- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The photographs, as they always do, tell a story.

Jawan Jamison keeps a series of them in frames lined up neatly on his kitchen counter. There’s a wallet-sized self-shot of his sister, Courtney, taken in a mirror. His 3-year-old daughter, Raven, strikes a playful pose in another. Those on the ends are of his father, James – one positioned in a handmade black frame, the other a collage resting under a piece of broken glass.

Missing from the collection is a photo of Jamison’s mother, Shanda Barnes-Davis, and he insists it’s by happenstance. He hasn’t been given one.

Barnes-Davis plans to rectify that. No timeframe of Jamison’s life is complete without his mom. The bond between mother and son is strong and deep. A single parent for much of her life, Barnes-Davis raised her three children – James Jr., Jawan and Courtney – to be strong and independent.

Jamison has found it won’t been easy, especially after his father’s sudden death three years ago and Barnes-Davis‘ battle with breast cancer last summer.

“I was driven by wanting to tell my mom she doesn’t have to work anymore one day because of all the stuff she’s done for us,” said Jamison, a rookie running back for the Washington Redskins. “That drove me.”

His mom’s health “drives me even more.”

Raised to respect

Each morning, before her children headed off to school, Barnes-Davis made sure they looked their best. Starke is a community of no more than 6,000 residents in northeast Florida, and they knew their actions, and appearance, reflected back on their mother.

Those values were handed down by her mother, Grace Barnes, who worked two jobs to raise four daughters. Grace Barnes learned from her own mother, Dora Carter, a widow who had to raise a family on her own.

Money wasn’t easy to come by; Barnes-Davis, a hairstylist, occasionally held two jobs herself and earned an associate’s degree in nursing. Hard work and respect were important, and Jamison learned about both at a young age.

“He wasn’t allowed to come out and play basketball until he had his room cleaned or his homework was done,” said Cory Elasik, a childhood friend of Jamison’s whose father, Rich, was their first Pop Warner football coach. “I can remember times where she would call him, or call me, and say, ‘Send Jawan home. He didn’t clean his room or do his homework.’ She made sure he was always respectful – yes ma’am, no ma’am.”

Barnes-Davis shuttled her children between games and practices and tried to stay mindful of their schoolwork. When Jawan and Courtney reached high school, she enrolled them in the prestigious Bolles School in nearby Jacksonville, a college preparatory boarding school with strong athletic programs.

Jamison helped the Bulldogs to consecutive Class 2A high school football championships, which earned him scholarship offers to several big-time football schools. When it was time to make a decision, he chose Rutgers, remembering his mother’s enjoyment during a recruiting visit.

“She likes to go to New York and shop, and being that close [to the city], she just fell in love with it,” Jamison said. “I went there solely to make her happy because of all she had done for me – coming to my games, being there, giving me what I want, being a good mother and teaching me everything.”

Moving seven states away would be difficult, Jamison thought, but he figured it would teach him how to be a man.

It did.

A painful loss

A two-foot-tall white cross stands at the end of a narrow, half-mile stretch of Northwest 216th Street in Lawtey, Fla., eerily overshadowing the glimmering metal guardrail and the reflective yellow signs towering behind it.

It was here, where the two-lane road intersects with County Road 200A, where police found an overturned Honda Civic shortly after noon on June 20, 2010. James Jamison, whose name adorns the cross, was found inside it.

An accident report concluded he was traveling 60 mph in a 45 mph zone at approximately 3:30 a.m. when he lost control of the vehicle, which struck a tree at the end of the intersection and rolled onto its roof; a blood test showed he was under the influence of alcohol . A passenger, Xavier L. Cummings, escaped and was transported by ambulance to a nearby hospital, but when paramedics arrived at 12:36 p.m., James was pronounced dead.

The report makes no mention of the delayed response, or why Cummings, who could not be reached for this story, did not properly alert authorities to the location of the crash site. Barnes-Davis was told another accident, one involving a police officer, happened nearby that same morning but never understood how the other car was not found.

Jawan Jamison was at home that Sunday afternoon, preparing to take an exam for a summer class, when his mother called him panicking. He met her and several other family members at Western Steer, a steak house in town, before they drove the eight miles together to the crash site.

“It was pretty tough, because he and his dad were real close,” said Tramaine Harris, one of Jamison’s childhood friends. “They were always together. On the weekends, he’d go over to [his father’s] house, or we’d go over there and hang out with his dad. They were real close.”

James Jamison and Barnes-Davis went to school together and had three children, but never married. They separated when Jawan was 10, but Jawan longed to maintain a relationship with his father. Occasionally, Barnes-Davis would find something as trivial as toothpaste missing from her house, only to learn a young Jawan had taken it to James in need.

