Marcel Durham knows about patience.
As a freshman football player at Largo High School, he was moved up to varsity and ran behind Dexter McCluster, a former Packers rushing leader who is now an Ole Miss junior, and last year's county record-breaking rusher Brynn Harvey.
Antsy and disappointed that he wasn't getting enough handoffs, he quit the team and played with the Largo Little League Midget squad.
His sophomore year, Durham was back and ready to represent the Packers in the varsity team's backfield. But head coach Rick Rodriguez had something else in mind.
"He made me play JV my sophomore year because I quit," Durham said. "Even though I could have played varsity, he made me play JV. It was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. It taught me patience."
It's a virtue that Durham, 18, takes with him beyond the gridiron.
"My teammates wouldn't know what I go through every day," Durham said on a recent afternoon at his home in Clearwater's North Greenwood community, where the family moved from Largo after his freshman year.
What he goes through is a labor of love: he's helping raise his 1-year-old nephew, Zion.
"Zion is my life," said Durham, who wears No. 3 because Jesus rose from the dead on the third day and because he is the third of six children. "Everything that a father does, I try to do for Zion."
Durham is up at 6 a.m. every day. Before he gets ready for school, he checks on his nephew. Where ever Largo's star running back goes at home, the toddler is not far behind.
Durham's 22-year-old sister and Zion's mother is chronically ill. Zion's father is not in the picture.
After football practice, Durham heads home to check on Zion. He reads to him. He talks to him. He hugs him. Durham has to remain patient because Zion is full of energy as he explores his new world. He's clingy to his uncle.
"It's like an extra job," Durham said. "But I try and be there for Zion. If I don't, who will? Because his father isn't trying. I can't let that happen to him."
Durham has missed only one football practice.
"Zion was sick and I couldn't just leave him," Durham said.
Durham is the father figure for Zion. It's a relationship that he missed out on early in his own life.
Durham's father, Charles Pompey, lives in Dunedin and owns a seafood store on Clearwater's North Betty Lane. The two had little contact until Durham became a teenager.
"Money is not love," Durham said. "He paid child support. But I never saw him. My junior year, my mom was like 'you have to talk to him. You have got to do your part.' "
Durham did and now he and Pompey, 36, have a solid relationship.
"It's hard sometimes because I still turn to my mom," said Durham, who has the only car in the family and does most of the driving. "She's always been there."
Tammy Durham, 37, said she can always turn to her son.
"Marcel's my best friend," she said. "I tried to find ways to keep them off the streets because everybody is trying to bring you down when they don't have a buck to make 50 cents themselves. I'm proud of him. He's my son."
Marcel Durham said his mother, who was also one of the fastest girls on Largo's track team when she was in school, taught him respect. Everyone in the family knows he is the one they can come and talk to.
Now, he's focusing on his senior year on the field — where he ran for 74 yards and two touchdowns in the Packers' opener — and in the classroom. He's looking at colleges and will remain patient and thankful to get a scholarship playing football, no matter the school.
"You can't give up on what you love," Durham said of playing football and living life. "If you give up on it, it's like you really didn't love it."
But when asked what will happen to Zion when he goes to college, Durham went into a long, thoughtful gaze.
"I have never thought about that," Durham replied. "I don't know. You've got me thinking about that because I don't know."
Demorris A. Lee can be reached at [email protected] or 445-4174.