Kaneisha Atwater read two words printed above a grape-sized sonogram smudge. They were meant to summon a smile, a sense of wonder.
Instead, they mocked her. Instead, shame coiled around her like a snake. Through tears, the girl who only weeks before slid into a prom dress – then a cap and gown – pleaded for someone to tell her it wasn’t real. But that bean-shaped blur and those two words that gave it a voice were irrefutable:
So, alone, she left the health clinic with her new secret. She drove through Fort Pierce, Florida, without aim, unsure how or why the car stopped in a wide parking lot adjacent to a gravel road. There, the 18-year-old girl forced herself to decide how she wanted to live the next 18.
She could sneak away to a different clinic, she knew, and her grape-sized secret would never reveal itself. She could keep her basketball scholarship to Old Dominion University and embark on a different life 840 miles north. She could escape the hometown where she had seen other young mothers peddling french fries and mopping floors; the place where negativity and lethargy and the mistakes of youth are gravity, keeping people from simply flying away.
Or she could call Jeron.
Jeron Atwater, 11 years older than Kaneisha, was the big brother who sought to fill the void after a stroke claimed their father. Jeron, like their father, had tried to ensure Kaneisha didn’t misstep as she traversed the minefield of adolescence in Fort Pierce, and he had almost guided her through. Almost.
Jeron was also the man who demanded she attend church every Sunday. A phone call to him, she understood, would mean giving birth. No debates. No alternatives.
But she was certain that would mean no more basketball. That would mean no more scholarship. That would mean that she, and whoever that smudge grew up to be, would never defy gravity.
But, unable to betray her brother, she reached for the phone.
“Jeron,” she said. “I have to tell you something.”
Andarious Jerome Fulton emerged seven months later, on Dec. 31, 2011. He was one of 333,746 babies born to teen mothers in the U.S. in 2011 and one of 275 in St. Lucie County, home to Fort Pierce, where the median household income is below $30,000 and the violent crime rate is nearly triple the national figure.
Andarious waited 90 seconds to take a breath after they pulled him through the incision in Kaneisha’s abdomen. That, though, was merely the first in a lifetime of trials mother and son would have to endure. According to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, children born to teen mothers perform worse on standardized tests than their peers, are 50 percent more likely to repeat a grade, are at greater risk for unemployment and are nearly three times more likely to be incarcerated by their 20s. But Andarious’ life doesn’t have to adhere to that grim forecast. His mother can prevent it.
Ninety-eight percent of teen moms do not graduate college before they turn 30. Kaneisha, though, is on the cusp of being counted among the other 2 percent. She is on pace to receive a degree in criminal justice from Florida Gulf Coast University in May 2016, thanks to a basketball scholarship.
For decades, a birth often marked the death of a college career. News reports told stories of scholarships that weren’t renewed, of free paths to a degree blockaded, of pregnant athletes whose fear of losing their place on a team steered them to abortions. Those accounts spurred culture change: In 2008, Division I adopted legislation preventing athletes from losing their scholarships for medical reasons the year they became pregnant. Seven years later, schools like Florida Gulf Coast are willing to make accommodations so athletes like Kaneisha can juggle diapers and textbooks and basketballs.
Black ink spells out “Life is a beautiful struggle” on the right side of Kaneisha’s torso. Today, her own life – throwing her body on the hard court, mending a broken relationship with her mother, savoring her son’s voice over the phone – echoes those words. Kaneisha is trying to thwart her own long odds to ensure Andarious thwarts his. And she is almost there. Almost.
Earline Atwater bore her first child when she was 15. Over the next 15 years, she and her husband, Hilton, would welcome five more. Kaneisha, born in 1992, was the last. Hilton worked in a recycling shop while Earline stayed home, and Kaneisha sided with her father when her parents clashed about Earline’s drinking.
Kaneisha, inseparable from her father, favored adventures with lizards or tossing rocks in rivers to painting her nails. And, after raising four boys in a row, Hilton was as enamored with her as she with him. She clung to him until 2005, when she was in sixth grade and saw him collapse in their living room. She didn’t get to ride in the ambulance. A week later at the hospital, her family sent her downstairs to get candy. Hilton was alive when she left. He was gone when she returned
“I was his heart,” she says.
