Before every Friday night game, Edmondson's Jamel Nesbit talks to his sister, Jasmin. He tells her about his day, how hard he's working in the classroom, how much he loves her, how much he misses her, how he wishes she could be right here, right now.
But … she can't. So instead Nesbit finds a quiet corner away from the raucous locker-room chatter. He puts on a pair of headphones, closes his eyes and listens to "Missing You" by Brandy.
Though I'm missing you
I'll find a way to get through
Living without you
'Cause you were my sister, my strength, and my pride
Only God may know why, still I will get by
She was sick. Five years ago, when Nesbit was in the seventh grade, he found out his sister had Pulmonary atresia. The rare heart condition, which occurs at birth, is a blockage of the blood flow from the pulmonary artery to the lungs. If the condition is caught early enough it can be corrected through surgery. If left untreated, it is almost always fatal.
Jasmin lived with the condition for 15 years. It was too late. Two years after the diagnosis, on April 29, 2009, she died. She was 17.
The entire Nesbit family mourned, but Jamel took the loss the hardest.
"She was my best friend," Nesbit said. "She was all I had. It affected my whole life."
Nesbit calls Jasmin his "best friend," but their relationship was more "mother-to-son" then "friend-to-friend." Being the older and wiser of the two, Jasmin made sure Jamel always had someone to turn to. When he had a bad game, a frustrating practice or got into trouble, she was there. When Jamel wanted to talk about girls or friends, she was there. Even when Jamel had questions about math or English, she was there.
"She was exceptionally smart," said Nesbit's cousin, Janelle Holt. "She would really help him out whenever he had questions."
But without Jasmin, Nesbit was lost. Although his family encouraged and supported him, he became depressed. He was often moody and his grades began to suffer. A solid "B" student his freshman year, he dropped more than a full letter grade as a sophomore.
"It was very difficult for him - they were so close," said Nesbit's father, Robert. "I know how it was because I lost my only sister in my 30s. But for him to be so young and for that to happen to him…"
Nesbit was struggling, to say the least. But his life hadn't even hit the nadir. Eight months after his sister's death, he suffered the loss of a second family member.
I would've known, that you had to go
But so suddenly, so bad
How could it be, not a straight memory worthy of
All that we had made
Now that you're gone, every day I go on (I go on)
But life's just not the same (life's just not the same)
I'm so empty inside, and my tears I can't hide
But I'll try, I'll try to face the pain
Nesbit was returning home one evening after an Edmondson basketball game. No one else besides his grandmother, who had moved in with the family, was in the house yet.
Eager to tell her all about the game, he immediately called for her. But she didn't respond. Nesbit then went to his grandmother's room, where he found her lying in bed, motionless. And not breathing,
"They were very close, and when she passed just months after his sister, that hurt him bad," Holt said. "He hit rock bottom."
The family grew tighter around Nesbit, making sure he always had someone to express his thoughts, feelings and frustrations to. But he didn't need kind words at this point. Nesbit needed an escape.
He found it on the football field.
"It just seemed like the only place he could enjoy himself," Robert Nesbit said. "It was like his sanctuary."
Before high school, Nesbit was a one-man wrecking crew in the youth leagues. A linebacker-fullback hybrid, he could bowl a defender over on offense and lay a beatdown on defense.
By the time Nesbit reached ninth grade, he looked varsity ready. But Edmondson coach Dante Jones kept him on jayvee for playing-time purposes.
It quickly became apparent, however, that Jamel Nesbit had mad skills.
"Play after play he would just pummel the kids," Jones said. "I hadn't seen a kid that passionate in a long time."
Jasmin was in the stands for almost every game. After a play, Jamel would look to the sidelines just to make sure she was there.
But one year later, she wouldn't be.
"One of the things that hurt the most is she never got to see me play varsity football," Nesbit said. "So that pushed me harder. For her."
Oh, there was so many things
That we could have shared
And time was on our side.
Now that you're gone, I can still feel you near
So I'll smile, with every tear I cry
By his sophomore year Nesbit not only earned a spot on varsity, but he was also given the starting nod at outside linebacker. And thanks to his speed and ball skills, he lined up at fullback and strong safety, too. Nesbit finished tops on the team with 52 tackles, sick sacks and three forced fumbles to go along with 100 yards of total offense.
"He just wanted it so bad," Jones said. "If that clock was ticking, he was going 100 miles per hour. At one point I had to pull him out of a game because he was too much into it. He was on the sidelines hyperventilating. I had to tell him, 'You're not going back in until you calm down.'"
Nesbit almost didn't come back in … ever.
Sure, he gave everything he had on the football field, but away from the gridiron Nesbit was still struggling. Jasmin wasn't around to keep him grounded, to make sure he finished his homework and stayed out of trouble. He missed class from time to time, and when he did go to class he wasn't exactly taking copious notes.
"We had to really get involved with the school and stay on him," Holt said. "It took a lot of encouragement and support. But, eventually, he started to hold up well. He's a strong guy."
Nesbit began to realize his greatest sanctuary - the football field -- would collapse without grades. He sought help from his family and teachers, and eventually raised his GPA high enough to become academically eligible for football.
"I still had my moments," Nesbit said. "But my family helped me and I started doing a lot better."
Nesbit didn't need much help on the football field. He followed up his stellar sophomore campaign with an even better junior season. The 5-foot-9, 170-pounder increased his yards (200) as well as his tackles (85) and sacks (7), once again leading the Red Storm in the latter two categories.
In a shocking upset over rival Poly, Nesbit recorded 11 tackles, a sack and returned a fumble 78 yards to set up the game-winning score. Against eventual state champion Dunbar he kept his team in the game with a number of big hits and a key fourth-quarter reception. Then, in a battle with a private school, Mount St. Joe's, he recorded a pair of devastating sacks, cementing his reputation as a true bopper.
On one particular bone-rattling hit, Nesbit shot up from his linebacker position and laid out the St. Joe's quarterback. He collapsed right at Nesbit's feet, a motionless sacks of potatoes.
"I love to hit," Nesbit said. "And I can't be beat. Whenever I step on the field I feel like I'm the best one out there."
After the season college recruiters began to take notice of the phenom from East Baltimore. More than one Division-I college called Jones, asking for Nesbit's transcript. It's possible, with one more standout campaign, Nesbit could earn a full athletic scholarship.
"That's what it's all about," Robert Nesbit said. "For my son to go to college, after what he's been through, it would be a blessing. It really would."
How sweet, were the losses to spare?
But I'll wait for the day
When I'll see you again,
To Jamel Nesbit, every play is special. Regardless of whether he knocks a quarterback out or is thrown for a 5-yard loss, Nesbit gets up, kisses his hand and point to the sky. Then he rubs his right arm, where a tattoo of his sister's name is written in script. Underneath "Jasmin" are the lines, "Only the Good Die Young. I Love You Sis."
"She's right there with me the whole time," Nesbit said. "It's just me and her out there. Always."
I'll find a way to get through
Living without you
Though I'm missing you.