His mother and younger siblings taken away from him by unspeakable tragedy, 10-year-old La’Shaun Armstrong now finds himself wrapped in the love and care of some big, burly football stars.
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Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, a 10-time Associated Press All-Pro, and retired NFL cornerback Reggie Howard are spearheading a fundraising effort to provide La’Shaun with counseling, activities and a college scholarship. But perhaps more important, Lewis and others have opened their hearts along with their wallets.
“He’s like a big brother to me, like an older brother to me,” a smiling La’Shaun said of the 35-year-old Lewis in a TODAY report Wednesday. “He says that I’m like family to him.”
La’Shaun’s story made international headlines April 12 when his distraught mother, La'Shanda Armstrong, drove her minivan, containing her four children, into the frigid waters of the Hudson River near Newburgh, N.Y., in an apparent attempt to take her life and those of her children. She and three children — 5-year-old Landon, 2-year-old Lance and 11-month old Laianna — all perished in the waters; only La’Shaun managed to escape through a window and swim to shore.
La’Shaun immediately sought help for his family, telling rescue workers, “Please help my mommy, she’s in the water.” His story touched the hearts of many, but maybe none more so than linebacker Lewis.
“Many stories you hear day in and day out, but that one grabbed me,” Lewis told TODAY’s Mara Schiavocampo. “My first words out of my mouth were, ‘I need him.’ ”
Lewis, vice chairman of the United Athletes Foundation, and Howard, the foundation’s president, quickly organized a fundraiser. On April 30, young La’Shaun was the guest of honor at a black-tie event at New York City’s Grand Hyatt.
Lewis recalled his first meeting with La’Shaun: “I just grabbed him and hugged him. I looked at him and told him, ‘I’m here for you, man. I can’t replace what you’ve lost. But I can tell you that I’m here to go forward with you.’ ”
He and Howard took La’Shaun bowling and have pledged long-term support, both financial and personal, to the boy. In addition to the UAF fundraiser, Lewis has donated $10,000 to La’Shaun’s education through his Ray Lewis Foundation.
Howard, like Lewis, says he’s bonded with La’Shaun and plans to be part of his life as he grows up. “We brought him in and made him part of our family,” Howard told TODAY. “And one of the things we told him [was], we got him. We got him for life.”
The love of the football giants has been a ray of sunshine in La’Shaun’s life as he continues to come to terms with his family tragedy. With his biological father in jail on robbery charges, he’s being raised by his grandparents, Larry Edge and Datrice Armstrong, who say La’Shaun sorely misses the younger brothers and sister he doted on.
La’Shaun hasn’t spoken of the horrifying events of seven weeks ago, Datrice Armstrong told TODAY: “He just says, ‘God, thank you for looking out for my family in heaven.’ ”
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And along with that gratitude, La’Shaun has made it clear how much friendship from the likes of Lewis and Howard means to him. “I feel sad sometimes, [but] I feel happy because I have my family and Reggie Howard and Ray Lewis to help me with stuff,” he told the New York Daily News.
Could La’Shaun wind up mirroring his mentors and becoming a gridiron great himself? The boy told TODAY he’s taking it one day at a time.
“I don’t really know what I want to be when I grow up,” he said. “There’s a lot of stuff to do. First, I have to finish college.”
For gridiron great Lewis, his hopes for La’Shaun are “to achieve much more than what his situation offered.”
To make a donation to help La’Shaun Armstrong through the Ray Lewis Foundation, click here.
© 2013 NBCNews.com Reprints