Montel McBride was exhausted.
The senior offensive lineman had been protecting a first-year quarterback all night, using his imposing body to facilitate a run game that wasn't getting the Raiders very far. So on fourth down, Plant City preparing to punt, the offense trotted off the field, and McBride slumped his 6-foot-4, 330-pound frame onto an aluminum bench on the sideline.
Before he could catch his breath, McBride heard his name called from a herd of harried coaches. There was just two minutes, 39 seconds left in a deadlocked game against East Bay. It would be up to the defense to give the Raiders a chance to keep their spotless record intact, and the coaches wanted their No. 1 guy on the field, even out of position.
"Montel, we need you," shouted offensive lineman Quincy Robinson, sensing his teammate's reluctance.
McBride didn't need the extra push; his motivation to keep going sat just yards away, looking on from the second row of the bleachers. McBride's grandmother has always been the voice of reason in his head, encouraging him to reach for more when all he wanted to do was sit back.
"I'm making a difference," Jeanell Vickers said. "I'm old-school, so I try to instill in him values that are going to last the rest of his life."
Now, with the help of a game he has grown to love, the Alabama commit plans to return the favor.
McBride adjusted his helmet and ran back onto the field to join his teammates.
"He blessed her, so you be a blessing for yourself."
Pauthenia Broome, McBride's mother, and Vickers arrive at Plant City football games before the crowd so they can get the best seats. It's not easy for Broome, who uses a wheelchair, but she knows this is the last year she'll get to see her son play close to home.
Clad in her orange Raider football T-shirt, McBride's name and number on the back, she doesn't miss the games.
Thirty-four years ago, 8-year-old Broome was on her way to school when she was hit by a car. She spent five weeks in a coma and when she awoke, she had no control over her muscles. Broome had to relearn to walk, and underwent occupational and speech therapy.
Doctors told Broome she wouldn't be able to have children. But Vickers said her daughter has always been strong-willed. In 1992, Broome's daughter, Keisha, was born. Four years later, Montel came along.
"I told them that, really, they're miracle children," Vickers said.
Broome's accident left her unable to work outside the home so Vickers, 69, serves as the family's caretaker and breadwinner. Now retired, Vickers spent her career doing a variety of jobs including teaching school, working at a bank and helping senior citizens re-enter the job force.
They never had a lot of money, but Vickers always encouraged her grandchildren to play sports.
Taking after his older sister, McBride's first love was basketball. "I didn't like to hit people," he said of his short stint in little league football, the irony in his past reservations now apparent.
It was on the court, not the gridiron, that Plant City football coach Wayne Ward remembers meeting McBride.
"I said, 'Dude, man, what are you doing? You're a football player,' " Ward recalled telling McBride, then a freshman. " 'You're going to make your money on the football field.' "
"Anything you do, always make sure you can do it better than the next person."
Go to the Plant City practice field any day of the week, and McBride, who towers over every one of his teammates, can be heard before he's seen. He has a charisma that has charmed even strangers in the grocery store since he was 4 years old, Vickers said, and now he puts it to use shouting orders for the team's warmup routine — with enthusiasm — before each practice.
That happy-go-lucky kid — one who has been given every reason in the world not to be — is someone his coaches admire.
"A lot of kids who have faced his circumstances wouldn't be nearly as optimistic," assistant coach Greg Meyer said. "That fresh attitude, that optimism, that upbeat kind of approach of, 'Guys, we're going to get it' is as powerful as his size."
For the past two years McBride has focused all his athletic attention on the Raiders' program. He saw what Plant City football could do for guys like him. Former teammates Jordan Prestwood and Dazmond Patterson became coveted Division I-A recruits. McBride longed to be part of that club.
Getting out of Plant City, McBride thought, would eventually provide him the means to come back and support his family — a family that despite its hardships, had always supported him.
So football would be his escape plan. When the offers — 15 of them, when all was said and done — began to roll in, it was also proof of a dream that couldn't be quashed.
McBride takes pride in being the man of the house; his father wasn't around much as he grew up. While he was in middle school, however, his dad was briefly in his life — just long enough to leave a mark.
"Football is my 'forget you' to my dad," McBride said. "He was like, 'You'll never get a scholarship playing sports. … You'll never do it.' "
Shortly after meeting Austin Scott — he and McBride sat at the same table on the first day of kindergarten at Lincoln Elementary Magnet School and became fast friends — McBride found the father figure he was missing.
Joe Scott, Austin's dad, didn't have the easiest of childhoods either. So when McBride came into his life, he treated the boy like one of his own.
"I didn't have parents," said Scott, a man McBride refers to as his second dad. "I always made it a goal of mine to be involved with kids. I said, 'There ain't never going to be a kid I don't make smile.' "
Over the summer, the elder Scott accompanied McBride to The Opening, a football camp in Eugene, Ore., for the nation's top recruits. Scott was there with him July 2 when, in front of TV cameras and reporters, McBride committed to the University of Alabama.
Placing the hat snugly on his head and proving a father's words wrong, McBride had reached the end of the recruiting road, the destination at last.
"As long as you remember who you are, you'll go far."
McBride knows playing football in college, albeit at a top-ranked one, isn't a solution to life's many problems. There will continue to be obstacles — grueling practices, homesick days, moments when he feels like giving up.
But he has overcome them once before and he's confident he can do it again.
"I grew to realize, it's life. Life is hard. Life is tough," he said. "You're just going to have to push through."
Vickers was taken aback one day when McBride, who had always dreamed of playing a sport in college, offered to stay behind to take care of her and his mother. All of McBride's life, Vickers had made it her priority to impart wisdom that will last a lifetime.
She insisted he take himself, and those lessons, to Tuscaloosa.
"I told him, 'Look here. You do what you have to do to get to the next level. We'll be okay,' " Vickers sternly stated.
And McBride is set on making sure that never changes.
Kelly Parsons can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @_kellyparsons.