more control, and he could be accountable only to himself for his successes or failures.
His other family is his 13-year-old brother Joshua, who is living with an aunt in west Philadelphia.
It is track and Joshua that drive Featherstone to do something that no other member of his family has done before, and that is to graduate from high school. But both Khaliff and Joshua are looking far beyond today, and dreaming of bigger things.
According to Khaliff, Joshua is more the football type and is dreaming of playing for USC. For his part, Featherstone is aiming for a Division I program after Barton, his college degree, and if all goes as hoped, a professional running career with a special trip to London in 2012.
Some would call what Khaliff has done to date a success story. But his coach - and mutually acknowledged father figure – Robert Massie, considers graduating from high school and attending Barton as merely stepping stones. "The story is not over yet. He has to go on to become the person we know he can be. And then it will be a success story,"
Two sets of twins helped Featherstone grow as a runner.
Track became an important part of Featherstone's life almost immediately after he was separated from his biological parents. His first experience came at Logan Elementary School as part of an exercise program. "They noticed I was much faster than the other kids," he relates. Featherstone had found a first love. He ran for Roosevelt Middle School from 6th through 8th grades, and was a member of the 4x100 relay team that won the citywide title. During that time he ran for Morris Estate Track Club over the summer. From 15 to 16, he was a member of Phatback Athletics, another top Philly club team.
It was two members of that team that would send him in the direction that got him to where he is today. Two sprint stars on the Phatback team were twins Kevin and Kenneth Talley. Two years ahead of Featherstone in school, Khaliff immediately developed respect for the brothers. When it came time for Khaliff to select his school in Philadelphia, the Talleys influenced his decision. Featherstone had originally planned on attending Dobbins Tech. But the top kids at Dobbins were seniors. The Talleys went to Simon Gratz. So Featherstone chose Gratz.
Coach Massie knew immediately that with Featherstone, he had a star in the making. And he chose to do something that many coaches would like to do when presented with such talent, but only rarely do. He did his best to keep the pressure off.
As Massie relates it, "the first two years, Khaliff rarely ran in individual stuff. We let him run the 400 a few times, just to let him see what he could do. But by putting him on relays, there was no pressure."
Featherstone edges North Penn's Cody Edling to claim top US
team in the 2006 Penn Relays 4x800 COA - Photo by Don Rich
Featherstone was so good at the 400, Massie did let him run at the indoor state meet in the event. Featherstone won it in 48.98. In that meet he also finished 3rd behind Central Dauphin's Jordan Mitchell and teammate Kenneth Talley in the 200. He also ran on the winning 4x200 and 4x400 relays, and Simon Gratz won the 2005 team title.
"We pulled back a little for 10th grade," Massie says. After all, he was the sophomore on a team dominated by seniors. The Talleys led the sprint relays. And thanks to a twist of fate and a timely comment by a competitor at North Penn, the Simon Gratz Bulldogs were about to become a force in the 4x800 meter relay at the Penn Relays.
Massie says that he and his team have the greatest respect for the North Penn athletes, their coaches and their program. "But we owe them a thank you for our 2006 4x800 team that beat them at the Penn Relays. One of the stars of the North Penn 4x800 that year made a comment in the newspaper that inferred that we weren't quite up to their level after we finished less than five seconds behind them at NSIC, cracking eight minutes." The result was that the final two pieces of the team, twins Derrick and Darryl Davis, decided to run outdoor. "One was in an all-star football game, the other was not sure he wanted to do track anymore. And then that quote in the paper and it all came together."
Derrick Davis, Devin Summerville, Darryl Davis, Khaliff Featherstone...
top US team in the 2006 Penn Relays 4x800 COA - Photo by Don Rich
Simon Gratz would nip North Penn at the line to earn top American team in the 4x800 at Penn. They were also top American team in the 4x400 Championship of America just two hours after the 4x800. Sophomore Featherstone anchored both.
PennTrack's coverage from 2006 described those races:
Derrick Davis lead off for Gratz in 1:57.0, handing off near the lead to Devin Summerville. Summerville had the tough task of staying with one of North Penn's two fastest 800 runners, Phil Wright. Wright split 1:54.7, with Summerville passing off after running 1:56.6. Darryl Davis, like his twin Derrick, is in his first year of running. Massie says they had been trying to recruit the two seniors since their freshman year. Darryl joined the cross country team this past fall, while Derrick played football. Both ran indoor. The two have learned quickly. Darryl split 1:56.1 and handed to Khaliff right with the Holmwood runner and North Penn anchor Cody Edling. Massie says that Edling was the perfect competitor for Featherstone. "Cody made him run. And when he passed Cody and Cody passed him back, he was determined he wasn't going to lose." Unfortunately for Gratz and North Penn, the Holmwood runner was on his way to a 1:54.6 split. Massie says he could see Featherstone inching up on him, but he waited too long. Nonetheless, the race for best American team was won by Gratz. Featherstone split 1:56.0. Gratz then came back just over two hours later to take 4th in the 4x400 Championship of America in 3:14.55 (Derrick Davis (50.1), Kevin Talley (48.4), Kenneth Talley (49.0), Khaliff Featherstone (47.2)) behind three Jamaican teams.
