Sometime today, Ray Nikzat will duck into the tunnel of Hughes Stadium, breaking away from the commotion of the Sac-Joaquin Section Masters Track and Field Meet. He'll grab the iPod from his backpack and find a quiet spot on a stairwell step. With earbuds inserted, he'll shuffle through his song list to Maroon 5's "She Will Be Loved."
He'll close his eyes as the music begins, ever so slightly nodding his head to the melody. Mildly embarrassed to admit it, Nikzat listens to the pop hit before every competition to collect his focus.
I don't mind spending everyday
Out on your corner in the pouring rain
Look for the girl with the broken smile
Ask her if she wants to stay awhile
And she will be loved …
The words always make Nikzat think of his mother, Deborah. He hasn't seen her since he was 13, when she was sent to Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla, the result of a long battle with drugs and alcohol. She remains imprisoned to this day.
Nikzat's father, Farashad, had tried to care for Nikzat and his two brothers, but for a time they'd been sleeping in a car, the father unable to afford the gas money to send his sons to school. And with Deborah in and out of jail and rehab, Farashad decided he could no longer support his boys, placing them into the foster care system.
Today at Hughes Stadium in Sacramento, Nikzat's memories of his broken childhood will be near as the somber sounds hum from his headphones. Nothing will break his focus.
"The song makes me think about my life and how I wish I'd had a normal family like every other kid," Nikzat explained recently. "But it's not going to stop me from succeeding. Like, that's how it used to be, but look at me now."
When the song ends, Nikzat will open his eyes - his vision temporarily out of focus, but not his mind. The Lodi High School senior will then walk onto the Hughes Stadium track and prepare to defend his crown as the area's best prep high jumper.
By the end of the competition, regardless of the result, Nikzat will have already used his leaping abilities to land a full-ride athletic scholarship to CSU Stanislaus. Hard to believe for a guy who could barely get off the ground when he started high school. Most importantly, the path he took into track and field has helped him find something he lacked for much of his life: a loving home.
In search of a home
When Nikzat was 10, he stayed at the same place every night for six months - a rest area near the Sacramento International Airport. Farashad would drive his three sons to the rest stop, and there they would sleep in the cramped quarters of his 1979 Toyota Corona.
"I thought it was a cool car when I was younger," Nikzat said. "It was pretty small, though."
The boys never went to school during that time, and Farashad struggled to earn a steady living. He eventually made the decision that his boys would be better off in the foster care system.
"My dad, I really looked up to him. And I still do," Nikzat said. "The last thing he said to us was, 'Keep your heads held high.' I always think of that, even if I don't do well. It kind of stuck."
Nikzat initially stayed with his younger brother, Abraham, in a Sacramento foster care family, while his older brother, Nick, stayed at a group home. Months later, Nikzat and Abraham were moved to another family, and then quickly another. This time, though, Nikzat was separated from his brother, moving into a foster home in Lodi. Beginning his second semester of seventh grade, Nikzat was living with his fourth foster family in less than three years.
But Nikzat thought he'd finally found a permanent home in Lodi.
"When I came to Lodi, I really liked it," Nikzat said. "I liked the school here and made a lot of friends. I said, 'I'm going to do whatever I have to do to stay here.'"
Nikzat lived with the Lodi family through his first two years of high school, but when his foster parents bought a restaurant, according to Nikzat, they decided they could no longer care for him. Nikzat was sent back to the Sacramento foster care agency in 2006 after five years in Lodi, once again without a home.
At that point, Nikzat's older brother was 19 and on his own, settling into a Lodi apartment while Nikzat started anew as a junior at River City High School.
Nick knew his brother wanted to return to Lodi, so he saved up money and spoke with a social worker about becoming Nikzat's caretaker. The courts quickly awarded Nick guardianship, and Nikzat moved in with his brother and Nick's new wife after a semester at River City.
"It was the first time I was not a foster kid," Nikzat said. "I felt like I was going home when I went home with my brother."
But just because Nick, now 20, is only three years older than his brother, doesn't mean he treats him like one. The relationship is more like one of father to son. Nikzat does chores, receives allowance, gets grounded when he's bad and has a curfew just like the average teenager.
"That's the rules when he's in my place," says Nick, who works for a glass company in Galt. "It's not just like little brother living there. He's gotta go by my rules."
When Nikzat leaves for college in the fall, there's a chance Abraham, now 15 and still in foster care, could take his brother's place at Nick's. But whatever happens, the eldest son is providing a loving home that their parents never could.
"I think I'm pretty lucky to have my brother do that," Nikzat said. "I wouldn't be (in Lodi) and have been able to do what I've done without him."
No obstacle too high
Nikzat grew up playing basketball, dreaming of NBA stardom.
You'd think then, that getting cut from the freshman basketball team at Lodi High would be just another heartbreak in a childhood full of disappointments.
But for Nikzat, it was the best thing that ever happened to him. In a game largely based on leaping ability, Nikzat's vertical jump was a mere 19 inches. He was determined to change that.
After getting cut from the basketball team, Nikzat went to the library. He read every book he could find on jumping. He studied plyometrics and other methods to improve his vertical leap, eventually designing a nine-week training program to better his jump.
"I just had the desire to do good, to be better than everyone else," Nikzat said. "I wish I had hit the books like that for school, but this was a little more interesting."
The training paid off, as Nikzat boosted his vertical to 31 inches. As for hitting the school books, that was an area in which Nikzat remained somewhat disinterested.
Near the end of his freshman year, Nikzat's English teacher, Robert Winterhalter, noticed his student wasn't in class. When he was told that Nikzat was outside on the basketball court, Winterhalter discovered his pupil dunking basketballs.
"I said, 'Ray, you have two options,'" Winterhalter recalled. "'One, I take you up to the office for cutting my class. Or two, you can come out for track.'"
Nikzat chose the latter, joining Winterhalter's high jump team.
By the end of his first season, Nikzat was clearing 6 feet, 2 inches, a school record for sophomores. As a junior, he won the Sac-Joaquin Section title with a leap of 6-8 and placed ninth at the California State Track and Field Championships. And just last week, Nikzat defended his section title with another jump of 6-8.
His success wouldn't be possible, though, without the support of his track coaches, who've provided Nikzat with stability he'd never known before.
"I see my coaches as father figures in my life," Nikzat said. "I don't have too much family around here, so they're kind of like family to me."
Said Winterhalter: "I think the big thing is consistency - we're stable. He knows where (the coaches) will be. When he wakes up in the morning, or when he goes to bed, or when he's in third period, he knows where we'll be."
He is loved
At last year's Meet of Champions in Sacramento, Nikzat saw his father for the first time since he went into foster care. Farashad, still struggling to find a steady job, came to see him again at this year's event and the two have maintained occasional contact.
"It was nice," Nikzat said of he and his father's most recent reunion. "We talked for awhile and went out to eat."
As for his mother, Nikzat says they write to each other when they can, and he's considered going to visit her in prison.
"I still love my mom," Nikzat said. "I just can't let her situation affect what I'm trying to do with my life right now."
Besides, he has plenty of people watching over him these days.