- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The drive from Clemson University to Sumter, South Carolina takes a little more than three hours, depending on the traffic. And on this day, there was traffic.

Bashaud Breeland remembers it clearly. He remembers getting that first call on the morning of June 15, 2013, and soon making another, to inform Clemson coaches that he wouldn’t be at practice that afternoon. He remembers hitting the road, nine days earlier than expected, speeding toward the hospital and fatherhood and a terrifying but exciting future.

And then he remembers slowing to a stop, though that did not bother him.

“I was too excited to worry about anything,” he says, smiling and leaning forward as he speaks. “I was waiting for this day for a long time.”

Jaelle Nicole Breeland was born that night at around 10. “Two hours before Father’s Day,” her father adds with a grin.

In the nearly 18 months since, Jaelle has been Breeland’s motivation and pride, the fuel behind his superb junior season at Clemson and the main reason he decided to leave school early to pursue a career in the NFL.

In his rookie season with the Washington Redskins, Breeland has been thrust into a starting role and emerged as one of the team’s most promising young players. He’s recorded 46 tackles, two forced fumbles and one interception in 13 games. But away from football, he has been thrust into a far more important and challenging role: that of a 22-year-old father, trying to give his daughter some of the things he never had.

Balancing the roles is not difficult, he says. It doesn’t take much to turn Breeland, the physical Redskins cornerback, into Breeland, the beaming dad, laughing and scrolling through dozens of photos of Jaelle on his phone because he just can’t decide which one he likes best.

“No matter how my day’s going,” Breeland says, “she always lifts me up.”

Another drive

Three days after Jaelle was born, Breeland returned to Clemson, walked into the locker room and saw a pile of Pampers and toys at his locker.

“That’s when it hit me,” he said. “Like, I’m a father.”

For the next month, Jaelle stayed at home with her mother, Ashley Baldwin, while Breeland resumed summer workouts with the Tigers. Entering his junior season, he found himself rising to a new level of play on the practice field. The workouts were easier now, his focus heightened.

“It was like I had another drive,” Breeland said. “I wasn’t doing it for me no more. I was doing it for her.”

At 21, Breeland now had to balance school, college football and fatherhood during his junior year. He and Baldwin, a fellow student at Clemson, typically dropped off Jaelle at an on-campus daycare center in the morning and picked her up in the evening, spending nights together at one of their apartments. 

Breeland didn’t have much money at the time. Then again, he never really did. He grew up in Allendale, S.C., where more than one in three residents currently live below the poverty line. And when Clemson coach Dabo Swinney came to visit during his recruitment process, Breeland hoped they could meet at the school rather than his house.

“He came from a humble background. Very humble,” said Wayne Farmer, Breeland’s high school football coach and mentor. “He just didn’t have a lot.”

That financial reality weighed on Breeland throughout his junior season at Clemson. He already believed he was one of the best defensive backs in the country, but with no income and a family to support, he had to make an immediate splash to prove himself worthy of an NFL contract.

“Not only did his play affect him, but it also affected his family,” Clemson defensive backs coach Mike Reed said. “As a coach, you’re always trying to find a way that you can get your kid to play above and beyond the call of duty. And when he knew this directly affects his child, he came to play.”

A family decision

With Jaelle on his mind, Breeland recorded 74 tackles and broke up a team-best 13 pass attempts in 13 games during his junior season, receiving second-team all-ACC honors in the process. In the Orange Bowl on Jan. 3, he forced a fumble in the fourth quarter to help the Tigers beat No. 6 Ohio State. He made his decision to turn pro after the game.

“I thought about it for the whole year,” Breeland explained. “And by the end of the year, whatever my heart told me to do, I was going to do it.”

The move went against the advice of both Clemson coaches, who believed Breeland would improve his draft stock with another year in college, and Farmer, who wanted to see him complete his degree in community recreation, sport and camp management. It also surprised Baldwin, who added that she would have been supportive of whatever decision he made.

Breeland, however, felt he was ready for the challenges of the NFL. He was ready to support Jaelle. It was a decision only he could make.

“I didn’t have much when I was in school,” Breeland said. “I didn’t have a lot of money, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to support her off no stipend at Clemson University. So it was either drop out of school, get a job and take care of her, or try my chances playing professional football.”

