Adarius Rayner has a smile that will soften the toughest heart. His voice carries the baritone and warmth of a person well beyond his 15 years.
Behind that smile and below the surface of the kid who is 6-feet-2, weighs 225 pounds and wears a size 14 shoe, is more tragedy than some might see in a lifetime.
But this fall, as a member of Largo High's junior varsity football team, Rayner, a sophomore, began to piece his life back together after being expelled last year.
"We are determined not to allow him to fall through the cracks," said Janet Brooks, Rayner's grandmother and primary custodian. "If football can help with that, then we support it."
Rayner's mother died when he was 7. Lashone Harris, the woman who loved to laugh, succumbed to primary pulmonary hypertension on June 26, 2001, at age 27. Rayner's father, who lives in Largo, gave up parental rights to his son. Rayner has lived with Brooks, 52, since then.
"I don't know much about him," Rayner said of his father. "I haven't seen him and I don't care anymore."
Rayner became extremely close with his maternal great-grandfather. In January 2003, the Rev. Willie Hoston suddenly became ill the day after a 49th wedding anniversary celebration.
"We went to see him in the hospital and no one told us anything," Brooks said. "We walked in the room and he was dead. AJ (Rayner) was with us. He saw him."
Rayner was 9. His mother had died. He was an only child. His father had abandoned him. He had seen his great-grandfather dead in a hospital bed. Trying to pull the pieces together, Brooks and Rayner lived with Brooks' mother, Lois Hoston, who was trying to get accustomed to living alone after 49 years.
In November 2003, Rayner did what he normally did before school. Brooks would leave early for work. Rayner would prepare himself for school. He knocked on his great-grandmother's door to let her know he was leaving.
But on this day, there was no answer.
"I went to wake her up," Rayner said. "She was already cold."
He called Brooks to alert her that something was wrong. Rayner had found his great-grandmother dead.
Brooks and her daughter Niya Case, 29, have thrown themselves into ensuring Rayner's well being. They made sure he went to school. They made sure he was well behaved. He attended church every Sunday. He played little league sports. Though a formidable football player, Rayner excelled on the basketball court.
But then last year, his freshman year at Largo High, there was a major setback.
Rayner said he found a toy plastic gun in the teachers' parking lot and he put it in his backpack. Another student saw the toy gun and notified school officials.
Because of the school system's zero tolerance policy, Rayner was expelled and forbidden to attend any school in Pinellas County. It was just November.
"I thought my family would be real, real mad at me," said Rayner, who had never been in any trouble. "It was a bad feeling. That was the first time and the last time."
Rayner took classes over the phone, and last summer he took several other classes over the Internet. He was allowed back in Largo High this fall. Though basketball is his favorite sport, he joined the football team.
"Oftentimes as a coach, you don't know the situation a kid is in when he comes to us," said Largo coach Rick Rodriguez. "In our profession, it's about helping and that's the benefit. We are to help and that's why we're successful here."
Playing football helped Rayner get back in the high school flow. Taking classes over the phone and the Internet was a struggle, so the focus is on his grades.
"Right now, he knows, that if he doesn't get good grades, he doesn't play, period," Case said. "So football and sports have been good in that sense."
Brooks and Case seldom allow the teenager out of their sight. After school, he goes to Case's home, where he is picked up by Brooks. They attend every football game. They rarely miss a service at New Life Baptist Church in Largo, where Rayner plays the drums.
Rayner knows struggle. He knows disappointment. But neither he nor his family will allow those two elements to dictate the outcome of his life.
Like his mother, Rayner's laughter fills a room and his warm smile elicits other warm smiles. He doesn't get upset about the small things.
"I have learned how to become stronger," Rayner said. "I stay focused. I stay focused on God, and I've learned the lesson that things can change quickly."
Demorris A. Lee can be reached at 445-4174 or [email protected]