Kaneisha felt alone for the first time in her life. Because her father loved sports and she needed a salve, she picked up a basketball. She struggled on the court in seventh and eighth grade, but her older brothers Johnathan and Jeron schooled her through shoves and elbows and sweat and scraped shins and heaving lungs. Life would hurt, they taught her. It would bruise her; it would swat away lazy shots; it would demand she play through hard fouls. It would be stronger, always, so she would have to be quicker.
Both brothers were accomplished athletes in high school, but they didn’t aspire to leave Fort Pierce. Instead of pursuing bachelor’s degrees, they opted for jobs and money and detours they would later regret. But they wanted more for their baby sister, so they refused to play nice when she started to show promise in pickup games on a concrete court, painted red. It was a block from the modest taupe house Kaneisha shared with her mother that looked like all the others along North 32nd Street – a lonely hedge by the front door, an air-conditioning unit protruding from one of the few windows, a handful of rooms held together by a low, brown-shingled roof, all resting on a scorched patch of grass losing its battle with the white sand soil of coastal Florida.
So, thanks to her brothers, Kaneisha got faster and stronger and developed the tenacity and the wide-eyed glare that would define her game. Still, brothers and basketball weren’t enough to replace her father. Early in high school, late nights out, unsupervised, led to missed school. Missed school led to bad grades. Bad grades led to the bench, where she was forced to sit for all but two games of her sophomore year at Fort Pierce Westwood High School. “I didn’t think anyone cared about me like my dad did,” she says.
But when she agonized on the bench and heard the constant questions about school and basketball and the proclamations that she would be great, even if she didn’t believe it herself, she realized Jeron and Johnathan cared. She realized her high school coach, Alvin Hamilton, who drove her to AAU tournaments, cared. She realized her teammate Sarah Virts’ mother, Marcie, who let Kaneisha spend nights and eat meals at her house when the tension in her own home boiled over, cared.
So Kaneisha refused to disappoint them any longer. She skipped social events; Hamilton was shocked to see her working on her jump shot on the night of her junior prom. By her senior year, she was one of the top-ranked players in Florida, averaging 29.2 points, 6.2 assists, 7.9 steals and 7.5 rebounds per game. She was a Parade All-American. She had a 3.4 GPA. College coaches called regularly. Hilton had given all of his children the gift of athleticism, yet his baby girl, his heart, was poised to be the only one who took full advantage.
“We didn’t want her to be like us,” Jeron says.
Through Kaneisha’s stellar high school career, Earline missed all but three games. She didn’t care like the others, Kaneisha thought. Her mother would rather spend time embracing a bottle than embracing her own daughter. “Any time she had money,” Kaneisha says. “It was, ‘I’m going to go get something to drink.’”
Her high school senior night was no different. Kaneisha watched as her teammates took the court, parents by their side. But her father was dead. And her mother was willingly indisposed. Instead, Sarah’s mom agreed to stand by Kaneisha when they called her name. So, that night, she sobbed in the locker room before stepping on the court. That night, enraged, she demanded the ball. That night, molded by older brothers more unforgiving than red concrete, she scored 49 points.
Even before that explosion, Kaneisha garnered interest from Division I colleges. Old Dominion assistant coach Niki Dawkins had seen her play, had asked questions about classes and grades and basketball and dined with Kaneisha at her high school coach’s house. She spoke with her weekly, seeming to care in ways Earline did not.
In turn, Kaneisha visited Norfolk, Virginia, all of those miles away, and appreciated what she saw. She saw a team that ran and relished the hurt like she did. She saw trim brick buildings and manicured lawns instead of tiny houses and sandy lots. She met people who, unlike her friends, had ambitions that extended beyond drive-thru windows.
“There was nothing in Fort Pierce for me,” she says. “I wanted to be different.”
So, late in her senior year, she signed a piece of paper and put it in the mailbox. No ceremonies were held and no parties were thrown when one of Florida’s top high school basketball players accepted a full scholarship offer. But there was a conversation.
