By Alex Byington
Killeen Daily Herald
Sound asleep in his bed last February, Darius James was startled awake by his younger sister.
"Darius, wake up, something's wrong with grandma!" Tamia said through tears in her eyes.
Without hesitation, the 16-year-old James raced downstairs to investigate, only to see his grandmother - really the only "mom" he's ever known - lying motionless on the ground, and he just froze.
"It was a scary moment. I've never felt anything like that before," recalled James, now a sophomore football and basketball standout at Harker Heights.
He instructed his sister to call 911, but when the EMTs arrived, they just confirmed what James already knew.
His grandma was dead.
At her funeral, James couldn't bear to see the woman who'd once schooled him, his sister and his older brother Davante in a game of four-square in such a position.
"It was devastating. I couldn't even walk up to the casket. I had to go straight to my seat because I don't think I could have taken it," James said. "It felt so bad to where, halfway through, me and my brother had to be walked out because we couldn't take it."
Having basically been raised by his grandmother, Denise Jackson, James felt like his heart had been ripped apart. He was lost.
To grandma's house
As small children, James and his siblings always felt at home with grandma.
"When I was living with my mom, and she'd drop us off every now and then and we'd go live with her, I think we'd get happy because we knew we were in a safe place," James said. "She'd give us baths and get us something to eat, enroll us back in school - I got happy when I got to my grandma's house."
Those trips always had a downside, though, whenever their mother came to pick them up.
"When I left, it was devastating because it was like I was leaving my mom, to go live with grandma. It was like that but worse."
The once temporary situation became permanent when James was about 5 years old. His mother dropped her three children off never to return.
"When I was living with my mom, we never knew where we were going to live, we never had a real stable house," James said, "but then I lived with my grandma so I would have a stable house, and the rest of my family helped kick in and we'd all be good."
A strong-willed single-mother with her youngest daughter, then 10-year-old Deandra, still living at home, Jackson didn't think twice about tripling her household.
"She would take her last to help somebody else," said Jackson's youngest sister, Catheyan Woods, 34, with whom James now lives. "No matter how bad she might have needed it, it was more or less, they need it, so I'm going to help them.
"For them, that's all they knew. You see somebody who's strong, that's going to provide for them - even though she was still raising a daughter herself - she took on the four of them, because they were her grandchildren. There is nothing else to be done. I have to take them. This is where they belong."
It takes a village
James might not know much about the African culture of the Igbo people.
But he is a prime example of one of their most famous proverbs - "Ora na azu nwa," which translates to "It takes a village to raise a child."
"For us in the African-American community, ... it took more than our parents (to raise us). ... It takes a community," said longtime Heights basketball coach Celneque Bobbitt, a life-long Killeen resident. "If you see somebody that needs some help, you lend that helping hand."
Coming from a large and close-knit family, James and his siblings would often spend weekends bouncing between the homes of their great-aunts - Woods and Chandra Shields, both of whom work at Harker Heights High School.
But while he enjoyed sleeping over at one of his "aunty's" places, "home" was always with his grandmother.
"It felt good because I knew she was always going to be there. ... Something in my body just says 'I'm home' when I walked through the door," James said.
That all changed Feb. 5, the day Jackson died from a congenital heart failure at the age of 49.
"But now that she's gone, it's not as strong, because I'm not with her."
It wasn't any time at all before the family decided how to best help James and his 15-year-old sister Tamia. Shields immediately stepped up to take guardianship of the two, but it wasn't long before James and his 49-year-old great-aunt clashed a bit.
That's when Woods took James in along her own children - 12-year-old Tyrin Godfrey and 11-year-old Mehkia Gadison.
"It wasn't a great adjustment coming to my house, because it was (already like) a second home," said Woods, a teaching aide at Heights. "You knew the rules coming through the door, you knew what had to happen."
Coping with the emptiness
Nicknamed "Elmo" because he used to carry around a backpack that featured Elmo from the children's show "Sesame Street" during his freshman year at Shoemaker, James has always been a friendly and outgoing character.
Yet, even after his grandmother's death, James portrayed his fun-loving nature, while the pain and hurt was directed inward.
Sitting alone at night, as the darkness surrounds him in his bedroom, he often reflects on his past and wonders what his future might hold.
"In that case, when you're sitting in your room at night, 'What am I fixing to do next? What is next for me?' You just think about these things when you're sitting in the dark," James said.
Often silly and playful with friends, James initially had a hard time expressing his feelings about his grandmother, who had always been his lone confidant.
"He tried not to talk about it, just pushed everything down, and then he'd bust out of nowhere talking about it," Woods said. "I just let him ride."
While trying to get over the initial loss, James turned to the only other things he enjoyed - sports.
"It was surprising and demoralizing, because she's basically been my mother and I didn't know what I was going to do," James said. "It basically made me have to tell myself, 'I have to make it even more.' I have to make this football or basketball thing work out even more."
Sports as therapy
It was a look in her eye.
Jackson, a star high school athlete herself from the Waco area who had a scholarship offer to play basketball at Baylor before becoming pregnant with James' mother, always had high aspirations for James.
A supporter and fan of nearly every kind of sport, Jackson pushed athletics from an early age, enrolling James in flag football at the Boys and Girls Club of Killeen when he was in fourth-grade.
"My grandma didn't think I was big enough (to play tackle football)," said the 6-foot-5, 300-pound James, who started along the Knights' defensive line as a sophomore. "It was crazy because I always wanted to tackle something when I was little. Me and my brother would always be wrestling, and I always like hitting stuff."
While its true value is hard to quantify, the intrinsic value of athletics is all too simple, especially when participation can be the difference in avoiding the trouble can envelop kids from low-income Killeen neighborhoods.
"It helps them build self-esteem, character, and a sense of belonging - that's the biggest thing - and that's what (James) gets, even when the roads are rough," Bobbitt said.
A future with promise
Because of his sheer size and natural athletic ability, James is already drawing attention from national recruiting websites and college scouts.
Of course, it's his family that is keeping him grounded.
"He wants to go to the big colleges, and that's wonderful, that great, but you still have to have those grades to go with that, you've got to have something to fall back on," Woods said.
With big dreams of one day playing in the NFL or NBA, James is using his grandmother's memory as a stepping stone to greater things.
"I knew she wanted this for me because she's putting me in all these camps, she's putting me on all these teams, in AAU and stuff like that, she's pushing for me to go," James said. "She'd just tell me, 'Keep your grades up,' and 'Stay humble,' it was little stuff like that, ... and how happy she got when she saw me play, and after the game when she'd come up and hug me."
But his grandmother is no longer cheering from the stands along with the other proud parents.
"It's kind of crazy because I'm looking for her, but she ain't there," James said. "And it's like an emptiness feeling. But I try and look away because my family is here and they are doing the best they can for me.
"They can't fill her void, but they can help mend the hole that's there," he continued. "It's just an emptiness there."
Contact Alex Byington at email@example.com or (254) 501-7566.