D’Antne Demery found out he would be a father in the locker room before a Brunswick High School football game. As the then-18-year-old offensive lineman waited for kickoff against Richmond Hill, Demery’s phone screen lit up with a text from his girlfriend at the time, Paija Sweeting.
Demery opened the message to find a photo of a completed pregnancy test.
“I’m pregnant,” the text read.
Demery was in shock, so much that he said he couldn’t respond to Sweeting’s message. Instead, he went onto the field and did the only thing that cleared his head: play. Throughout the 60 minutes, his mind raced as he came to grips with the fact he would be a father — something he’d never had.
On February 5, 2016, his daughter, Paislee, was born.
As he held her for the first time, Demery said his perspective changed as he realized with every decision, there’s another person involved.
“I’ve got to make it for her,” Demery recalled thinking.
Four months later, Demery, who was 18 at the time, held an announcement event at Brunswick High School.
Seated behind a table with a blue tablecloth, Demery, the No. 20 offensive tackle in the country, announced where he would be playing college football. His mother, Rochelle Demery, sat to his left. His grandmother, Carolyn Kirksey, whose name is tattooed on his right shoulder, sat to his right. In the corner, his aunt, Quanisha Mitchell, held Paislee until he revealed his decision.
Before Demery publicly declared his verbal commitment, Quanisha placed Paislee in his lap. To help announce his intention to attend Georgia, Demery removed Paislee’s jacket to reveal a black onesie with a Georgia ‘G’ on the front.
He donned a red Georgia hat, then kissed his daughter’s head. Rochelle and Carolyn beamed. It was one of the happiest days of his life.
However, a little over a month later, heartbreaking loss would lead to his toughest test yet.
Demery (center) holds his daughter, Paislee, shorty after making his verbal commitment to Georgia on June 15, 2016. The desire to provide for Paislee and his son, Kamden, is what pushes Demery to succeed. (Courtesy Benjamin Wolk / The Brunswick News)
After a grueling practice his sophomore year, Demery came home exhausted and in pain with cramps. When Rochelle saw him, she responded as any protective mother would.
“He hurt my baby!” Demery remembers his mother saying.
The next day, Rochelle went to Brunswick High School to complain to the head coach. Demery said that was his mom’s way of protecting him.
Rochelle, the one who had always been there for Demery, was diagnosed with lupus when Demery was 2, Quanisha said. As a young child, Demery knew his mother was sick, but it wasn’t until middle school that he knew the disease could kill her.
Lupus is a chronic inflammatory disease that occurs when the immune system attacks the body’s tissues and organs. There is no cure for lupus, only treatments to help manage the symptoms, which include chest pain, fatigue and fever.
Three times a week, Rochelle received dialysis. When Demery was 11, Quanisha said he moved in with another aunt until he was 16 because Rochelle didn’t have the energy to take care of him the way she wanted to.
“She was heartbroken somebody had to do it for her,” Kirksey said.
Rochelle tried to hide her disease from her son, but Demery knew what his mother was going through. He saw her get shots and felt helpless. That’s what hurt him most — knowing he couldn’t do anything while his mother underwent a daily struggle.
Despite the toll the disease took on Rochelle, she did everything she could to raise her son. Quanisha and Kirksey helped, but they were needed more because Demery’s father was never around.
Although he lives in Brunswick, Demery’s father is absent in his son’s life. The last time Demery saw him was when he was 10, and he hadn’t seen him many times before that.
“He showed me that you shouldn’t leave your kids,” Demery said.
When he talks about his father, Demery leans back in his chair, and his voice lowers to a nearly inaudible murmur. After a minute, he scowls and looks out the window.
“I don’t want to be talking about him.”
The first worst day of D’Antne Demery’s life came when he was 5.
