It was a miracle Jibrille Fewell survived his first several months of life.
Its even more implausible that the former South Pointe Stallion and Liberty University football player is positioning himself to possibly be selected during the 2014 NFL draft in May. Fewell was kicked off the South Pointe team his senior year before embarking on a college career with more chutes and ladders than a board game.
And yet there he was on a recent Monday in December, a stout, 6-foot-1, 305-pound figure, poised to sign a triplicated document that would officially drop his name into the NFL Draft pool.
Its been my dream, Fewell said. Im not surprised about it, but its surreal being here.
My long journey.
Jibrille has been a fighter since birth, said Grafonda Ruff, his mother.
Fewells ability to endure and overcome was forged in his first breaths. He inherited an Rh negative bloodtype from his father, which caused a blood disorder called hemolytic disease of the newborn, or HDN. Ruffs Rh positive blood cells sensed her sons Rh negative blood as a malignant intruder and attacked the fetus during delivery.
As a newborn, Fewell underwent a series of blood transfusions, but doctors still thought there was no hope. They told Ruff to call all of her family members so they could see the infant one last time.
But the child didnt die.
God has a plan, and his plan was to keep him here, said Ruff, a fiercely faithful woman.
Fewells survival was all the more incredible considering Ruff and Carlos Fewell later lost a second child to a miscarriage because of HDN.
The doctor said hes a miracle, Ruff says, and I believe it.
His dad wasnt around to see the miracle bloom.
After Ruff and Carlos brief marriage disintegrated, the mother raised her son alone. Carlos Fewell moved away and remarried.
I never had a real relationship with him but I used to hope that he would come around, or something like that, said Fewell.
Children raised by a single parent can go two divergent directions. A life can sour in all sorts of ways, or the hardship becomes a blessing even if the benefits are delayed.
I think its made him stronger, said Ruff. I think where with some people it becomes a negative, it became a real positive for him.
Football became a focus for Fewell at a young age.
He always told me, Mommy, Im gonna play football and be good, and Im gonna get a college scholarship and Im going to go to the NFL, said Ruff. Hes said that since the second grade and I was like, okay, whatever.
Even in the absence of his dad, male influences were numerous for Fewell and his younger brother, Jo Jo Gaither. Uncles Terrance Fewell and Greg Ruff were ever-present. Their grandfather David Ruff, a standout running back years ago at Rock Hills Emmett Scott High School, was also a mainstay force. All three men, as well as youth football coaches and other grandparents, filled a familial hole for Fewell. Ruff, a single mom of two living in Rock Hills College Downs neighborhood, was grateful.
Their situation wasnt ideal. Nor was it impossible. Besides, Ruff always comforted herself with the thought that her son would be there for his kids in the future.
I think its gonna make him a better father, and I think he appreciates the fact that he has a parent that puts herself to the side to make sure they have what they need, were happy and healthy, said Ruff. Thats just what you do as a parent; you cant worry about the hand youre dealt.
The result is a close relationship between mom and son.
Hes so big and tough on the outside, but hes as soft as a marshmallow on the inside, Ruff said about Fewell. And hes not ashamed if anybody thinks hes a mommas boy.
Fewells long-incubated football dream was almost squelched before it fully materialized.
As a high school senior in 2008, he was dismissed from South Pointes football team after differences with head coach Bobby Carroll.
I guess I would say it was a conflict of interests between him and the coach, said Ruff. I cant remember how exactly it went because it wasnt really anything I would want to remember because it was a really ugly situation.
Fewell and his mother say a vote was held by the players over whether they wanted Fewell back on the team. According to Fewell and Ruff, the players voted yes, but Carroll told them the players voted no. There was no paper trail to confirm whether the teammates voted yes or no, and meetings with school administrators didnt alter the coachs verdict.
Carroll, now the head coach at York Comprehensive High School, wasnt interested in revisiting the past.
I wish the kid the best, he said on Tuesday. I hope to God he has a great time and makes it. I really do. But I dont want to comment on any disciplinary deals.
Fewell, a defensive lineman who shined as a junior, had offers from Maryland, Marshall, Akron and Bowling Green and interest from more schools, including South Carolina and Clemson. The offers evaporated after Fewell was removed from the team.
Most people, they forgot about me once that happened, he said.
The University of Buffalo, coached by Turner Gill at the time, did not forget about Fewell, offering a scholarship based almost solely on his junior year film.
Once you do your homework, you pray about it, and as a staff we come together with all the officials, the president, the chancellor, athletic director, said Vantz Singletary, the assistant coach who recruited Fewell to Buffalo. We felt he was a good kid, and ever since that event has happened, hes really been just such a model citizen.
