DADE CITY — Sierra O'Neal tried to focus through the viewfinder of her pink Samsung digital camera, but tears forced her to set it down.
"I never cry,'' she said. "Never. I can't imagine what I'll do at graduation.''
Her son, seated just a few feet away, flashed perfect white teeth as he signed a promise to play football at Texas Christian University.
"He never smiles,'' she said.
Jamie Byrd Jr. is a tough guy, a defensive back at Pasco High School who buried wide receivers and running backs. As his mother says, "He wants to make sure he leaves a mark.''
Mom is tougher. In Lacoochee, Pasco's poorest community where drugs and crime ruin young lives daily, she kept her boy on the straight and narrow. She held veto power over his friends. She made him study. She wouldn't let Jamie cry over a loss on the football field.
"You have to learn how to lose,'' she said. "And there's a lot more to life than sports.''
But on Wednesday morning at the same school where Sierra O'Neal once walked the halls as a 15-year-old with a swelling belly, sports had given her son an opportunity for a free education. She had fought so hard to keep him safe, to make him succeed, and now she was free to drop that steel exterior.
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Some girls might have considered abortion.
But when a third pregnancy test turned the 15-year-old high school sophomore's world upside down, she went to her mother, who ran a forklift at the orange packing plant. Donna O'Neal had been 16 when she gave birth to Sierra. The father took off to Louisiana.
One difference with Sierra: Dad was very much in the picture. Jamie Byrd, her boyfriend, was a big man on campus, a fast, hard-hitting football player. On March 10, 1992, he left class so he could be by her side when doctors delivered an 8-pound boy by C-section. They named him after his dad, who nine months later would help lead Pasco to a state football championship that today is still a point of pride and regular conversation.
Sierra, meanwhile, refused to give up on education. Her extended family watched the baby as she managed to finish high school on time and then enroll at Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach. She studied criminology and drove home when she could to see her baby.
"It was hard,'' she said, "but I knew advanced education was the only thing that was going to save us. My family sacrificed so I could do it.''
She moved home in her junior year and earned a bachelor's degree at Saint Leo University before taking a job with Pasco Kids First Healthy Families. At 23, this onetime teenage mom found herself educating parents, giving them skills to raise children successfully and, hopefully, break the cycle of poverty. A few years ago, she led the team that earned a statewide award for completing the most home visits over five years.
"She's a natural,'' beamed Becky Bennett, the agency's program manager. "She'll run this place one day, if she wants.''
Jamie Sr. also went off to college, but it didn't last long. He returned to Lacoochee. And while he and Sierra went in different directions, he remained active with his son, teaching him about football, trying to be a positive influence.
But mom made the rules.
"I was very strict,'' she said. "I kept my foot pressed against his neck sometimes, so to speak. Jamie knows, I'll get up in his face. I'm not easy.''
Not long ago, Boise State University recruited Jamie. He visited Idaho and loved the place. Mom worried that he might wind up 2,600 miles from home, but she didn't want to tell Jamie what to do.
"I was having a real hard time with it, but I was determined to let Jamie make the decision,'' she said. "That's a far cry from how I usually treat him. I'm pretty involved. When TCU came along, he came to me and asked me, 'Mom, what should I do?' TCU (Fort Worth, Texas) is still a thousand miles from home, but I can live with that. I'll have to adjust.'' She hopes to complete work she started at Saint Leo for a master's degree.
TCU, which finished undefeated this year, has a unique mascot: the horned frog. O'Neal has never seen one, "but I guess I'll be getting familiar. I plan to stay close to my boy. They got an airport.''