Ex-South Pointe player Fewell follows dream to NFL Draft

bmccormick@heraldonline.comJanuary 12, 2014 

  • About this series

    For years, it’s been assumed that former South Pointe High School star Jadeveon Clowney would be an early pick in the 2014 NFL draft. Another former South Pointe player, Jibrille Fewell, also hopes to hear his name called during the May draft. Clowney will continue to get the star treatment until his name is called in May in New York. But Fewell’s road to the NFL will be much different. For the next several months, The Herald’s Bret McCormick will follow Fewell as he tries to convince an NFL team to give him a shot at his dream.

It was a miracle Jibrille Fewell survived his first several months of life.

It’s 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.

“It’s been my dream,” Fewell said. “I’m not surprised about it, but it’s surreal being here.”

He paused.

“My long journey.”

A fighter

“Jibrille has been a fighter since birth,” said Grafonda Ruff, his mother.

Fewell’s 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. Ruff’s Rh positive blood cells sensed her son’s 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 didn’t die.

“God has a plan, and his plan was to keep him here,” said Ruff, a fiercely faithful woman.

Fewell’s 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 he’s a miracle,” Ruff says, “and I believe it.”

Single parent

His dad wasn’t 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 it’s 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, I’m gonna play football and be good, and I’m gonna get a college scholarship and I’m going to go to the NFL,” said Ruff. “He’s 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 Hill’s 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 Hill’s College Downs neighborhood, was grateful.

Their situation wasn’t 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 it’s 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. “That’s just what you do as a parent; you can’t worry about the hand you’re dealt.”

The result is a close relationship between mom and son.

“He’s so big and tough on the outside, but he’s as soft as a marshmallow on the inside,” Ruff said about Fewell. “And he’s not ashamed if anybody thinks he’s a momma’s boy.”

Football dreams

Fewell’s long-incubated football dream was almost squelched before it fully materialized.

As a high school senior in 2008, he was dismissed from South Pointe’s 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 can’t remember how exactly it went because it wasn’t 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 didn’t alter the coach’s verdict.

Carroll, now the head coach at York Comprehensive High School, wasn’t 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 don’t 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, he’s 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 Clemson’s 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 couldn’t go; I couldn’t do it.

“I think it was part of what had to happen for me,” Fewell said. Before the incident with Carroll, “I wasn’t really humble – I was just about me – and it really humbled me. Football can be taken away from you. I’ve been through deaths and I’ve been through a lot, but not playing my senior year, that hurt the most.”

College career

Fewell’s college career has been almost as bumpy.

Although Singletary recruited Fewell, the coach left Buffalo before Fewell’s 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 momma’s boy... It’s 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 Gill’s 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. “That’s what we do as coaches. I don’t know if we can ever replace their father, but as a coach we’re 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 we’re talking, we’re not talking about football,” Singletary said. “We’re talking about family; we’re talking about careers, and I just try and let him know, ‘hey, it’s OK. I didn’t have a father, I come from a single-parent home too.’ We didn’t have a whole lot of money, we didn’t 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 I’m saying the right things; is there something I need to communicate better? Or something I’m not aware of? She’s able to help me with those things.”

NFL dreams

Fewell needs six hours, two classes, to graduate from Liberty University. But he’s 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, he’s hungry. Sometimes it’s a fear because you don’t want to let Mom down. You don’t want to let yourself down, you don’t want to let your grandparents down. There’s a lot of people looking at you and that’s that passion that pushes you over the edge, that everybody else doesn’t 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 he’s worthy of an NFL job, of love, is apparent.

“He’s a guy that’s 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 he’s 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.

“He’s been an angel,” said Singletary. “We’re 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 it’s 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 he’s 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

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