“Do you think Dad would be proud of me?” Kaneisha asked Earline after she mailed her National Letter of Intent.
“I’m proud of you,” Earline said.
Kaneisha had never thought to ask.
Earline explained that it hurt when her daughter never came to her for advice and never looked to her as a mother. As Earline spoke, Kaneisha realized she had always held a grudge – some of it deserved, some not. She realized she had never considered the toll losing a husband could take on a mother of six in a small house in a poor town. Because she had always taken her father’s side, Kaneisha realized she had never given her mother a chance. For Kaneisha, the conversation offered catharsis she hadn’t realized she craved. Maybe they could heal.
Little more than a week later, Kaneisha Atwater stared at two words on a sonogram.
Kaneisha and Andarious’ father dated for two years. Then, citing her devotion to basketball, he left. Soon after, though, she was alone in her car revealing her secret. Jeron, in tears, passed the phone to his wife. Kaneisha’s next call was to the father. “OK …,” is all he could muster. He wouldn’t play a part in Andarious’ life.
A week after Kaneisha made her decision in that parking lot, she and her siblings gathered at Earline’s house. Kaneisha was certain what she was about to reveal would set her mother’s hard-earned pride ablaze, leaving only ashes.
Yet when Earline learned Kaneisha would bear her 13th grandchild, she tightened her jaw and refused to let the tears sneak past. Decades before, she had been Kaneisha. She remembered the fear. She remembered the confusion. So no shouts escaped Earline’s lips, only words: Don’t worry what other people will say about you, she told her daughter. Don’t think less of yourself. You’ll see it as a blessing one day.
Basketball won’t go away, Earline assured her. She could have the baby and let her body heal and find her way back to the court in a year. There could still be a scholarship, a college career, a degree. This child wouldn’t torpedo those dreams.
For the moment, though, it did. After she unburdened herself to her family, Kaneisha had one more difficult call to make. When she told Dawkins she was giving up her scholarship to stay at home with her new baby, the coach seemed more concerned about Kaneisha’s health than losing a top recruit.
Kaneisha’s brothers and sister offered their time and energy and money to ensure she had all the help she needed, but her mother’s words were the remedy that loosened shame’s grip. And, in the ensuing months, Kaneisha clung to her mother like she once had to her father. Earline’s reliance on alcohol abated as she accompanied her daughter to all of the doctor’s appointments and made sure Kaneisha and the baby never went hungry.
Kaneisha was soon mortified to see Google results for her own name. The top entries had nothing to do with her accolades on the court; blog and newspaper headlines announced her pregnancy to the world. Shame and fear and panic were smothering her again. They wouldn’t soon relent.
Friends distanced themselves, telling her she was promiscuous. Every interaction was an indictment; every glance at her growing stomach a judgment. That fall, Kaneisha returned to the high school gym where she had been a star – she operated the clock for volleyball and basketball games. She says she said hello when she saw Hamilton, the coach her teammates were certain favored her over them when he implored them to get her the ball. He said nothing. He kept walking.
From afar, Kaneisha monitored Old Dominion’s season. On Dec. 28, 2011, the Monarchs lost to Pat Summitt during her final campaign at Tennessee. Kaneisha should have been there. Instead, two days later, her water broke, and she scrambled to the hospital. Earline sat in a chair by her daughter’s bedside through the delivery. She answered Kaneisha’s complaints with a simple refrain: “It’s supposed to hurt.”
Twenty-eight hours of labor later, Kaneisha met Andarious. She saw her eyes, round and bright, on his small face. But when the nurse placed him in Kaneisha’s arms, she felt how heavy 6 pounds, 2 ounces could be. She felt her youth rebelling against the lifetime of responsibility that had just nestled onto her chest. She felt her heart insisting it was too young to wrap itself around this child. But he had her eyes, so she held him tight.
Kaneisha was convinced her father’s gift had wasted away in the month she spent in the hospital after Andarious was born, her muscles withering, her fever spiking at 104 degrees as she battled an infection near her incision that they would remove by probing into her stomach with a tube, again and again, while she was still alert.
