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TAMPA — Even in the pubescent stages of his football career, the powerful, prolific tailback gave all the credit to his line.
Never mind how corny the line was, even for an eighth-grader. Zain Gilmore had heard it in a movie and thought he’d try it out on the brown-eyed Madison Middle School classmate who already had a boyfriend.
“Zain said, ‘Drop that zero and get with this hero,’ ” Nyeisha Williams recalled this week. “It was funny. His sense of humor, that’s what attracted me.”
By lunchtime, Gilmore had supplanted the “zero.” Williams was smitten.
Roughly a year later, she was pregnant. Zain Sr. was 15, Williams 14. Both lived in apartments with single mothers in neighborhoods where sirens were the prevailing soundtrack. Neither had met his or her father.
“Actually it was a surprise to be pregnant,” Williams said, “but I never not once thought that I couldn’t do something.”
Nearly 18 years later, that child — the oldest of their two boys — is a senior, not a statistic.
Friday night, quarterback Zain (pronounced Zah-een) Jabbaar Gilmore Jr. leads 11-1 Robinson High School — the same school at which his dad won the 1997 Mr. Football award as the state’s top prep player — into the Class 5A region title game against 12-0 Pasco.
Equally formidable with a spiral or sprint-out option play, Zain Jr. has collected 1,200 total yards, 11 touchdowns, five A’s and one C this fall, and he’s receiving interest from Division I colleges. His coach says he has been a model citizen since his arrival from Blake High this year.
“I cannot complain one iota,” veteran Knights coach Mike DePue said.
Williams and Zain Sr., long since separated but still amicable, will be among Friday night’s anticipated throng of 4,000 at Jack Peters Field on Robinson’s campus. The plan is to show up and do what they’ve done since Zain Jr.’s birth on Dec. 30, 1994: support him.
“I’m amazed at the way they stepped up to parenthood at a young age,” said McKay Williams, Nyeisha’s mom.
The village that has helped rear Zain Jr. and younger brother Zakin is rife with grandmamas, aunts and family friends. There have been run-ins with authority, sometimes with each other.
Fact is, Williams and Zain Sr. never officially have been husband and wife. But they never stopped being mom and dad.
“They’ve always been there since they were kids themselves,” said Zain Jr., nicknamed “Duke” by his paternal grandmother. “They had to grow up real fast and that’s what they did.”
• • •
A constant accompaniment to Zain Jr.’s breakthrough senior year has been the second-generation story line.
Zain Sr., whose dad was murdered two months into his mom’s pregnancy, ran for 2,322 yards and 29 TDs as a Knights senior in 1997. Ultimately, his No. 6 jersey was retired.
What many on the periphery didn’t realize was, by his senior year, he was excelling in three sports, working part time and helping raise a toddler.
“I remember coming to his track (meets),” Zain Jr. said. “One time I had peed on myself waiting for him because I didn’t know where the bathroom was. He was already on the track. … I was just sitting there. He told me, ‘Wait here; watch Dad run.’ ”
Far less conspicuous was Williams, who also worked after school and raised Zain Jr. at the apartment she shared across town with her mom and an older sister. For as long as Williams can recall, her mother worked two jobs, and still logs part-time hours as a Publix cashier despite nagging arthritis in her leg.
Inheriting the indefatigable gene, Williams spent after-school hours working at fast-food joints and supermarkets.
Zain Sr., meantime, balanced sports with jobs at department stores and dollar theaters. During the day, McKay or Shakeela Williams — Nyeisha’s sister — would watch Zain Jr. At night, Zain Sr. often would bring toys or food to the apartment.
“Ever since (Zain Jr.) was born, Zain was there,” McKay said.
“I never had a father, only a mother,” Williams said. “And Zain never had a father and we were both raised by single parents. We always knew we wanted to be in our children’s lives. I never had a problem with my responsibilities.”
Zain Sr. graduated in 1998, earning a football scholarship to the University of Missouri. Williams left Robinson as a senior, but earned her GED. When Zain left for college, Williams and her boys — including 3-month-old Zakin — remained in Tampa.
Yet Williams knew Zain Sr. wasn’t fleeing his responsibility, only his environment. At 15, he had to intervene when his mom was nearly killed by a former boyfriend who sneaked into their apartment through a window and repeatedly stabbed her.
“She was basically all I had,” said Zain Sr., who sustained a wound below his shoulder blade.
Nonetheless, during his freshman season in Columbia the young couple’s relationship dissipated. Zain Sr. admits he was young, far from home and enamored with the temptations thrust at a college football player.
“(Williams) stuck with me through a lot,” he said.
He ultimately completed four seasons at Missouri, rushing for nearly 2,000 yards.
“And every time he got off the plane (on a visit home), the first spot he came was to my house to pick up his boys,” Williams said. “It was routine.”
• • •
Williams, who had another child after breaking up with Zain Sr., earns a living as a claims processor at a local bank and is a certified nursing assistant.
Zain Sr., who tried out with two NFL teams and spent a year playing in Spain, does “warehouse work” for an air-conditioning firm.
Despite a two-year probation he’s serving on a drug-related conviction, his boys — including a third son — reside with him in a Port Tampa apartment. Williams hopes to get an apartment nearby in a few months and have the boys return to her.
To Zain Sr. and Williams’ acknowledgement, the parenthood they forged during their algebra days has sometimes veered to the dysfunctional.
“(But) they were always hard-working parents,” Zain Jr. said.
As testament, he insisted his dad’s No. 6 jersey be un-retired. Friday, he’ll slip it over his shoulder pads and try to propel the Knights 48 minutes closer to a state championship.
“I’m just amazed,” Williams said. “I’m just looking at him like, ‘That’s my son.’ I’m amazed that he’s growing into a man. I don’t want to cry now. He really is amazing.”