July 07, 2003 12:00 PM

At a middle-school graduation last year, a stranger asked Erik Myhren and Joe King if they were father and son. “I said, ‘Yeah,’ ” recalls Myhren, 37, “and the guy said, ‘I knew it. You guys look just alike. Your eyes.’ He was dead serious.”

Though Myhren is white and Joe, 13, is black, the man apparently saw past their differences to a deeper connection—one that began in 1998 when Joe was Myhren’s student at a Denver elementary school. Joe was having trouble with his studies so Myhren began tutoring him and taking him to hockey games on weekends. In 2000, with Joe’s father out of the picture, his drug-addicted mom left him and one of his three sisters in a motel room while she ran some errands. Two days later, when she still hadn’t returned—and the motel manager came demanding his money—the sister called Myhren, and he took them in. “I never planned to have kids,” says the bachelor, “but I knew it was time to learn a new lifestyle.”

This past February he made it official by formally adopting Joe. (His sister, now 16, moved in with their grandparents but has since left.) Joe’s parents “loved him,” says grandma Earlean King, 61, who helped raise 10 of her grandchildren, “but they couldn’t take care of him. He went through so much that I thank God Erik got him.” With his newfound confidence, Joe captained his hockey team last season. He starts seventh grade at Denver Academy, a school for kids with learning “differences,” in the fall. “I think Erik’s great; he thinks I’m great,” says Joe, who sees his mother rarely but his grandmother often. “It’s a better life when you’re around somebody who takes care of you.”

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