Fewell was fortunate to get a reprieve, but there were things he would not experience namely a state championship with lifelong friends. He attended every one of the Stallions games during a 15-0 season, except for the championship game rout of rival Northwestern at Clemsons Death Valley.
We worked so hard, said Fewell. And then when they won it, that was the toughest thing. I went to every game, except that one. I couldnt go; I couldnt do it.
I think it was part of what had to happen for me, Fewell said. Before the incident with Carroll, I wasnt really humble I was just about me and it really humbled me. Football can be taken away from you. Ive been through deaths and Ive been through a lot, but not playing my senior year, that hurt the most.
Fewells college career has been almost as bumpy.
Although Singletary recruited Fewell, the coach left Buffalo before Fewells freshman year for the San Francisco 49ers. Fewell redshirted his freshman season, only to withdraw from school after his mother fell ill with a heart problem. The health scare turned out to be a one-time thing, and after a very brief stint at South Carolina State, he went to California to play at Butte College, a two-year school.
It was just a little scare, said Fewell. But me being a mommas boy... Its part of the journey that makes it unique.
Fewell had a productive single campaign at Butte and was recruited by several schools. The hunt for a new school came down to Tennessee, New Mexico and Liberty, a fundamentalist Christian school in Virginia that plays in the Big South Conference. Liberty offered Fewell a scholarship after Gill landed the head coaching job there following his departure from Kansas. Fewell went with what was comfortable and familiar.
Once Gill came to my house the second time, it was like home, said Fewell. It was easier. My mom, she wanted me to play for coach Gill, and it was closer so they could drive up to the games.
At Liberty, Fewell was reacquainted with two of his chief mentors, Gill and Singletary, who had joined Gills staff again. Singletary, the Flames defensive line coach, immediately gravitated toward Fewell once the player arrived on campus.
When I see his situation, it reminds me of my situation growing up in Houston, said Singletary. Thats what we do as coaches. I dont know if we can ever replace their father, but as a coach were surrogate fathers in so many different ways.
Singletary was also reared in a single-parent home. He admittedly loved his NFL coaching stint alongside his uncle, NFL Hall of Famer Mike Singletary, but said his passion lies at the collegiate level because there is a chance to develop men of a young age who are trying to find themselves, to do the right thing.
Fewell, who had become increasingly receptive to mentoring by the end of his teens, fit the bill. Now the void in his life that had always been filled by family was filled by football men.
A lot of times when were talking, were not talking about football, Singletary said. Were talking about family; were talking about careers, and I just try and let him know, hey, its OK. I didnt have a father, I come from a single-parent home too. We didnt have a whole lot of money, we didnt have this, and I think you can see the eyebrows being adjusted, the jaw dropping. Coach, you made it, in the absence of such!
Ruff said Singletary was more than a coach, he was family. Together, they keep Fewell focused.
I love visiting with his mom. I feel like his mom and I are like sisters, said Singletary, referencing their long talks on the phone. I keep wanting to make sure Im saying the right things; is there something I need to communicate better? Or something Im not aware of? Shes able to help me with those things.
Fewell needs six hours, two classes, to graduate from Liberty University. But hes decided to put that off and focus all of his efforts on turning the dream into reality. Both Liberty coaches believe Fewell has something to offer NFL teams, especially the drive that spurs him.
Me, coming from a single-parent home, I was hungry, Singletary said. The thing I notice with him, hes hungry. Sometimes its a fear because you dont want to let Mom down. You dont want to let yourself down, you dont want to let your grandparents down. Theres a lot of people looking at you and thats that passion that pushes you over the edge, that everybody else doesnt have.
Fewell comes across as happy-go-lucky, a big teddy bear. His teeth are always showing, a smile reaching across his face. But on the football field, the disappointment, frustration and eagerness to prove hes worthy of an NFL job, of love, is apparent.
Hes a guy thats very loveable, said Gill, but then he changes that when they blow the whistle and go inside the football field.
Fewell slipped off the path a couple of times, but hes always rediscovered his way. With his player in a position to vie for an NFL job, Singletary felt the decision to sign Fewell at Buffalo had been affirmed.
Hes been an angel, said Singletary. Were glad to have given him an opportunity to get his education and play football, and have a chance to further his career and play on Sundays.
In mid-December, Fewell steadily just shook his head in disbelief at the official document before him. The dreams of second grade were closer than ever.
Sometimes as children we dream but adults think its the impossible, said Ruff. Being an adult with him saying that (as a child), it was like whatever, because we all dream things that are impossible as children. But hes shared that with young people a lot at our church; how if you set a goal, even as a young child, it can come true. You just have to believe in it.
Flanked by his cousin Corey Neely, Fewell scrawled away at the paper. When he was done, he looked up and smiled, his 24-carat grin beaming brighter than usual.
Bret McCormick • 803-329-4032; Twitter: @BretJust1T