Photography by Danny Fulgencio.

All Denzel Gulley wants is an apartment with his own bed and blankets.

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“Even if I had a million dollars, I’m not going to live in a mansion,” he says.

The Lake Highlands High School student insists the only thing he’d change about his life is having his own home. He isn’t the type to ask for what he needs or accept favors. He’s adamant about appearing humble and positive.

When he does answer questions about his life, he ends every explanation with a variation of “but it’s OK.”

Being vulnerable is more difficult than juggling school, football practice and a nearly full-time job at Jersey Mike’s. Admitting when he feels lonely is harder than attending sports award banquets without anyone. 

Denzel knows everyone, he says, but not many people know much about his life. 

“Sometimes I say it’s not fair,” Denzel says. “I have to accept that not everyone has the same life.”

The aspiring politician and standout football player has a complicated relationship with his grandmother, mom and two siblings. He’s never met his father. 

Denzel was shuffled between homes throughout his childhood. He lived with his grandmother from prekindergarten to fourth grade. They returned to their mother’s house, where they lived until eighth grade.

Her then-husband had volatile tendencies, so he and his brother moved back into their grandmother’s house in Garland when Denzel started high school, he says. His mother, her husband and his sister moved to San Antonio. 

Denzel says he financially supports himself. By 14, he had a job at Valley View AMC and by 15, he was promoted to shift lead. He made employees’ schedules and interviewed applicants. Despite the responsibility he held at work, Denzel struggled with behaving in school, he says. He skipped class, and his grades were bad. 

His freshman year, Denzel was sent to in-school suspension. A football coach overseeing the room looked at him and said “You know you’re starting football tomorrow, right?”

Denzel became a lineman for the Wildcats. His grades improved, and so did his behavior. 

“Football was the only thing pushing me to be better,” he says. He received about 14 collegiate offers but chose to attend Wayland Baptist University in the Texas panhandle to play football in the fall. 

Denzel found stability out-side of school when his friends introduced him to a Young Life mentor. They met twice a week for ice cream or dinner. A few months later, while Denzel was eating dinner with his teammates at his mentor’s house, he asked Denzel to move in with him and his wife. 

He was guaranteed a consistent home until graduation. 

“I can say it was the highlight of my life,” he says. “I’ve been alive for 17 years. I’ve been struggling myself my whole life.” 

But then his mentor and his wife wanted to start a family and needed more space. So Denzel moved into a friend’s house in January. 

Denzel says he doesn’t trust people when they offer to help, be­cause he’s concerned their interest co mes with a cost. Besides AVID coordinator Matthew Morris and his assistant principal Dr. Herb Ruffin, he doesn’t confide in many people. 

“He’s resilient,” Morris says. 

“He’s persistent even though he can be inconsistent. He’s open to feedback, which is big for someone who is strong-willed to be able to sit down and listen to someone else.” 

His grades have slipped, but Denzel is determined to be thought of as someone besides a football player. He wants to study social work and communications. He’s considering running for office, and he says his first prior­ity would be improving educa­tion. 

Maybe he’ll have a family in the future, he says, and he can tell his children how much he overcame. 

“People don’t know I do all this stuff,’ he says. “I just know it.”

Photography by Danny Fulgencio.