MIAMI — The decision is coming soon. Really, the choice of a lifetime.
Brandon Spikes can stay or he can go. He can chase riches a year early or cling to his youth a year longer. He can be a first-round draft pick if he leaves for the NFL, or he can be the best college linebacker in the land if he stays at Florida.
So, yeah, he has thought about all of the typical concerns. The possibility of increasing his NFL appeal with an extra year of muscle and weight. The idea of returning with Tim Tebow and taking a shot at yet another national championship game.
But Spikes also has concerns no young man should be forced to consider. Like the possibility of his brother's fate resting in his hands. Or the idea of another year passing with blind faith as his family's only real hope.
"It's always been a goal for me to take care of my family," Spikes said. "And my brother is a big part of my family."
Spikes hasn't seen his brother in years. Not since Breyon Middlebrooks was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life without parole in North Carolina more than five years ago.
From the time his brother called him collect from a pay phone at a local jail the morning he was arrested in 2001, Spikes has never accepted the murder charge was true.
It's not that his brother was a saint. Far from it. Middlebrooks had bombed out of college and was running with a bad crowd. He was dealing drugs and had been arrested for several lesser crimes when Spikes was barely in his teens.
After escaping the first murder trial with a hung jury, Middlebrooks was convicted in a second trial in 2003. An appeal three years ago, based mostly on technicalities, was denied.
Still, Spikes believes in his brother. Maybe naively. Maybe foolishly. Middlebrooks acknowledges he was at the scene of a drug deal gone bad but insists he didn't pull the trigger and that the murder was actually an accident.
And Spikes believes an NFL contract is the only chance his brother has for a real life.
If Spikes can strike it rich in professional football, he said he could afford a hotshot attorney who might be able to convince an appellate court to take another look at his brother's case. It's a long shot. It might even be useless.
But it's a dream Spikes has held tight for years.
"There's not a day goes by that I don't think about my brother," Spikes said. "He's kind of like motivation for me."
Growing up in Shelby, N.C., Spikes idolized his big brother. Sherry Allen was a single mother working 12-hour shifts at a local mill, and so Spikes would often tag along after Middlebrooks, who was seven years older.
Today, Spikes thinks about the quirks of fate. How he and his brother had the same opportunities yet ended up in different worlds. In a way, it was his brother's misfortunes and misdeeds that made Spikes the NFL prospect he is now.
"What happened to him was like a turning point for me," Spikes said. "My brother was a dynamic athlete himself. He played linebacker, he played basketball, he played baseball, he was good in all of them.
"He was the guy I looked up to. He was good in everything he did, whether it was school work, or drawing, or playing sports. He made me want to be good in football. When he got messed up, I felt it was all on me. He always promised my mom he would do this or do that, take care of the family. So when he didn't do it, I felt like it was all on the baby boy."
The baby boy is 21 now and the most popular player on the Florida defense. It is Spikes' leadership that Florida coaches cite as a huge factor in the evolution of the defense this season.
Early in the season, Spikes began gathering his teammates for meetings on Mondays, their one day off during the week. With no coaches around, the defensive players go over their performances. They talk about accountability. They make sure they are pushing each other to live up to expectations.
It's an exercise Spikes knows well. It's a burden he has been carrying for much of his life.
"It's hurt me and hurt my mom," Spikes said. "I've kind of felt pressure, not that I had to be perfect, but that I had to make all the right decisions. Make sure I stayed out of trouble."
All these years later, Brandon Spikes still can't bear the thought of visiting his brother in prison. Not, he said, when Middlebrooks is living like a caged animal.
He prefers to think about the brother he knew as a young boy.
He prefers to dream about seeing that brother again.
John Romano can be reached at [email protected]