For a long time after he was sent back to Florida, Davion didn't want to talk.
Not to the counselors the agency sent to console him; not to the guys from his old group home or the teachers at his new high school. Not to the foster parents who took him in; he knew they didn't plan to keep him. Or to the church people he had stood before when he asked someone — anyone — to adopt him.
Especially not to the reporters from around the world who wanted to know: What went wrong?
Davion Navar Henry Only hadn't spoken to anyone, really, since last spring, when he had gone to Ohio to live with a minister who said he wanted to make him part of his family. When Davion got into a fight with one of the minister's kids, the family changed their minds — and flew Davion back to Florida.
He returned to the state system, where he had lived with strangers his whole life.
All summer, he slumped on the floor in a bedroom that wasn't really his, playing Madden football on a hand-held PlayStation, trying to pretend he didn't really need anyone anyway.
He was 16. Too old, he thought, for anyone to want him. Too old, he kept telling himself, to care.
Then, on a sticky evening in late July — after being shuffled between four homes and four schools in a year — Davion finally needed to talk. On a phone the foster agency had given him, he dialed the only number he knew by heart, of the only adult who was a constant in his life, the woman who had been his caseworker since he was 7.
The only person he thought might still care.
"Hey . . . Miss Connie . . . it's me," he stammered softly. "Do you remember what I asked you before? Well . . ."
• • •
Davion had been born while his mom was in jail. He had grown up in foster care, bounced through so many homes he had lost count. A tall, big boy with a deep, quiet voice, he had always wanted to play football. But he had never had anyone to drive him to practice. He had always wanted parents. But no one had ever wanted him.
A couple of years ago, after his freshman year of high school, Davion unfolded his birth certificate and logged onto a computer at the local library. He typed his mother's name and found arrest reports for cocaine — then her obituary. She had died a few weeks earlier. She would never come get him.
So he set out on a quest to find himself a family.
In September 2013, he donned a donated suit, borrowed a Bible from the boys' home, and asked his caseworker, Miss Connie, to drive him to a St. Petersburg church. He stood on the altar, sweating, and begged someone to adopt him.
"I'll take anyone," he said. "Old or young, dad or mom, black, white, purple."
His story, first told in the Tampa Bay Times, was picked up by media across the nation, in England, Australia and Japan. Bloggers and celebrities shared his plea and posted his picture. Barbara Walters interviewed him on The View.
More than 10,000 people contacted the foster agency, Eckerd, to adopt him. More than 60 volunteers manned phones to field the calls. Well-wishers sent watches and gift cards, money for a college fund. An official with Florida's Department of Children and Families praised "the Davion effect" for raising awareness about other teens who need homes. "The number of inquiries has increased almost three-fold," Eckerd spokeswoman Terri Durdaller said. "Davion is a hero."
But six months after he became the face of adoption, Davion was still floundering in foster care.
He met with relatives he didn't know he had, and four families who had seen his story. Then he moved to Ohio to live with the minister and his wife, who already had three kids. "I got baptized!" Davion wrote on his new Facebook page.
Three months later he was back, ashamed and alone.
• • •
For a long time after Davion was sent back to Florida, Connie Going had wanted to talk.
To the boy she had first met at a picnic when he barely reached her hip; to the teenager who threw tirades and chairs, then threw his arms around her; to the frightened young man she had driven to church that morning, who opened himself up only to be rejected again.
Especially to the reporters from around the world, asking: "What went wrong?" Connie wanted to answer them. "That boy spent his whole life in the system, that's what went wrong."
She felt like she had let him down, all those years her agency couldn't find him a home.
So many times after that fiasco in Ohio, she had started to dial Davion's number, just to tell him she was still there for him. But she hadn't wanted to make him feel like he had to explain.
When her phone rang that hot night in July, Connie was in a hospital with her dad, who was dying. She reached down to turn off her cell, then saw the number.
"Davion?" she cried.
• • •
Connie Bell Going never meant to be a social worker. Or a mom. She had grown up in a Navy family, moving between bases. A tall, blond woman with a ready smile and loud voice, she had always loved the flute and planned to play professionally.
After earning a music degree at the University of South Florida, she taught there for a few years, while subbing with the Florida Orchestra. She was getting ready to go to New York to further her studies and audition when a car accident shattered her jaw — and silenced her flute.
So Connie found a job driving mentally ill patients around in a van, and — for the first time — felt like she was really helping people. "I sort of fell into social work," said Connie, 52. She became a caseworker and eventually joined Eckerd, where she met a shy boy named Davion, who always wanted to hug her.
She took him out for pizza, for pancakes and hot dogs. They went bowling and to the beach. She found him a mentor, a college student to throw him a football. She followed him through foster homes and therapy sessions, to group homes and adoption events. She made sure he was featured in the Heart Gallery, which displays portraits of children needing homes. She arranged for him to speak at that church.
And every year, for a decade, Davion asked her at least once, "Why don't you just adopt me, Miss Connie?"
"Because you deserve more," she kept saying. "You need a dad."