Demery wasn’t a troublesome child. Kirksey said he would sometimes go outside or play in the kitchen when he wasn’t supposed to, but he wasn’t a headache. However, one day, Demery did something—he can’t remember what—to upset Rochelle. In preparation for an inevitable spanking, Demery put on as many clothes as he could and bundled himself up like Randy in A Christmas Story.
When Rochelle discovered this, she shifted tactics.
Demery said his mother knew he wouldn’t take off his protective layers unless he thought he wouldn’t get in trouble. So, Rochelle convinced Demery that she had forgotten what he’d done. Later that day, Rochelle persuaded Demery to take a bath.
“I thought everything was over,” Demery said. “It wasn’t over.”
As soon as Demery removed his clothing and got in the bathtub, Rochelle entered the bathroom. Demery tried to run, but he was too late. The spanking he had avoided for hours came.
“That was the worst day of my life,” Demery said, then reconsidered.
“One of the worst days of my life.”
On July 25, 2016, Demery was at his grandmother’s house with his mom when he noticed Rochelle didn’t look good. Kirksey and Quanisha were on their way to the house when Demery called.
“She said she wasn’t going,” Quanisha said. “But he told her, ‘Oh yes you will. You’re coughing up blood.’”
Demery called the ambulance to send his mother to the hospital. This was fairly routine as Rochelle had been to the hospital plenty of times because of her illness. But she had always come back.
After two days in the hospital, Rochelle died around 2 p.m. on July 27, 2016.
Demery waited to see his mom until after the hospital staff removed the plugs and wires and the steady beeping of monitors stopped. He entered the room and sat across from his mom in quiet solitude.
“I saw a lot of sadness,” said Alice Mitchell, Demery’s great-grandmother. “Although he tried to hold them back, I saw tears.”
Normally, if Demery cries, Quanisha said it’s when he’s alone so no one can see his face. When Rochelle died, it was one of the only days Demery could think of when he cried in front of other people.
That, Demery said, was the worst day of his life.
Rochelle was able to accompany D'Antne on a visit to Georgia once. Seeing where he would be spending the next chapter of his life made her happy, her family said. (Courtesy Larry Harold)
Demery was 18 when he had to change Paislee’s diaper for the first time.
He had been instructed to wipe in a downward motion and had changed his younger cousin’s diapers before, but this was different. This time, he was responsible for cleaning his own daughter’s behind. And instead of wiping down, he wiped up.
“It was a nasty one, a slimy one,” Demery said. “I had it all over my fingers.”
As unpleasant of an experience as it might have been, Demery knew he’d have to get used to things like changing diapers to be the father he wants to be, especially because he'd later become a father of two.
Demery used to go out with his friends on weekends, but not as much anymore. Typically, he goes to school, works out, then comes home to be with his daughter. There are times when his friend and teammate Brandon McMaster will call on the weekend and ask if he wants to find something to do. The answer is often no.
“It’s daddy day,” Demery replies.
Recently, Paislee has started to walk at a more consistent pace. Demery said she has lately been grabbing people’s shoes and hitting them with their own shoes. This is no easy feat, as Demery, who is 6-foot-7, wears a size 16.
“She got my shoe, hit me with it and then got my grandmother’s shoe and hit her with it,” Demery said. “Little girl’s going to be strong.”
In late February, Demery was sitting in fourth period when his girlfriend, Kamaria Drayton, posted she was going into labor on her Snapchat account. McMaster had seen it too, so he called his friend. Drayton wasn’t supposed to be going into labor yet. Kamden wasn’t due until April.
McMaster, who graduated in December, came to pick up the car-less Demery. The two teenagers drove an hour and 11 minutes in McMaster’s silver Chevy Tahoe to Memorial Health in Savannah. McMaster stayed at the hospital that night, and he said Demery’s hands were sweating in nervous anticipation for the birth of his second child.
On Feb. 28, Kamden was born.
Kamden, who weighed three pounds, 14 ounces at birth, hasn’t left the hospital as of March 18. However, Drayton said her son is breathing on his own and doing well. She’s optimistic they’ll be able to bring him home this week.