Breeland entered the draft as a projected second- or third-round pick who, by some estimates, could have been selected in the first round had he stayed in school another year. Instead, he slipped to the Redskins early in the fourth, the 10th cornerback off the board with the 102nd overall pick.

Less than four months after his 22nd birthday, Breeland signed a four-year, $2.71 million contract with Washington, including a $486,000 signing bonus.

“As a coach, I would love to have him for another year,” said Reed, who also coached Redskins cornerback David Amerson at North Carolina State. “But you’ve got to take care of family first. … You commend a man who wants to take responsibility and make things happen. And he did.”

‘It’s like she’s a mom’

Love and instability filled Breeland’s life growing up.

Breeland’s parents divorced when he was young. His mother, Tanya Jordan, eventually moved to Columbia, S.C., and now works for Walmart. His father, Darren Breeland, is paralyzed on the left side of his body — the result of a childhood car accident — and is receiving disability benefits.

Breeland’s father didn’t have a large presence in his life, those close to him say, and that’s one of the reasons why Breeland has made every effort to spend time with his daughter. He and Baldwin, who have been together on-and-off for nearly five years, live with Jaelle in a two-story townhouse in Northern Virginia.

Jaelle never ceases to amaze Breeland, who returns home after a long day of practice or a recent Redskins loss and finds his daughter’s laughter contagious.

“It’s like she’s a mom,” he said. “She takes care of me sometimes. That’s what it feels like.”

Not yet 18 months old, Jaelle is already walking and talking. She says “No.” “Yes.” “Bye.” “Hi.” She sings and dances in the living room. She climbs the stairs to find her mother. She is shy around certain people, but otherwise outgoing. She loves hide-and-seek. She’s playful and smart and smiling, always smiling.

“A bundle of energy,” Baldwin said.

Sometimes, Jaelle scurries into her room, where rows of children’s books rest on a bookshelf. She hides for several minutes, then runs back out with one of four books in hand, looking for a lap to sit on and Breeland or Baldwin to be the storyteller.

“It’s like four books that she’ll always pick,” Breeland said. “Those four books, every time.”

His eyes brightened with every word.

“Jae has him wrapped around her finger,” said Baldwin, who recently graduated with a mathematical sciences degree. “She loves him, he loves her. They’re cute together.”

Fatherhood and football

Breeland’s first major headline with the Redskins came when he was cited for marijuana possession at a Richmond gas station near the end of training camp. He filmed a public service announcement for the city last month as restitution, and said he has learned from his mistake.

Coach Jay Gruden called Breeland’s citation a “little hiccup” in an otherwise strong camp. And in the months since, Breeland has strived to be a better role model for his daughter.

It’s a maturation process that many young fathers must go through, veteran wide receiver Santana Moss said.

“When you get them kids, man … you kind of just look back and say, ‘Hey, something’s got to stop.’ You just look at the big picture,” said Moss, now a father of four. “You want to be able to lay a foundation for them to be able to have a sense of [how] they need to lay theirs, when they have that day and they have somebody that they need to take care of.”

Breeland is one of several young Redskins who have recently become fathers. Running back Silas Redd’s son, Nico, celebrated his first birthday last month. Roy Helu III, son of another running back, is four months old. And offensive tackle Morgan Moses’ son, Isaiah, was born Oct. 21, two days after Washington beat Tennessee.

“You’re no longer playing for yourself,” Moses said. “You have somebody watching you all the time, no matter what you do — in the house, outside the house. You become a role model for somebody.”

Breeland’s former coaches say Jaelle has not only transformed the cornerback’s life but also improved his production on the field. Reed said off-field happiness can have a carryover effect for any player, while Farmer senses that something has changed in Breeland, whom he has known for more than 10 years.

“The way he’s playing, with the confidence he has — I’m going to assume it’s his little girl, his daughter, has settled him down,” Farmer said. “I’ve seen that drive and focus in his play, that maturity.”

Jaelle watches every Redskins game, either in-person at FedEx Field or at home on TV, though Baldwin says she can never sit still. She doesn’t understand what her father does on the football field, or why, but some day she will.

Some day, she’ll understand that he does it all for her.

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