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Dontai Keith Lays Life on the Line With Debut Novel

You play to win the game

Dontai Keith was working in the Louisiana oil fields when he had an epiphany and uttered a prayer. “I looked up in the clouds,” Keith remembers, “and I said, ‘God, give me something that I can put on paper.’”

The prayer may well have been answered, because Keith, now a 31-year-old medical assistant in Charlotte, recently added published author to an impressive resume that includes artist, athlete, actor and model.

Keith’s self-published his debut book, Intent 2 Win, on Sept. 24. Although sales have been modest — the author says he’s sold over 100 copies through Amazon and by himself, Keith is gratified. All income from book sales is going into financing a film adaptation of his story, which he hopes will reach a greater audience to spread his message.

dontai keith
Dontai Keith at a book signing in October. (Photo courtesy of NeverTooYoung Productions)

His purpose in penning the tale was to inspire people to figure out what they want out of life and who they want to become, he says. “If you’ve got a goal, you’ve got to go for it. You can’t give up,” he offers. “That’s my purpose in this world, to make sure people have the intent to win and go for their dreams.”

In the book, high school basketball star Tristan Hines is awarded a full scholarship to a top university, but his life spirals downward after his mother is hospitalized with cancer and his father is killed by a stray bullet from a gang shooting.

Further plot twists and turns involve a compromised coach, an untrustworthy psychiatrist, an ill-fated drug heist and a fearsome dealer who will stop at nothing to get his product back.

In addition to his uplifting message, Keith has crafted a compelling narrative, a heightened melodrama where a young Black man must determine the course of his life amid a tangle of conflicting tensions and temptations. At 108 pages, the compact novel has scored with its Amazon readers, who awarded it five out of five stars on average.

“It’s like watching a scripted TV series that you get addicted to,” writes one Amazon reader. The comparison to TV drama is apt. It’s not a coincidence that in addition to modeling and stage work, Keith has worked as an extra and stand-in on a string of Carolina-lensed series, including Under the Dome, Shots Fired, Homecoming and Supernatural.

Keith’s film and TV resume is not the only link between the author’s book and his personal life. Like Tristan, Keith is an accomplished athlete, though he played football rather than basketball. Keith and his fictional creation share a father in the military and a mother hospitalized with a terminal illness — Keith’s mother passed away when he was 9 years old. Tristan’s betrayal by his basketball coach is something Keith says he went through with his football coach.

“I am Tristan,” Keith says unabashedly.

Though Keith’s military family moved around, they had landed in Charlotte by the time he turned 7. Dontai showed an early aptitude for art, making comic books.

“I found my muse with pencil and paper,” Keith says, foreshadowing his interest in writing. His passion for performing surfaced when he started imitating actors like Jamie Foxx. Acting and movement fueled an interest in martial arts, which proved useful training for playing football.

When his family moved on to Maine, Keith joined Dexter Regional High School’s football team and became the top wide receiver and kick returner in the state. As the only Black player on an otherwise all-white team, Keith’s accomplishments were seldom acknowledged by his coach or anyone else.

It was subtle racism but it still stung. “I know there’s a million people out there in this world that can relate to this,” Keith says.

After graduating, Keith played semi-pro football for two years in Massachusetts, where he was once again the top wide receiver and kick returner in the state. He also began modeling for Abercrombie & Fitch, first in Maine and then in New York. From there he transitioned to theatrical work onstage, drawing on his athleticism to add dancing to his skill set.

Keith was modeling in Miami’s South Beach when he landed his first on-camera gig as an extra in HBO’s raunchy sports comedy Ballers.

Back in Charlotte, while working day jobs in the medical field, Keith also appeared in several television series. In South Carolina, he worked as an extra on CBS’s Stephen King adaptation Under the Dome. He was a hospital patient in an episode of the Wilmington-shot series Supernatural, and a Tuskegee airman in Prime Video’s psychological thriller Homecoming. On Shots Fired, a Fox mini-series about a racially charged police shooting filmed in Concord, Kannapolis and Monroe, Keith graduated from extra to stand-in.

When he wrapped Shots Fired, Keith was 26 and looking for direction in his life. He took a much-needed a break from the film and TV industry and went to work in the oil fields. There he started writing, scrawling down ideas, visions and snippets of dialog on scraps of paper he kept clean and dry in a Ziploc bag.

“It got messy in the oil fields,” Keith explains.

Long after lights out, when his co-workers had gone to sleep, Keith would continue to write. Drawing on his life and embellishing it with the character-driven plot beats found in the dramatic shows he worked on, Keith crafted Intent 2 Win. It was initially a screenplay for a 10-minute film, but soon ballooned to a feature-length scenario.

Returning to Charlotte, Keith started working as an emergency department transporter. He also attended Brightwood College on East Independence Boulevard, earning a degree as a medical assistant.

Keith’s two career paths are compatible, he says. As a medical assistant, he’s advocating for individuals who can’t get access to medical resources. As a writer and filmmaker, he’s advocating for people to find their life path and to figure out how to follow it. “I’m an advocate for people who can’t get to where they need to be,” he offers.

Dontai and Kelli Keith at a book signing for Intent 2 Win. (Photo by NeverTooYoungProductions)

At his first job after graduation, Keith met his future wife Kelli. On June 19, 2020, the pair married, combining families to raise six children. (Dontai and Kelli each had three children apiece from previous relationships.)

All the while, Keith kept working on his script. Cast in a short film, he hit it off with the director, Charlotte writer and filmmaker Tracie Adderton. He asked Adderton to read his scenario and she praised its plotting and characters. She urged him to turn the script into a book. Keith began adapting the material, handing out pages to family and friends for feedback.

Weeks later, Keith was sitting up in bed with his wife, unsure of how to proceed with his project. Kelli told him the book was amazing, Keith offers. “Trust in it,” she said.

Two days later, Keith logged on to Amazon and self-published his first novel.

The film adaptation is still in the preliminary financing phase, Keith says. Though he plans to produce and co-direct the film, he will not act in it. He will, however, make a brief cameo. “At first, I wasn’t going to, but then I said I’ll bust a move and be in it,” he says.

Far more important to Keith is the message people will bring away from Tristan’s story. The character is wise for his age, but he’s under pressure, Keith offers. His family life is collapsing and he doesn’t know who to trust or where to turn.

While the number 2 in the book’s title is a nod to Tristan’s identity as an athlete with a numbered jersey, the word “intent” refers to deciding on your life’s path and sticking to it, Keith says. At the same time, it’s difficult for young men like Tristan to choose the right path, and the turmoil they are undergoing is often invisible to others.

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Florence, S.C. Mayor Teresa Myers Ervin with Dontai Keith. (Courtesy of NeverTooYoung Productions)

“[I want] people to understand there are a lot of individuals out there who need help [and] they don’t how to go about it.”

It’s all well and good for people to show empathy for troubled kids like Tristan, Keith offers, but he says empathy is not enough. “Any time Tristan feels he’s going to lose it all, he has to make a mind-boggling decision,” Keith says. “He needs help. He needs guidance and purpose.”

He needs an advocate. 

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