LyDell Cardwell ’15 grew up on the rough streets of East Palo Alto, California. His parents divorced when he was young, leaving his mom to raise him and his two younger sisters alone. Cardwell had every opportunity to get mixed up with violence, gangs, and negativity, but he didn’t.
“I could tell the first time I met him that he was a positive kid,” said Azusa Pacific men’s basketball head coach Justin Leslie ’00, MBA ’01. “He’s always smiling and has a youthful enthusiasm. College athletics can sometimes become routine, but he keeps it fresh and is constantly giving us perspective that it’s just a game.”
In high school, Cardwell was a star—one of the top scorers in the state, he led Mid-Peninsula High to the CIF Central Coast Finals for the first time. Hailing from a small, private school, however, meant little attention from recruiters, and he received just two offers: one from Concordia University, the other, Azusa Pacific.
“Fortunately, I was a good student, and I surrounded myself with friends who stayed positive and pushed me,” said Cardwell. “It was a tough neighborhood, but if you avoided the negativity and were doing positive things, people supported you. My mom and the older guys on the block kept me from going down the wrong path. And I always had basketball.”
The transition from the high school game to college did not come easily. Cardwell redshirted his freshman year and played in only 13 games and for 37 minutes in 2013. Playing time increased a little the next season when he played in 27 games, but for a baller accustomed to scoring nearly 30 points per game in high school, averaging fewer than 6 hurt his pride.
Frustrated and discouraged, Cardwell considered leaving, but he chose to stay. “That was one of the toughest times in my life. There were times I cried myself to sleep. I had to take a step back and realize I was young, and still learning, and I’m not that guy anymore. It was humbling, but once I accepted that, I started to learn. Coach always says, ‘Control what you can control, and the only thing you can control is your attitude and effort.’ So, I stopped being angry at everything, accepted a role, and played that to the best of my ability. I’m so glad I stayed. It was the best decision I’ve ever made.”
That trying time also brought Cardwell closer to God. “I did a lot of praying, and He gave me a sense of peace. I also joined a D-group. I grew up in church, but went away from it when I was a teenager. Being at APU changed my life. I’ve learned so much about Christ. I’ve started praying more, reading Scripture, and surrounding myself with godly people. I got baptized again last December and have been on two mission trips that have made me realize how blessed I am.”
Cardwell’s role expanded even more last season as he became a key reserve on the Cougars’ Elite Eight team. Then, in May, Cardwell became the first member of his family to graduate from college, earning a B.A. in Physical Education. He’s now pursing a graduate degree while finishing his athletic eligibility—a familiar path for Leslie. “What I remember about playing as a graduate student is how differently my teammates viewed me,” said Leslie. “It creates a separation, but also a greater respect level and an admiration. It brings an extra layer of credibility for the younger players in the program, and it drives home the message we’re trying to instill in them about balancing their lives that much more when we have kids like LyDell modeling it.”
And while he dreams of returning to his old neighborhood and starting an after-school program to teach kids life skills, Cardwell knows he has work left to do in his current community.
“I feel a strong sense of responsibility to show our new teammates this is a positive environment,” said Cardwell. “We’re different...that’s APU. I don’t want to just act like I’m a good guy, I want to be a good guy, and I’m working hard every day to be a role model. Everyone wants to make a million dollars, but I want to touch a million lives.”
“LyDell is the inspirational leader of this team,” said Leslie. “He’s worked hard, and through the process, the man we have now has been completely transformed. When the chips are down, he finds something encouraging to say or do. He loves helping people. That’s his passion.”
Posted: February 1, 2016