Triumph over tragedy

After signing with Penn State, Jamil Pollard waved to fellow West Deptford students alongside football teammate Brandon Holmes. It was Pollard's second chance to sign with the Lions.
After signing with Penn State, Jamil Pollard waved to fellow West Deptford students alongside football teammate Brandon Holmes. It was Pollard's second chance to sign with the Lions. (MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / staff Photographer)

Penn State recruit refocused after family horror.

Posted: February 12, 2012

All Jamil Pollard knew about his signing-day ceremony was that he needed to bring a Penn State sweatshirt, and that his parents should be there.

When the 6-foot-4, 275-pound defensive tackle walked into the small gym at West Deptford High on Feb. 1, his parents were there as planned, but their stern expressions indicated this might not be such a joyous occasion after all.

They had already been told that Pollard's most recent grades had fallen short, putting his college future in doubt. Pollard's parents pulled him aside and began to scold him. He had come too far from a tragedy that threatened to rip his family apart four years ago to lose focus now.

Pollard, 18, signed the next four-plus years over to Penn State, a decision that had been met with skepticism since he committed Dec. 29, becoming the first player to make a commitment since the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal broke on Nov. 4.

Pollard had paid little attention to the Sandusky news and its ugly aftermath. It had been tough for Pollard to take anything too seriously after that fateful day in 2007 when his two little sisters were found dead at the hands of his older brother.

Pollard's signing with any school to play football and receive a free education was considered a miracle and a testament to the power of community in his Gloucester County township.

It was all on him now, but did he really appreciate the stakes?

"Nothing," Pollard said, "is as important as life and death."

A fateful night

Jamil Pollard had been his little sisters' primary babysitter for years, and Thursday, Nov. 8, 2007, seemed like any other day.

After school, his mother, Lucille Bevans, was working at her job at a fast-food restaurant, and his sisters, A'aliah Scott, 10, and India Duncan, 6, had asked the 13-year-old Jamil to take them to play at a park. He said no.

Jamil instead joined his friends playing basketball at a local community center. A'aliah and India were left in the care of their older brother, 18-year-old Marqueese Lee.

For the previous year, Marqueese had not been himself. Jamil and his mother had theories about the cause of the change, but they did not really know. Marqueese had begun to hear voices in his head. He went to a psychiatric facility, but nothing was found to be wrong.

Jamil's mother and older brother were fighting often, and she eventually kicked him out of the house. He would usually come by only to shower or to lay his head on a pillow.

That night, when she came home to the one-story blue house on Red Bank Avenue, something was off. It was quiet, and her girls, especially India, rarely turned down the volume. Marqueese was there, and he told his mother that he had put the girls to sleep.

But Bevans knew it was too early. She went into their bedroom, where the girls lay lifeless. She picked up India in her arms, finding her youngest limp and gray. Bevans went stiff. Marqueese approached her from behind and hit her over the head with a hammer. The only thing Bevans could feel was cold blood running down her face.

She looked up at her son, searching his eyes for any sign of the first child she brought into the world. There was nothing. He looked to be in a trance, still wielding that bloody hammer.

"Mommy loves you," Bevans told him. "Mommy loves you."

Marqueese snapped out of his blind fury. He put his arms out for his mother. She told him it was too late. He said the voices told him to put his sisters to sleep.

Across town, Jamil - her big, goofy Jamil - was playing a game with friends.

When he was through, around 9 p.m., his aunt was frantically calling his cellphone. She said something was happening at the house and came to pick up Jamil.

They arrived at his peaceful street only to see it lit up with police cars and ambulances. Jamil got out of the car and sprinted to the house, where an officer grabbed him and pinned him against a vehicle. They would not let him through.

Later that night at the hospital, after riding in an ambulance with his mother, Jamil would discover the horrific details. He immediately put the blame on himself. If he had been there, he could have stopped Marqueese. Bevans chose to look at it another way - if he had been there, he could be dead, too.

All over the close-knit community of West Deptford, Jamil's friends learned about the killings over the nightly news.

"The whole town was just in shock," said Jake Hannan, one of Jamil's best friends and the West Deptford quarterback. "How often do you hear of something like that?"

They imagined what Jamil must be going through.

Phil Fisher, another friend, saw firsthand. Jamil went to Fisher's house for the night, and Fisher watched as his friend sat on the sofa for hours, not talking, not sleeping, only breathing.

