LARGO — It's hard for 17-year-old Adarius Rayner to believe the turn his life has taken lately.
His mother died suddenly when he was 7 years old. After that, he walked into a hospital room where his great-grandfather had died. A few months later, he found his grandmother dead and cold in her bed.
When he was a freshman at Largo High, Rayner was kicked out of school for having a toy plastic gun in his backpack.
But despite all those roadblocks to success, Rayner was picked to sit on the stage at Friday's Largo High graduation and introduce commencement speaker Dexter McCluster, an NFL player and former Largo High standout.
And today Rayner is heading to Indiana University, where he has earned a Division 1 football scholarship.
"I didn't think I would make it to graduation," Rayner said.
His turnaround is a result of some old-fashioned tough love and the open heart of a family wanting to make a difference.
Shawn and Cristy Brown have always contributed financially to Largo High's football program. Cristy's uncle, Rick Rodriguez, is the team's head coach. But a few years ago, the Browns decided they wanted to do more than give money.
"We wanted to do more mentoring and guidance," Cristy Brown, 39, said. "We wanted someone to come into our home that we could trust to be in our house and around our kids."
In September 2009, Rodriguez recommended Rayner.
"He has a good heart," Rodriguez said of Rayner. "He's well-mannered and respectful. I thought he would be a good person."
Rayner's grandmother, Janet Brooks, who took custody of him after her daughter died and his father gave up parental rights, was onboard with the Browns' offer of help.
"When he called me from school and told me about this family being a mentor, I told him you need to stop right now and thank God and praise him because they could have selected any kid in that school," Brooks, 55, said. "But you were chosen."
Four to five days a week, the Browns picked Rayner up from school and brought him to their Largo home. He was tutored. He studied. He went on family trips. He ate dinner and became a big brother to the Browns' now 11-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son. The Browns would drive Rayner back to his grandmother's home about 9 p.m.
After playing the drums at New Life Baptist Church on Sundays, Rayner would often head to the Browns' home.
"He was struggling," Shawn Brown, 40, said. "He didn't have a whole lot of tools in terms of knowing how to study and time management."
Brown had played college baseball and minor league ball for the Detroit Tigers. "I know the struggles of time management and trying to play well," he said. "But you have to get your work done in the classroom before you can get it done on the field."
With the permission of Rayner's grandmother and aunt, Niya Case, the Browns eventually began demanding weekly progress reports from all his teachers. If there was a report below grade B, his cell phone was taken away.
Rayner's grade point average hovered around 2.2 at the start of the mentoring process. He's finishing with a 3.7.
"In the beginning, it was kind of rough grade-wise, trying to pull myself back up," Rayner said. "I never really knew how to study. I never had any study habits."
Now, he's a "firm believer" in studying.
"It helped turn my grades around in the end, and they (the Browns) were there when I really needed them," he said.
Rayner's story could have been different.
Lashone Harris, Rayner's mother, died when he was 7 after succumbing to primary pulmonary hypertension on June 26, 2001. She was 27. Rayner's father gave up parental rights. Brooks took custody of her grandson and has raised him with the help of her daughter, Case, 32.
Rayner grew extremely close to his maternal great-grandfather, the Rev. Willie Hoston. In January 2003, Hoston suddenly became ill. When Rayner went to visit him in hospital, he was dead.
In November 2003, Brooks and Rayner were living with Brooks' mother, Lois Hoston, who was trying to get accustomed to living alone after 49 years. Brooks would leave early for work, and Rayner would get ready for school. One morning when he went to wake up Lois Hoston, he found she had died.
His freshman year at Largo High, he was expelled and forbidden to attend any Pinellas County school because he had brought a fake plastic gun on campus. Rayner called it a bone-headed mistake. He had to take classes over the phone and Internet.
"A lot of kids get in trouble like Adarius, and their whole life gets off track and they never get it back at all," Brooks said. "I'm just happy about everything (the Browns) have done to help."
Cristy Brown said the family will likely look for another Largo player to mentor.
"If I can help one kid at a time make a difference, then I've done my job," Cristy Brown said. "There are so many kids out there who just need a little extra help."
Rayner is a little nervous about going to college and leaving behind the extended "family" that helped him make this big step.
"The Brown family is like my second family, and they are such good people who will help anybody in need," Rayner said. "I'm going to miss them, my grandmother and my aunt, but life has to go on. And by the grace of God, I have a chance to go on and to go further."
Contact Demorris A. Lee at firstname.lastname@example.org and (727) 445-4174.