- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 26, 2009

Jamari McCollough’s parting thoughts before departing Maryland’s locker room each week remain constant.

There is a game to play, and it possesses significance. But affixed to his locker is a picture with even greater meaning. McCollough leans in, gently kissing the image of the little girl he spoke with in the morning.

Soon he’s on the field, exchanging waves with his favorite fan. A few hours later, McCollough reunites with his daughter, Fanaiya, whose arrival in September 2007 provides both the greatest joy and the most enduring lessons of his five-year career.

McCollough could play his final football game Saturday when Maryland concludes its season against Boston College. He’ll start at strong safety, where he has organized the secondary for much of the season, and receive the usual senior send-off.

The work of fatherhood, however, is just beginning.

“I’ve learned just being a young father, once you have a child, everything changes,” McCollough said. “I still have my goals, but I have to make sure I put her in my thoughts, too. I want to go to the NFL, and yeah, that’s my No. 1 dream. But at the same time, I know if that doesn’t work out, I have to get a job - something to provide for her.”

Most conversations with McCollough eventually gravitate toward his daughter. How she’s musically inclined. How he plans to teach her to swim this summer. How she needs her blanket, doll and juice if she’s going to go to sleep. How he’ll happily walk around with his daughter during one of her stays at his South Campus Commons apartment.

Then out comes the phone filled with pictures. A favorite is a shot from last summer after a day at the beach. Father and daughter had a blast. Two minutes into the ride home, she was zonked out and drooling in her car seat. Click.

This is the dialed-in McCollough, the man who wants to become a counselor for teens and one day open a recreation center, eager to be a presence in one young person’s life in particular.

“I think when he became a father, he took it in stride,” said Dahlia Levin, director of the football program’s intensive learning program. “I don’t necessarily think there was a personality change. It was more the best of him became even better.”

Simple turns complex

Maturity is a vital piece of McCollough’s career.

During fall camp in 2006, he tore his ACL and was lost for the season. Around the same time, he got to know Fallon Hutcherson, a sprinter on Maryland’s track team.

“We became friends and stuff like that. And we had a good relationship with each other and stuff like that,” McCollough said before pausing briefly. “And she ended up getting pregnant.”

He cackles at the simplification of a complex matter, but there were times it was hardly a laughing matter. Take his meet-the-parents experience.

Hutcherson faced complications during the pregnancy and was taken to a hospital. McCollough joined her, only to encounter an awkward moment. While Hutcherson’s mother joined her in the examination, McCollough sat in the waiting room with her father.

“I was so nervous,” McCollough said. “The whole time I kept thinking [he would yell], ‘You got my daughter pregnant.’ ”

Instead the two talked about football, and McCollough soon found Hutcherson’s folks to be as supportive as his family was of the soon-to-be parents. In turn, he remained supportive throughout the pregnancy, even if he wasn’t sure what he had gotten himself into.

“I knew right off the bat he was going to step up to the plate,” Hutcherson said. “Throughout my pregnancy, he tried to come to every doctor’s visit. If I had cravings, he would make sure I had everything. There was no point where he was never there. And so I knew when she was born, he was going to be a stand-up guy. He was going to take care of his responsibility.”

There was little doubt on McCollough’s end, too. He had grown up in the Baltimore area and seen firsthand the impact of single-parent homes. He wasn’t fully prepared to be a father, but there was little choice but to dive into the role.

So in the final days of the pregnancy, he would hand his cell phone to a trainer or staff member at practice in case the call came. It was one of many things he refused to miss.

“A lot of my friends grew up without a dad,” McCollough said. “Just looking at the type of lives they had, I’d never want any of my kids to have that type of life. I come from a strong, family-oriented background. Basically, it was just a guarantee that was going to happen.

“My number one thing is to make sure if I was to die, everybody would be able to tell my daughter I loved her to death, I was always there for her, that if she ever needed anything I always gave my 100 percent.”

‘God’s gift’

McCollough faces burly ball carriers every week, and his work in the classroom places him within six credits of a well-earned degree. But the greatest challenge he has faced in the past five years? A newborn.

“When she was first born, it took me legitimately 20, 25 minutes to change her diaper,” he said. “Now I’m a professional.”

It took time, as did much of fatherhood. Hutcherson, who graduated from Maryland last spring and now is in grad school while living in Stafford, Va., needed to remind him how important it was for him to devote his extra time to his daughter.

During the season, McCollough tries to spend part of his weekend with Fanaiya. He brought her to a recent junior varsity game in College Park, and she sat on his lap as they watched from behind the end zone. When he goes to the mall, most of his money usually goes toward clothes and toys.

He even has a grand Christmas plan. In another month, he hopes to have a Power Wheels Escalade - a complement to Fanaiya’s summertime convertible.

At this stage, her personality traits are already developing. She’s going through a possessive stage in which she declares “Nana’s bed” or “Nana’s shoes.” She is in preschool and knows the alphabet, how to count to 15 and a few words in Spanish. Hutcherson said father and daughter sprawl out the same way while sleeping, and McCollough already can see independence in his child.

“She thinks she’s grown,” McCollough said. “She’ll walk around with her mom’s purse and say, ‘I’m going bye-bye.’ ”

There are many stories, all of which McCollough happily shares. His life orbits around his daughter, and he wants people to know it.

“It makes me proud because he really has come a long way with his maturity,” Hutcherson said. “The amount of respect he has for his child and for me as well, it makes me happy. He loves taking her places. He just has fun with it. I like that. A lot of single fathers, they don’t like to mention their kids, like it’s something to look down on. I see that a lot. To see that he’s the opposite, that he’s just proud to say he has a daughter, it makes me happy.”

Hutcherson and McCollough have discussed the near future. He’ll train for a shot at pro football, and she’ll continue working and taking classes. Grandparents are funding day care for now. Much can change, but soon enough he will offer even greater support for his daughter.

There are trips to take, sports to play and a life to be a part of as the girl in the photo on the locker grows up.

“I never understood why you could create something that’s yours and not be there to watch it grow,” McCollough said. “I never understood how people could do that. Even though you might be young and might not be ready for it, it’s going to take time. For me, it took time.

“I gradually, and still am, learning how to become a father. I still make mistakes. At the same time, it’s your child. It’s God’s gift to you.”

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