Sophomore Jordan Creel, a 16-year-old fullback at Alabama Christian Academy (Montgomery, Ala.), had just run for 232 yards, two touchdowns and had nine tackles in a 24-21 upset over Daleville (Ala.) on Oct. 19 when his teammates hoisted him in the air.
"I didn't know what to say," says Creel. "There was a lot of crying, and I think I gave every person in the stands a big hug."
The tears weren't just for Creel. They were also for his mother, Karen, a 43-year-old mother of three, who died of smoke inhalation the night before when the family's home caught on fire. Jordan awoke at 3 a.m. on Oct. 18 to the waling sound of a smoke alarm. When he stepped into the living room, a wall of flames and smoke separated where he stood from his mother's bedroom. He heard her cries for help, and realizing there was nothing he could do on his own to save her, ran to knock on the doors of neighbors. Karen's body was later found in the bathtub holding the family dog, her skin unburned.
"I got a call from Jordan saying his mama just died," said Alabama Christian coach Gregg Baker. "Then I got a call from his girlfriend saying he wasn't doing so good. So I went over there and I told him, 'Look, this is up to you. If you want to play tomorrow night, I'd love to have you play. But I don't want you to do anything you don't want to do."
Creel didn't decide until about half an hour before the buses were leaving from the high school parking lot, when after much back and forth he realized that his mother would have wanted him to play. Alabama Christian's athletic director, who also happens to be the mother of Creel's girlfriend, called Baker from the road and told him they were on their way. "She said to me, 'Don't move that bus,'" says Baker. "Before that, I don't really think anyone was expecting him to show up."
But Creel did show up, his No. 1 jersey in hand, holding the football bag that on any other Friday afternoon would have been packed by Karen the night before. His teammates greeted him with a round of applause. Then, not knowing exactly how to react, they fell back into their usual pattern of telling jokes and playing around.
The tone changed once the team headed into the locker room. There, a somber Baker led the team. "I pulled Jordan aside and said, 'You're going to have the game of your life tonight, and your mama's going to have a front row seat," Baker says.
Creel had some words of his own for his teammates. Once the coaches left the locker room, Creel told his fellow Eagles, "I know she loved me and I know you all loved her, so let's go out there and play for her."
And in the words of Baker, "By golly, they did."
Creel's performance earned him the Alabama player of the week. Somewhere beneath the white lights of Daleville High's football field, Karen Creel's 5-foot-10, 144-pound son played through his grief and rallied those around him to play through theirs. "Every time I touched the ball, I thought of her," Creel says.
There were other signs of remembrance for the woman who every Friday night was "the loudest voice in the stands." The players wore black tape on their jerseys and helmets with Karen's initials written in white-out. Daleville coach Sam Holland, rather than consoling his own team's loss, focused his attention on the Alabama Christian sideline, commending Creel's dedication to his teammates and the memory of his mother. When Holland got word of Karen's death, he called his players out of class to say a prayer for the Creel family. Perhaps that's why the Daleville players were touched by Creel's performance that Friday night, offering their condolences at midfield rather than the customary "good game."
The jubilation came as a wave of relief for Creel, who the next day attended his mother's funeral. His two older siblings, Dale, 21, and Katelyn, a freshman at the University of Alabama, were also on hand. By the following Wednesday, Jordan was back at school full-time and attending practices. "It's an escape for me," says Jordan, who wore one of the purple ribbons being sold by the school's girls volleyball team in Karen's memory. The proceeds are being matched up to $1,000 by the local Wal-Mart and will go toward a trust fund for Jordan. "Everybody loved her and everybody knew her," says Jordan. "And this has reinstated that I have a lot of love for me at that school. I have a family at home, but I also have a family there."
Creel is living with his grandparents five blocks away from the house he once shared with his mom. But he still has a reminder of the bubbly voice from the bleachers -- a last voicemail from Karen -- saved on his cell phone. The message isn't about anything in particular, just instructions for Jordan to get his bike fixed at his grandfather's house, but it's enough. "I don't want to say I'm holding on to it," Jordan says, "but it is good to be able to hear her voice."
And then he does something else in memory of his mom -- who he describes as friendly and full of life -- not quite as vigorous as his football display. He tells a joke about a hard loss this last Friday to Andalusia (Ala.) High.
"Yeah, I've hit some roadblocks lately," he says. "They were on the field, and about 265 and 300 pounds."
And then there is laughter. Jordan is back on his feet.