Khaliff Featherstone anchors a 47.2 split to help make Simon Gratz the
top US team in the 2006 Penn Relays 4x400 COA - Photo by Don Rich
Massie says that their respect for North Penn has never wavered. "Over the years, they have been such a class act; coaching, every athlete. It has been a pleasure to compete against those guys. We are their biggest fans. In New York (when North Penn won the 4x800 NSIC title this year), we were screaming in the stands."
Looking in the mirror helped Khaliff become the runner he is today.
Coach Massie has always been impressed with Featherstone's range. "It's unique. Sub 11, 21-point, 47-point, 1:51-point split. and even 17 minutes on the Belmont Plateau cross country course."
But when Featherstone arrived at Simon Gratz, he didn't have great running form. "He used to swing his arms," Massie says. They gave him a harness to wear while running in place in front of a mirror. The drills worked, and today, Featherstone has an upright, powerful and economical stride. "Coach Mass says my running form is one of the prettiest he has ever seen."
Featherstone thinks of himself as a 400 runner. "It's a man's race... a long, long sprint. You can't hide in the 400, and I like challenges."
Cheltenham's Brandon Bing helps Khaliff Featherstone to his then-PR
of 47.78 in the 400 at the 2007 PIAA State Championships - Photo by Timothy O'Dowd
And while he has won two individual titles in the event – indoors in 9th grade and indoors again this year – he doesn't think he is close to his potential. Coach Massie agrees. "We haven't put the kind of training on him that you might normally do with someone of his talents. He has never lifted. His upper body is weak."
Getting stronger is one of the things Featherstone is most looking forward to in college.
Both coach and athlete agree that Featherstone's best race ultimately may be in the 800.
And Featherstone has already learned something about the event and himself that makes the race fun. "If people allow me to linger (on their shoulder), and I can hang on, I can use my speed. If they run my race and go out hard, they won't hang on. But I need to be stronger."
For this year though, Featherstone really wants his first outdoor state title. In the 400. He was second in 2007 to Cheltenham's Brandon Bing; who along with former Bensalem runner Reggie Carter; Featherstone counts as the best competitors he has faced in high school.
As for the kinds of times that Coach Massie thinks Featherstone can run, he is putting him in the world class level at both the 400 and 800. "He has speed. And he has an amazing natural aerobic dispensation when he runs. If he trained for the mile, he could even do well at that distance."
Khaliff Featherstone gets his 2nd indoor PTFCA State Championship,
even bothered by a stomach virus, with his 48.30 on March 1, 2008 - Photo by Don Rich
Doing the right things for all the right reasons – himself and his brother.
"The support he gets enables Khaliff to do the things he wants to do," says Massie. "It's really him though. We have convinced him he is not doing this for us... he's doing this for himself. When he first came in, he was trying to please the coaches."
Featherstone knows that his choice of Simon Gratz has made all the difference. "Gratz is my family. And Coach Massie has been like my father for four years. And (assistant coach) Fred Daniels. They really care."
"He is like a son to me," Massie shares. "We argue. We laugh. We joke. We do everything a family does. I even help him shop." Massie also describes the extended family of Simon Gratz that has helped Featherstone as well. "We even had some of the athletes from as far back as the 80's come back to talk to him, encourage him."
Featherstone also gets support from other athletes whom he now counts among his friends, such as fellow senior Chanelle Price of Easton. "They're always texting," shares Massie. Featherstone says that he has tremendous respect for Price. "I look up to her. She definitely influences me."
But when asked whom he would model his athletic career after, Featherstone doesn't hesitate in his answer. "I'll be myself. I haven't met the real Khaliff Featherstone. I have not yet trained to my potential."
Massie wouldn't disagree with his athlete's perception of himself. "While I will miss him; at the same time, I have seen him grow from someone who had potential, to someone who has mind-boggling potential."
As for his dreams outside of running, Featherstone is as definitive with his answer as he is with everything. "I want to be a talk show host. Radio or TV. I'll major in communications."
As he heads for the end of his prep career and starts down a new track, one thing is constant for this young man who is making it on his own with the help of the Simon Gratz village. "I'm doing it for my brother and for the love of running track. I am doing it to show Joshua there is a better life than the streets."
Note: For those who have always wondered about Featherstone's age, be sure to send him your birthday wishes on October 14, 2008 as he turns 20.