When Eugene Cannaday walked across the stage to collect his diploma during Big Walnut High School's graduation ceremony May 30, Pamela Cannaday smiled and thought about the journey her son had taken to get to that moment in his life.

When Eugene Cannaday walked across the stage to collect his diploma during Big Walnut High School's graduation ceremony May 30, Pamela Cannaday smiled and thought about the journey her son had taken to get to that moment in his life.

"I'm very proud of him, and I'm very proud of myself for letting him go after his dream," she said.

Cannaday was raised by his mother and his maternal grandmother, Jeannette Cannaday, on Columbus' South Side, a predominantly low-income area where crime is prevalent. It is not uncommon for teenage boys living in that area to become involved with a gang.

"I know a lot of people who are" in a gang," Cannaday said, adding that he "could feel the pressure" to join a gang. He resisted, however, by focusing his energy on basketball.

His love for the game not only helped him steer clear of a potential life of crime, but gave him an opportunity to get a college education.

In the summer of 2005, before his freshman year at Columbus South, Cannaday joined an area AAU team. One of his teammates was Colton Griffis, a Sunbury resident who was entering his freshman year at Big Walnut. The two struck up a friendship and that summer Cannaday often stayed with Griffis' family for days at a time.

"His mother wasn't able to drive him, so we would take turns with other parents driving him to practices and tournaments," said Cathy Griffis, Colton's mother. "Sometimes it was easier if he stayed with us instead of driving back and forth to get him."

Cannaday stayed in contact with Colton after the season and continued to visit the Griffis family.

The more he visited, the more comfortable he felt staying there, and in the summer of 2007, he asked Cathy and her husband, Brian, if he could live with them and attend Big Walnut.

"He kept saying he wanted to live with us," Cathy said. "We didn't think he was serious at first. But he was adamant about how much he really wanted to live with us."

Cannaday believed that living with the Griffis family and attending Big Walnut gave him a better chance to get his diploma and pursue a college education.

Brian and Cathy Griffis agreed to let Cannaday live with them, although they had two primary conditions: He had to get permission from his mother and he had to keep up his grades.

Initially, Pamela Cannaday was against the idea.

"I didn't approve at first, but I let him go because that was what he wanted," she said. "Basically, that was what he really wanted to do. It was very hard to let him go, but I knew it was the best way for him to achieve his dream. I think living here was a distraction."

Because Cannaday was under 18 years old, his mother had to sign court documents that allowed Brian and Cathy Griffis to become his legal guardians. He moved into the Griffis' house soon after the court approved the guardianship.

Shortly after Cannaday began attending Big Walnut in the fall of 2007, he realized he would have to work hard to meet the Griffis' other main stipulation.

"In my other school, either you liked school or you didn't, and most people don't," he said. "When I came out here, it was like a wake-up call for me. School wasn't a priority at my other school, but here everyone is in tune to school more. I clowned around a lot in class at my other school. But here, everyone is like, 'No, we can't do that. We've got to work.'"

Asked about his grades his sophomore year at South, Cannaday said, "They were not very good." The fact that he earned his diploma is evidence of his effort in the classroom during his two years at Big Walnut.

"My grades improved so much," Cannaday said. "My mom and grandma say there's no way I would've graduated if I had stayed (at South)."

"He held up his end of the bargain," Brian Griffis said. "He graduated from high school. He's a success story, in my opinion."

Cannaday joked that he is "a city guy, not a country guy." Although he may prefer the faster pace of the city, Cannaday said there was one major upside.

"There are no gangs in Sunbury," he said.

Another difference is diversity. A major portion of the population on Columbus' South Side is African-American, whereas a small number of African-Americans live in Sunbury. In fact, according to Cannaday, the only other African-American students at Big Walnut last school year were Jason and Jordan Whitner.

"I call myself a chameleon because I adapt pretty fast," he said. "It wasn't as hard of a transition as it may seem because I already knew a bunch of (athletes) here. My first day of school, it was like I had a lot of friends already. I knew people would look at me like, 'What is he doing here?' But you've got to expect that going to Sunbury, Ohio."