She never forgot the pain. And in the months after, her life was dictated by diaper changes and naptime, not defending pick and rolls or crashing the offensive glass. Then, on a spring day, she answered her phone. Dawkins, who had taken a job as an assistant at Virginia Commonwealth University, was on the line, asking Kaneisha if she still wanted to play basketball. Would she be willing to leave Andarious behind and take the long trip north?
Kaneisha didn’t have answers. So, after a year away from the game, she returned to the court and sought the truth.
Her core muscles had atrophied after the procedures, so she couldn’t jump, and the speed that let her keep pace with older brothers and erupt past high school girls – the hallmark of her game – had vanished. But Dawkins said scholarship. And when Johnathan and Jeron heard that word, they nudged Kaneisha away from plans of community college and diapers and naptime. So she started running and shooting, took a trip to VCU and, once again, signed a letter.
On the day Andarious turned 8 months old and she loved him more than she had ever loved herself, she packed seven outfits and three pairs of shoes into a single suitcase and left him, apprehensive that she would fail as both a basketball player and a mother because she could devote all of herself to neither.
When Kaneisha dominated her competition in high school, she weighed 130 pounds. When she set foot on VCU’s campus nearly two years later, she weighed 165. She spent much of her first months in Virginia laboring to breathe. In addition to regular conditioning work with the team, she did one-on-one core strengthening sessions with Tim Kontos, the school’s assistant athletics director for sport performance, who slowly, and not without agony, coaxed her battered abdominal muscles back to life. While most of her teammates rested or ate, she held planks as long as she could or ran sprints in the pool until her feet blistered. Then, many mornings, she woke before dawn to run on them more.
After three months of work, she was beating teammates in sprinting drills, and the scale read 130 again. The fat that accumulated during pregnancy gave way to lithe, chiseled arms and powerful legs, but the rebuilt physique came with a price: a troubled heart. Kaneisha visited Dawkins’ office frequently, for both catharsis and candy. Despite Dawkins’ empathetic ear – she was a new mother herself – Kaneisha typically left with only one. She missed her baby boy.
For the first time in her life, Kaneisha became a recluse. Insecurities kept her from latching on to teammates. Save for one close friend, her world was confined to basketball, class and innumerable calls home.
Most nights, Jeron and Earline heard her cry through the phone. She gazed at Andarious on Skype. She opened emails to find videos of him at his first Thanksgiving or taking his first steps. Often, Kaneisha asked Earline to put the phone near him. She needed to hear her son breathe.
Kaneisha went home for Christmas, overjoyed that Andarious, for a few days at least, would be more than a few pixels on a screen. She scooped him up the moment she saw him. She wanted to kiss him, but he wailed and pushed against her, struggling to break free, refusing to look at her. He didn’t know his own mother. Or worse, she worried, he didn’t want to know her. He was in her arms but still felt 800 miles away.
In that moment, she decided she was not going back. College and basketball and a brighter future weren’t worth this sort of pain. But Jeron insisted that she return and finish her year at VCU before plotting a new course. Quitting on a Division I team midseason and leaving without credit for classes would shut doors she couldn’t reopen, he told her.
So, devastated, Kaneisha returned to Virginia. She started 12 games and was the team’s third-leading scorer, but she counted the days until she could see Andarious, hoping he wouldn’t squirm and struggle and scream. She made only two trips to Fort Pierce in her year away. She and Jeron eventually decided she would finish her freshman year, then head home and enroll somewhere close.
When the season ended, Kaneisha walked into Dawkins’ office and told her that she appreciated everything the coach had done for her, but that she had masked just how much the year had hurt. Dawkins, who had lobbied for the young mother and taken a risk on her, didn’t lash out. She understood. Her twins were nearly the same age as Andarious; she couldn’t fathom watching all of their tiny, monumental moments on a laptop.
Kaneisha returned to Fort Pierce in the summer of 2013 with a year-and-a-half-old son, a year of college credit and a mountain of uncertainty. Johnathan worried his little sister’s love for her son might inadvertently cost her more than she could imagine. Jeron wanted to make sure it didn’t, pushing her to enroll at a local community college. Kaneisha simply wanted Andarious to love his mother, to lift his arms above his head and beg to be held, not recoil, when she reached for him.