"He was emotionless," Fisher said. "The TV was on, but he was just sitting there."

Jamil fell asleep sometime that morning. He would wake up to a group of friends hugging him, thankful he was alive.

A community commitment

Within days, the West Deptford Middle School eighth-grade football team had a game. Would Jamil Pollard play?

He answered emphatically, pushing his opponents all over the field in a performance that would become an oft-cited story to illustrate the boy's will.

West Deptford wore a black stripe across its white helmets to memorialize A'aliah and India, and the coaches even called a trick play that would allow Jamil, an offensive tackle, to catch a pass.

"He caught it," Hannan recalled. "He didn't get far, but he caught it."

The pass, the cheers from the packed stands, and the West Deptford victory finally gave Jamil something to smile about again.

Inside, Jamil was in a bout with guilt and anger, but he had to be strong for his mother. She had moved in with family in Camden, and would have preferred staying away from West Deptford forever. Her son remained there, though, staying with his friend, Sean Weidler, whose mother was more than willing to host Jamil so that he could continue attending West Deptford Middle School.

Jamil could have called numerous friends' places home, and, when time came to pick a high school, it was clear to Bevans what she had to do: return to West Deptford. Whatever the future held for her son, he was unlikely to have that kind of support anywhere else. She also knew that she could not keep going without Jamil.

Bevans had borne four children with four different men, and now she was living for the child that she could still save. She had help from Jamil's father, James Pollard, who had remained a caring presence in the boy's life, but this was her battle.

So Bevans moved back to the same neighborhood, to a brown house on G Street, just one block from the site of her family's nightmare. She hung pictures of A'aliah and India on the front wall and put a "Mommy's Lil' Angels" sticker on the back window of her car.

Jamil tattooed the girls' faces and their names on his ever-broader arms, but he kept his feelings bottled tightly, letting few in, rarely discussing what he would call "the tragedy."

Bevans put Jamil into therapy, but her only window into his thoughts came through the poetry he was suddenly writing when his mind wandered in classes.

"He was writing poems that I thought came off the Internet somewhere," James Pollard said.

 As prosecutors built their case against Marqueese Lee, Jamil and his mother had no contact with him. Lee spent the first two years after the killings in a straitjacket because of repeated attempts to commit suicide.

In March 2009, Lee was found not guilty by reason of insanity. He had been found to have paranoid schizophrenia, and the court ruled that he did not know what he was doing when he strangled A'aliah and India.

A football future

The family's 16 months in the media spotlight was over, just in time for Jamil's football career to blossom. His sophomore season, he evolved into a dominant player, and, soon, the offers would be rolling in, from Alabama, Florida, Iowa, Penn State, and Boston College.

Last April, after being recruited aggressively by Penn State assistant coaches Larry Johnson and Ron Vanderlinden, Jamil made an oral commitment. It all felt so right. The powerhouse program was just 200 miles away, so he could play big-time college football close to West Deptford.

But Jamil had not been putting forth the effort in the classroom to match his work on the football field.

"I was just lazy," Jamil said. "All the hype went to my head. As the letters poured in, it just filled my head and I stopped doing work. I was terrible."

In July, the Penn State coaches looked at Jamil's grades and pulled back their scholarship offer. He was crushed, but not surprised. He knew he had put himself in a precarious situation - one that only he could fix.

Jamil improved his grades enough to get another offer from Penn State in November. He visited Boston College, where his father wanted him to go, but he couldn't shake his desire to be a Penn Stater. Without a head coach in place, he was comfortable knowing that Johnson and Vanderlinden were likely to be kept on the next staff.

With his commitment, Jamil signaled it was OK for others to choose Penn State, too.

No matter what has been happening, with school, football or recruiting, Jamil has always had something deeper, more pressing, going on. This year, it's been a weekly 24-mile drive east to Winslow Township to the Ancora State Hospital.

Jamil has not told many people about his visits to see his brother Marqueese, whose mental state is evaluated every six months by the Gloucester County court. Bevans said the two behave like brothers again, getting into wrestling matches one visit and sharing long talks the next.

"He's still my brother, no matter what," Jamil said. "You can't hold that grudge forever."

Jamil's plan is to eventually make enough money so he can take his brother out of a drab facility such as Ancora. In the meantime, he'll just have to find a way to make sure his brother can watch Penn State football games.


Contact J. Brady McCollough at bmccollough@post-gazette.com and @BradyMcCollough on Twitter.

 

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