The night before the accident, James called his son, eager to show him the new car he bought. Jawan, out to dinner, told him he would see it afterward but instead chose to go home.

As a steady rain fell at the crash site, Jawan saw the stretcher and identified his father’s body. Later, he would be the last person to approach the coffin at the wake, crying uncontrollably.

Keeping a secret

Barnes-Davis knew she couldn’t put him through it again.

A twinge of discomfort pulsed in her chest one night last summer, and as she felt a knot near the top of her right breast, her emotions flushed. She was a healthy person, always eating right and exercising. An early-morning doctor’s visit, and a series of tests, revealed the truth: Breast cancer. Her thoughts went to her children, her son.

Jamison arrived at Rutgers his freshman year emotionally raw, carrying the guilt of leaving his grieving family mere weeks after his father’s death. He had targeted a mid-summer enrollment, but didn’t arrive on campus until just before the start of training camp. He found he was out of shape and couldn’t focus on the playbook. He didn’t play that year and redshirted.

This year was going to be different. Jamison was eyeing a starting role as he entered his third season, and knowing a distraction would devastate him, Barnes-Davis made the decision: She would lean on her husband of nine years, Kenneth Davis,  and her other children. She would not tell Jawan.

Treatment, including chemotherapy, began immediately. Her hair began to fall out. Her fingernails changed color. Her energy waned.

James Jr. first called Jawan soon after the diagnosis. Barnes-Davis maintained she was fine, but when Courtney called sobbing after an appointment two weeks later, Jawan wanted the truth. Barnes-Davis, tearfully, gave up the ruse. Jawan, granted permission to leave the team, flew home the next day.

“We stayed home and we just talked,” Barnes-Davis said. “He was like, ‘Ma, don’t keep secrets from me.’ I just told him, ‘I want you to stay focused on school and what you’re doing, and I’m going to be fine. We’re going to be fine.’”

Rutgers began its season the next weekend on the road against Tulane, and despite her illness, Barnes-Davis joined her husband on the seven-hour drive to New Orleans. Jamison, who had a 46-yard touchdown run in the second quarter, finished with 112 rushing yards in a 24-12 victory.

When the season ended, Jamison left Rutgers to enter the NFL draft, hoping a professional football career could pay for his mother’s growing medical expenses. A league evaluation told him he could be a third-round pick, which would virtually guarantee him a spot on an active roster and a rookie salary of $405,000.

Instead, Jamison was the 228th player taken, drafted by the Redskins in the seventh and final round. At the conclusion of training camp, he was assigned to the practice squad, an eight-man unit meant to prepare the rest of the team for Sunday.

He would make $102,000. He would not be eligible to play.

Finally, lots of good news

The missed phone calls piled up on Dec. 8, and Jamison, understandably, feared the worst.

He dozed off on the couch not long after the Redskins lost 45-10 to the Kansas City Chiefs, and immediately called his agent, Wesley Spencer, after waking up.

Spencer had good news. After 14 weeks on the practice squad, Jamison was being signed to the active roster. Days later, his first game check left him speechless: $24,000, before deductions.

He has not played in either of the Redskins‘ last two games, but that hasn’t tempered his family’s excitement. Barnes-Davis has rarely missed one of her son’s games, and she drove to Atlanta on Dec. 15 with her husband and James Jr. to see him in uniform for the first time. She also flew north on Sunday for the Redskins‘ loss to the Dallas Cowboys at FedEx Field, then stayed overnight at his apartment in Ashburn.

Last year, after months of treatment, doctors finally declared Barnes-Davis cancer-free. She still aches from a loss of bone density tied to the drugs she took, but her spirit has returned.

“I can say that I don’t know how she did it,” said Stephen Burnett, whose son, Stephen Jr., attended high school with Jamison, and whose families have grown close. “A lot of folks would have just folded and said, ‘Hey, I’m done,’ and just let it take its course, but she’s doing great.”

When Jamison was younger, he’d sleep at a friend’s house, make his bed in the morning and make the friend’s bed as well. Surveying his unkempt apartment Monday morning, Barnes-Davis prodded her son to keep the place orderly. Humbled, he nodded and walked in the other direction.

Jamison likes his independence, but he has already begun thinking about next August, when the lease on his apartment is up. He figures if he rents a two-bedroom apartment, his mother won’t have to sleep on the pullout sofa when she visits.

When they were younger, Jamison and his siblings didn’t always have the nicest things, but they learned how to take care of what they did have.

“He’s definitely a momma’s boy,” Barnes-Davis said. “He aggravates me to death, but no matter where he’s at, I’ve always told him that no matter what he’s doing, I’m going to be right there to support him 100 percent.”