Karl Smesko, who has helmed the Florida Gulf Coast women’s basketball program since its inception in 2002, had tracked Kaneisha since high school. He wasn’t able to lure her then, but he called her former program when he learned she had left VCU. Coaches there didn’t disparage her for leaving. She simply needed to be near her son, they told him.
When Kaneisha returned to Florida, she moved in briefly with Jeron so Andarious could acclimate to her again while away from Earline. Initially, he struggled to sleep without his grandmother nearby. After a few weeks, though, Andarious would cry whenever Kaneisha put him down.
She was set to begin school at nearby Brevard Community College in the fall, picking up where she had left off after leaving VCU four months earlier. Then, yet again, a basketball coach contacted her out of the blue – this time via Facebook – offering a different life. Kaneisha was intrigued when she read Smesko’s words, but wary. Florida Gulf Coast was closer – only a two-and-a-half-hour drive – but could she bear leaving Andarious again, even for a few days at a time? And would she fit in? She checked the Florida Gulf Coast roster online and found reams of blond hair.
“I see all these pretty white girls,” Kaneisha recalls. “I’m thinking, ‘There’s no way these girls play basketball.’”
More than a decade earlier, while at Indiana University-Purdue University, Fort Wayne, Smesko had coached another young mother. That experience had gone smoothly, and he was certain he could help Kaneisha find balance. So when Kaneisha visited campus that summer, Smesko offered, unprompted, to make accommodations that would ensure Kaneisha wouldn’t have to choose between being a mother and a basketball player.
He would hold Friday practices at 7 a.m. and Sunday practices late so Kaneisha would have ample time to return home every weekend. He would let her dash back to Fort Pierce when crises arose, no questions, no penalties. The only hurdle they faced, he explained, was that NCAA rules mandated Kaneisha sit out a year because she had transferred, unless they could secure a waiver.
Potentially sacrificing a year of basketball, Kaneisha decided, was worth the risk because a college degree, the elusive ticket to a new life for her and her son, was finally within reach.
Kaneisha arrived at her new school that fall and was once again an introvert. But, gradually, the team came to learn she had a little boy and smiled along with her when they looked at pictures and videos of him. And those girls who, at first glance, had seemed so different became her friends. Teammate and roommate Jenna Cobb was one of several who began to confide in Kaneisha. The young mother who lost her father was always able, Cobb says, to put trivial college problems into perspective.
And Kaneisha gradually warmed to Smesko, acclimating to his propensity for silence and his bone-dry wit. He called her into an office in late October, feigning despondence before he broke the news that Florida Gulf Coast had secured the waiver – she could play. For her, he asked about study hall and classwork – her grade-point average hovers around 3.0 – and, for him, she shoved through screens set by the stout male students on the scout team and dove for any loose ball within reach. Her knees and shins are covered in black marks, a mix of fresh bruises from polished wood and old scars from rough concrete.
And on weekends before and after the season, as Smesko promised, Kaneisha points her silver Hyundai Santa Fe east and drives home. Earline calls nearly every 15 minutes to check on Kaneisha’s progress and make sure she is safe and tell her how excited she is to see her. Kaneisha wishes she could listen to music in peace, but she prefers the Earline who calls too much to the one who wasn’t in the bleachers on senior night.
Now, Andarious bolts through the door when Kaneisha pulls into the driveway. Now, he screams “Hi, Mommy!” Now, those two words don’t suffocate her like they did in the health clinic. Now, they are oxygen.
Andarious reverted to old habits when his mother returned to college – he once again needs to sleep next to Earline. But Kaneisha only gets those two precious nights per week, so she often crawls in bed with them. Only inches away now, she still needs to hear him breathe.
During the season, the trips home are less frequent. Andarious tells Jeron how excited he is to go see his mom play, and the family makes it to every home game. But, last season, Smesko could see the strain on road trips. Sometimes, Kaneisha seemed distracted. Her usual enthusiasm diminished. But she only allowed those subtle hints – teammates never heard complaints.
“I don’t think that I would be tough enough,” Cobb says. “I don’t think a lot of girls on our team, myself included, could handle what she does.”