With Kamden’s birth, Demery has another person he feels responsible to provide for. So he’ll continue to train and continue to sweat. And when he’s struggling to push through pain, he’ll think of Paislee and Kamden.
“That’s what I’m doing it for,” Demery said. “I don’t got nothing else to do it for now.”
Kamden was born in February — two months before his due date. He is still in the hospital as of March 18, but Drayton and Demery hope to bring him home soon. (Courtesy Kamaria Drayton)
At Brunswick's signing day ceremony, Demery and some of his teammates sat on stage facing a full crowd. Dressed in a black Georgia polo and black pants, Demery signed his letter of intent.
Each player made a speech, and in his, Demery thanked God, his coaches, his family and his friends. When he started to discuss his mom, Quanisha heard his voice crack. Further down the table, McMaster heard it too.
“He said his mother’s name, but he said it low,” Quanisha said. “Then he froze like he was going to cry.”
Quanisha rubbed his back and told her nephew to hold it in. He wouldn’t want to cry in front of everyone, she reminded him. Demery composed himself, pointed to the sky, finished his speech and passed the microphone to the next player.
“I think about her every day,” Demery said. “That was my queen.”
After Rochelle died, Demery went to live with McMaster for the entirety of the season. Demery and Rochelle shared a king sized bed for the final year of Rochelle’s life—it was Demery’s idea—and they would talk about everything during those nights before drifting to sleep. When Rochelle died, Demery couldn’t stand to remain in the house. There were too many memories of his mother within its walls, and it made moving on more difficult than it would be otherwise.
“Once he lost his mom he felt like he didn't have anyone,” Drayton said.
On March 6, Demery and his family were going to go to visit his mother’s grave for what would have been Rochelle’s 41st birthday. It would be the first time Demery visited the gravesite since his mother’s funeral, and he planned to bring 41 balloons.
When Quanisha went to pick up Demery to take him to the cemetery, he refused to go. In time, Demery may visit his mother’s grave, but as of now, less than a year after her death, he isn’t ready.
Soon, Demery plans on getting his eighth tattoo. It will be on the left side of his chest and will depict Rochelle’s face. That way, his mother will always be near his heart.
Demery played in the U.S. Army All-American game in January. He hopes to quickly compete for a starting spot at Georgia. (Courtesy All American Games / U.S. Army All-American Bowl)
The 100 yards of a football field is where Demery finds his solace. Throughout the birth of his children and the death of his mother, Demery escaped into football.
“The field helps me out,” Demery said. “The field changes me.”
Football is Demery’s refuge, as well as his way of providing. Through football, Demery wants to give Paislee and Kamden a life better than his own. But in order to do that, Demery will have to leave.
While Demery’s at Georgia, Kamden will take his first steps, Paislee will begin to talk, and Demery won’t be there to see any of it in person. Except for a flurry of videos and pictures and regular FaceTime sessions, Demery will miss the majority of his children’s young lives.
He won’t have to change any diapers, although he said he’s good at it now, but he also won’t be able to tickle Paislee’s stomach and watch her giggle, or let Kamden use him as a human jungle gym.
With Demery at Georgia, Paislee and Kamden will be raised by their mothers, their mother's families and Demery's family.
While Paislee and Kamden begin to grow up, Demery will practice on the fields by Butts-Mehre. He’ll work to earn a starting spot in hopes of setting up an NFL career that would fund his family. Right now, as a jobless high school student and unpaid student-athlete, he is unable to collect an income, making his mission to be the father he never had a long-term goal. He has a backup plan to use his intended business degree to open a paintball arena in Brunswick, but football is how he plans on supporting the family he loves.
Living away from his family won’t be easy, but Demery feels prepared. One day, he hopes his children will understand why daddy wasn’t always around during their early years.
“He uses all of this as motivation,” McMaster said. “He's ready to provide for his family.”