Cannaday was on the varsity basketball team at South as a freshman and sophomore, averaging 6.5 points coming off the bench in his second season, but he became a three-sport standout at Big Walnut.

A starter both seasons at Big Walnut in basketball, he averaged 14.5 points and was honorable mention all-district in Division II as a junior. As a senior, he averaged a team-best 15.9 points and was first-team all-district.

Something else Cannaday brought with him was a level of on-court excitement rarely seen at Big Walnut as the 6-foot guard often excited fans with dunks.

"All those dunks brought twice as many people to the (games)," said Colton, who was Cannaday's teammate both seasons. "His dunks brought the fans out of their seats, and that boosted our team."

Cannaday, who said he has been timed at 4.39 seconds in the 40-yard dash, went out for track and field for the first time in 2008. He developed into one of the team's top sprinters and took off both in the high jump and long jump, as he qualified for the Division I state meet in those events, finishing seventh (6-7) in the high jump and ninth (22-2) in the long jump.

As a senior, he got back to state in both events, placing fifth in the high jump (6-10) and sixth in the long jump (22-4). He holds the program record in the long jump, having cleared 23-6 as a junior.

"He's had a remarkable impact on our program," boys coach Eric Myers said. "Athletes of his caliber, it's wonderful to have them around. He's been a real blessing to us."

Cannaday went out for football for the first time last fall and saw playing time as a wide receiver and free safety as well as a kick- and punt-returner.

In the opening game, he returned the opening kickoff 85 yards for a touchdown in a 31-2 victory over Westerville Central.

"His speed and athleticism are incredible," said football coach Scott Wetzel, who resigned after last season. "The first time he touches the ball, he takes it for a touchdown. He has so much speed and athleticism that teams had to know where he was at all times."

In a 17-12 win over St. Marys Memorial in a Division III regional semifinal, Cannaday lined up at quarterback in the "wildcat" formation for a play, took the snap and ran 40 yards, setting up a touchdown that put the Golden Eagles ahead 14-12 late in the third quarter.

"It was his first year playing organized football," said Wetzel, whose team finished 11-3, falling to Aurora 20-14 in a state semifinal. "To me, that's what's so incredible. It's amazing how fast he picked things up. He's just an incredible athlete."

Cannaday's success in the three sports has given him options for college. He is being recruited for basketball and football by Muskingum, for track by Akron and for all three sports by Otterbein. He expects to make a decision before the end of the month.

"I love all the sports pretty much," he said. "I have no idea which one I want to do."

Although Cannaday remains in close contact with his mother, he continues to live with the Griffis family even though he has graduated. Cathy said he is welcome to stay as long as he likes.

"We've loved having him," she said. "We would do it again. We've had no regrets. He's a good kid. It was like we were in the right place at the right time and God put Eugene in our lives for some reason."

"It's been hard financially a little bit, but it's been a good experience," Brian said. "We went into it whole-heartedly with the intention of it lasting forever. We tell him we love him. I have pictures of both him and Colton in my wallet and I introduce him to everybody as my son. I treat them both the same. He really hasn't had a father in his life, so I've tried to fill that role."

Cannaday considers Colton, who has signed to play football at Marshall, and Colton's older sister, Ashley, to be his siblings.

"That's my brother from another mother," he said of Colton.

Pamela Cannaday can't thank the Griffis family enough for what they have done for her son.

"They're very nice," she said. "They're like family, not just to Eugene, but to me."

Not lost on Cannaday are the sacrifices that the Griffis family has had to make to allow him to live with them. They have provided him with food and clothes and have given him "spending money," not to mention a safe haven from which he could pursue a college opportunity.

"I love them for what they did," he said. "I'm going to be forever grateful for what they've done for me."

Big Walnut graduate Eurgene Cannaday (center) moved in with Brian and Cathy Griffis before the start of his junior year, moving from Columbus' South Side to Sunbury.