Kaneisha was an integral part of a team that captured the 2013-14 Atlantic Sun Conference championship. She started 31 games, scored 7.9 points per contest and, thanks to the aggression cultivated on a hot outdoor court in Fort Pierce, led the team in fouls. Kaneisha might consider a professional career in Europe should the opportunity arise, but that would mean leaving Andarious behind with the family she loves in the place she loathes. Most likely, she will put her criminal justice degree to use after she graduates, settling two hours northwest of Fort Pierce in Orlando while working somewhere like the Florida Department of Children and Families, helping those whose misery she knows well.
As a teen, Kaneisha started accumulating tattoos. She would get one, easily concealed by clothing or watches or bracelets, only when she needed the sting of the needle to mask the sting of a new wound. Those traumas were not rare in Fort Pierce – she has been marked nine times.
“I want my son to see that there’s more to life,” she says. “I want to get him out of there.”
On Nov. 14, when Kaneisha stood on the court before Florida Gulf Coast’s 2014-15 home opener against George Washington, watching her team’s conference championship banner unfurl, she appeared no different from her peers. But look closely and find the marks of motherhood. Above her right knee, white shorts are stained by a blotch of gray ink – Andarious left it there months before while she was signing autographs, and it’s with her every home game. Of those nine tattoos, only one isn’t easily concealed, only one wasn’t etched into her skin because of pain: Andarious’ name, written in cursive and flanked by a baby’s handprint and footprint, runs the length of her left forearm in plain sight.
Kaneisha scanned the crowd during the banner ceremony. There were puffs of gray hair perched over old white faces, but no mother, no son. There were none of the usual pregame hugs with family. Car troubles forced Jeron and Johnathan to turn back; Earline and Andarious got caught in traffic. During a first-half timeout, Kaneisha surveyed the royal-blue bleachers again, mouthing, “Where’s my mom?” with narrowing eyes and an abrupt shake of her head. The peace Andarious brings doesn’t always hide old anguish.
Midway through the first half, Earline and Andarious arrived and sat in the ninth row behind the baseline, just right of the basket. His occasional peeps, asking where the eagle mascot was, were swallowed by the noise of the nearly full arena. Andarious eventually found the eagle and monitored it resolutely, save for when his mother, whom he hadn’t seen in nearly a month, dribbled 50 feet away from him. In those moments, despite a gym full of distractions, he couldn’t look away. And, each time a teammate shot free throws on that end of the court, Kaneisha couldn’t refrain from shooting glances at him out of the corner of her eye. Whenever she scored, Earline unleashed shrill screams, but Andarious stayed quiet and still, hand on his grandmother’s leg.
Kaneisha notched 17 points in the Eagles’ win. As the fans ambled down to the court to greet the team, she swam upstream, bounding over bleachers. Andarious waited nine rows up, arms skyward, palms open. She screamed “my boo!” as his tired face sprang to life. She lifted him and held him against her sweat-soaked jersey, peppering him with kisses on the cheek as he laughed. He wriggled in her arms; this time, he had no intentions of escaping.
Then, Andarious on her hip, Kaneisha rushed back down to the court where a swarm of fans awaited. They offered congratulations and commended her for playing well and locked eyes with Andarious, unable to stifle the need to grab his small hands or pat his head or tell him how adorable he was. In a calm moment, two young girls with blond hair shyly advanced and told Kaneisha that she was their favorite player.
As they scurried away, she said thank you and smiled and held her son at center court, bathed in the arena’s bright light.
After 15 minutes together, the family retreated to a quiet corner of the gym near two doors. The one on the left led to the locker room, then to 18 more months of basketball and classes and study hall, then to job interviews, then, hopefully, free of gravity’s grip. The door on the right led to a 140-mile drive through the Florida night, then to that sandy corner lot in Fort Pierce, then to many more bedtimes where a son would know his mother only as a voice, somewhere out there, telling him it was almost time for him to leave that place. Almost.
“Come here, baby,” Earline said as she peeled Andarious from Kaneisha’s arms and turned to leave.
“We got a long way to go.”