If Hiawatha Rutland was hurting, he would never let anyone know.Since birth, it seemed as if he was on a mission to make the world a better place.Humor was his favorite tool.He had his own way of carrying out humanitarian causes. While a student at Iowa State University, he would go to parties and ask everyone for cigarettes and then throw them away without their knowledge.“It was his Hiawatha’s way of stopping them from smoking,” said his college roommate, Carlos Blount.Unconventional may be the best way to describe Rutland, a former star running back for Southeast High who lost his life last week at age 33 when he drowned in Lake Erie while visiting Cleveland with his girlfriend and others.Rutland was the 21st century version of a Renaissance man.He climbed to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania in April 2013, taught children in Nicaragua, volunteered to feed the poor in New York City kitchens, counseled people in a homeless shelter for the chronically ill and learned and spoke several languages in hopes of moving to Africa to teach there. For a vacation, he took his mother, Geraldine, on a weeklong trip to the Galapagos Islands in Equador because those are the kinds of things he did.His life was a billboard to help others, said numerous people who knew him.Rutland came from single-parent home in Bradenton and wanted to show everyone, especially kids, that anything is possible.“It was a real emotional experience for him when he reached the top of Mount Kilimanjaro (the highest mountain in Africa),” said his girlfriend and life partner, Gisselle Mejia, who climbed with him. “Coming from Bradenton and doing something that not many people did was a big achievement, and he wanted to show others they could do whatever they wanted regardless of their circumstances. That’s when he decided he would go back to Africa and teach there.“He was a person who loved life and was very adventurous and loved his mother. The best way to describe Hiawatha is ‘authentic.’ He was the most authentic person I ever met.” Rutland spent the past four years teaching at Lower Manhattan Arts Academy in New York City. He started off in special education, but showed such flexibility that he wound up teaching several subjects.“He was the best teacher I’ve ever had,” said John Wenk, principal of the academy. “The parents and students here are devastated about his loss. I never met a teacher with so much passion who could get kids to do things that were way beyond what most people thought was possible.“He had extraordinary passion and helped the kids set high standards. He was an athlete, but a scholar. He was constantly reading. He knew how to make people laugh and often would take a tragedy and turn it into gold. He had kids reading books beyond what you would expect for their age.” For former Southeast head football coach Paul Maechtle, who retired last year after 33 seasons, Rutland was a rare human being. He was an excellent running back who gained more than 1,500 yards his senior year, but he was just as adept at making people feel good with his special brand of wit.“I remember a situation where Disney World was holding a combine for high schools. We all went up on a bus together. It was Southeast, Manatee, Bayshore and Palmetto and Hiawatha wound up holding court on that bus,” Maechtle said. “He had everyone’s attention. He had them laughing, and his humor was so witty and off the track. He knew how to push it just far enough. He was a great teammate. He was a great football player and cared for his friends.”Rutland received a scholarship to play at Iowa State and went there with Southeast teammates Johnny Smith and Marc Timmons.Although he always had a smile on his face and was joking around, sometimes Rutland couldn’t hide his pain, recalled Smith.“We went to the state championship game our senior year and lost and he cried after the game,” Smith recalled. “When we moved into our adult years, he began to think more of what was his purpose and enjoyed working with inner-city kids. He went to the inner cities in Nicaragua because he felt it was important to show them there was more to life out there and you didn’t have to live where you were born. “He always wanted to prove that no matter what environment you are raised in you could always better your life. When we were at Iowa State, me and Marc would get homesick, but Hiawatha never thought that way. He always wanted to see what he could get out of life.”Rutland had to wait for his time to play at Iowa State, but he led the team in rushing his junior year despite missing multiple games because of injuries. He was the feature back to begin his senior year in 2003 and seemed on his way to a possible future in the NFL.But then he suffered a debilitating injury that left him with “foot drop,” or peroneal nerve injury, and it ended his career.“The people at Iowa State told me it was the worst football injury they ever had,” Maechtle said.Blount said Hiawatha was depressed, but never wanted to burden others.“Hiawatha was in tremendous physical pain, and then there was the emotional pain of knowing he couldn’t play football again,” Blount said. “He would cry every night because of the pain, but he never let anyone know that he was feeling that way. He would always have a smile on his face. He didn’t want me to see his pain.”After graduation from Iowa State, Rutland went back to get a master’s degree and eventually wound up teaching in New York City. The Big Apple seemed to be made for him.“It’s like a Disney World for adults,” he told friends.Although the injury prevented him from playing basketball and running, Rutland became involved in other activities. He climbed to the top of Kilimanjaro. He would ride his bike everywhere in New York City rather than take a subway, even in winter. He lived in Harlem but worked in Lower Manhattan.“One of the most striking qualities about him was his faith and trust in people; he believed in people more than they believed in themselves,” Mejia said.Nikkieda Rutland, who was a linebacker at Southeast and played at Tennessee State, said he owes all his success to his older brother, Hiawatha. “My brother wouldn’t want people to be sad or distraught about the way he passed,” Nikkieda said. “The thing I am most proud about being his brother is that he excelled beyond football. He touched people from different continents and in different walks of life. Since birth, I just think he was a unique kind of guy. His personality wasn’t groomed. He was blessed with it. He learned several languages so he could go to different parts of the world and help teach kids.”Blount and Hiawatha shared a bond in that they grew up without their fathers. They handled it in different ways.“I was bitter about that, but he had a positive outlook on it. Even though he didn’t have his father there, he handled it with integrity,” Blount said. “He would always say we would be better for it with our kids. He visited us last summer and played chess with my kids; that was a highlight for us. He was always reading.”The 34-year-old Blount, whose uncle is Pittsburgh Steelers Hall of Fame defensive back Mel Blount, suffered three strokes several years ago and credits Rutland for enabling him to cope. “My recovery and getting a master’s (degree) I attribute to Hiawatha,” Blount said. “I thought about his senior year when he got hurt and had to learn how to walk again. To see him not get defeated and never give up really helped me.”Blount said he believes Rutland got some of his personality traits from his mother, Geraldine. When she visited Iowa State, he said it was like an event.“She would be the mother for the whole team. She would cook for us and talk to us about staying out of trouble,” Blount said. “She was funny and witty and could relate to any of us. I consider her a mother.”One of Rutland’s goals was starting a non-profit organization called Birthright Africa — similar to Birthright Israel, a not-for-profit educational organization that sponsors trips to Israel — to give American-born youth of African ancestry the opportunity to travel from the America to Africa and learn about their roots and history. “This was a dream that was born from his trip to Tanzania, where he fell in love with the country, people and culture and reconnected to his ancestry and roots,” Mejia said. “He felt a sense of grounding and identity through his experience. He felt that this was an important experience for youth to have and he was determined to make that happen.”A fitting description of how Rutland lived life would be: “You don’t choose the time you live in, but you do choose who you want to be,” Grace Lee Boggs said.