Since she'd met Davion, her two daughters had grown into teenagers, her 16-year marriage had ended. She had rehabbed an old house, earned her motorcycle license and helped more than 1,000 kids get adopted. She even adopted one herself — 10-year-old Taylor, Davion's best friend from the group home, who had suffered through two failed matches.
Connie brought Davion home with her some weekends, to watch football and hang out with Taylor. But she couldn't let him stay. She was sorry. Her house was too small, her own girls needed her, Taylor was bashing doors. She kept promising Davion, "We'll find you your own family."
When Davion's story went viral, Connie sat beside him during his first plane ride — and his first interview on national TV in New York. When the attention got overwhelming, and the guys in the group home gave him a hard time, Connie let him sleep over. And when Davion left for Ohio, Connie helped him pack a small bag — and prayed for him every night.
After she heard he had been sent back, she kept worrying about him, thinking about how much he must be hurting. How would that feel, to be 16 and have no one?
• • •
She stepped into the hospital hall to take his call. "Davion?" she asked again.
For a second, there was silence. She heard his heavy breathing, felt his hesitation. When he spoke again, his voice was so soft she could barely make out the words. He didn't say hello, or ask how she was. He just let his hope tumble out.
"Do you remember what I asked you before?" he repeated. "I mean about . . ." Before she could answer, he took a deep breath and continued. "Well, how do you feel about adopting me now?"
This time, Connie answered right away. She was no longer his caseworker; she was working for the Heart Gallery. She had been waiting for Davion to ask again. If he still wanted her, she was ready for him now. She had talked to her kids, and they all agreed: We need to do this. Of course, her friends thought she was crazy. Of course, she knew it would be hard. But how could she not take him in?
Davion couldn't believe Connie agreed. Are you sure? He kept pressing. Do you mean it? Then he started asking, when?
In August, he started spending weekends with Connie and her girls, Sydney, 21, Carley, 17, and with his buddy Taylor, who is now 14. They played paintball and PlayStation, grilled burgers and took their four dogs for walks. Davion had never had a dog.
In December, Connie called an adoption agency, hired a lawyer and rented a new house with four bedrooms and a pool. When she passed the home study, Davion moved in for good. He brought a garbage bag stuffed with T-shirts, a backpack crammed with video games. And the Bible they'd given him at his group home.
Connie gave him the big bedroom with sliding glass doors to the patio. She helped him paint the walls the color of clay, nail anime posters above the dresser; she bought him a queen-sized bed. Davion had never had his own room, or been able to hang pictures. He had always curled into a single bed.
On the hallway between his door and Taylor's, Connie framed their portraits from the Heart Gallery, from when they were 9. Neither boy has any baby pictures.
"I guess I always thought of you as my mom," Davion told her just before Christmas. "Only now I get to call you that for real, right?"
In February, they celebrated their birthdays — they share she same date. Connie took Davion to get his driving permit. Davion took her to get a pedicure. That night, over cake, with Davion's three new siblings by his side, they signed the court papers.
On April 22, everything will be official. Eckerd didn't want to comment on what happened in Davion's case. Durdaller, the spokeswoman, said: "We are truly thrilled that Davion has been united with his forever family."
People from around the world offered to adopt Davion, but the family he really wanted had been with him all along.
• • •
Since he came to live with Connie, Davion hasn't stopped talking.
To his new sisters who keep trying to mother him, to his new brother who has always been his best friend, to the four dogs and four cats who tumble through the full house.
Especially after dinner, when everyone else is trying to watch The Walking Dead.
"Having Davion around means everything's a lot louder. All the time," Carley said one recent afternoon, while her brothers were wrestling across the living room.
"And I always thought he was a quiet kid," Connie laughed. "In a two-hour period today, he called, 'Mom!' 45 times."
He tests her patience, she admits. There has been no happily ever after.
All the kids squabble, punches are thrown, furniture gets flipped. Twice a week, a family therapist they call Mr. Ed comes to the house and meets with them all together, then individually. "I'm okay with messy and difficult," Connie said. "You just have to have your armor on all the time, but it's more than worth it. And every day things get a little bit better."
Davion's compassion, she said, astounds her. As bruised as he has been, he always worries about others. He asks everyone, all the time, if they're okay — even the dogs.
Instead of starting at another high school, Davion is taking classes online this semester, earning a 3.1 GPA. He is working out on the punching bag Connie hung by the pool. In the fall, he hopes to get a job, start boxing and go back to school. He is enjoying having sisters who care, a brother to beat at Grand Theft Auto, a mom who does his laundry, makes him hash browns and helps him shave his sideburns.
Still, sometimes things get overwhelming. Sometimes, for no reason, he just has to scream. Or cocoon himself in his room, draw the blinds and slay virtual monsters. He always keeps the lights on, a Nerf gun by his pillow. He locks his door.
Late at night, after everyone else has gone to sleep, he turns off the video games and lets Connie in.
She slides onto the edge of his bed, on top of the cobalt covers, close enough for her foot to bump his. She usually doesn't say much. She just listens.
While Davion talks and talks and talks . . .