TAMPA, Fla. -- The time had come for Quinton Flowers to say his final goodbyes to his mother.
Nolita "Nancy" Mans didn't let on to Flowers or his brothers that cancer was slowly killing her until it became too obvious to hide. At the end, cancer stole everything, including her eyesight. A grief-stricken Flowers walked into her hospital room, held his mother's hand and told her, "This is your youngest son."
"I love you," she said through tears. She then asked Flowers to call his high school football coach. Antonio Brown raced to the hospital.
"Please take care of my baby," she told him. "Make sure he goes to college."
She closed her eyes.
"That was the last thing she told him," Flowers said recently, wiping away tears.
Flowers had lost his father, Nathaniel Sr., years earlier in a drive-by shooting when Quinton was 7. Now reality hit: At age 17, he was an orphan.
More tragedy was to come. Nearly three years later, on the cusp of his first career collegiate start at South Florida, his oldest brother was shot and killed in Miami.
All this tragedy, this is what Flowers bears every minute of every day. There are times when he calls home and breaks down. There are times when nobody understands what's behind his smile.
What he wants people to see is the dynamic dual-threat quarterback he has become. He is already one of the most prolific players in USF history, having passed for more than 2,000 yards and rushed for more than 1,000 in 2016. No other collegiate signal caller in the state of Florida has ever done that -- no, not even Tim Tebow. But Flowers has much, much more to accomplish, and he wants people to know why he keeps on going.
Flowers' father was grilling and watching a Miami Dolphins game when he was shot in a drive-by shooting outside their home. The bullet was meant for someone else. Too young to remember much about his dad or the shooting, Flowers recalls his mother worrying about how she would support her family.
Nancy Mans went back to high school and got her GED. She took a job working in the cafeteria at her children's elementary school.
Her brother, Nick Mans, provided extra assistance and became an everyday presence in the kids' lives. As Quinton and Nathaniel Jr. started getting into football, Uncle Nick made sure to attend every game they played. Quinton began to blossom as a quarterback and chose to attend Miami Jackson High, where he wanted to help turn the program around and play for Brown.
As Quinton began his high school career, his mother got sick. Nancy confided in her only daughter, Shanay, and laid out all the responsibilities she would have to take on as head of the household.
"Before she went into the hospital, she told me, 'Shanay, if anything ever happens to me, I need for you to get up and work. Make sure you take care of your brothers, your kids. Whatever you do, don't leave them behind,'" Shanay recalled. "I said, 'Ma, don't talk like that.' But she told me, 'You being the only girl, you're being more responsible than your brothers, you'll understand more. Don't worry about me. Don't cry. I did all I could do for you all. Just make sure they finish school. Make sure Quinton finishes school.'"
Nancy was especially protective of Quinton, her youngest child. She understood that he could have a future playing collegiately but was adamant that he earn good grades above all else. During the months she was hospitalized, she missed Quinton playing football. Nick would come to the hospital and show her videos from the games, and Nancy would cry.
After their mother died, Shanay tried to keep the household together and take care of her younger brothers. She also had two young children of her own and struggled to find consistent work, pay the bills and provide everything they needed. Nick stepped in to help, but the situation grew tense.
One night, Quinton lashed out at his sister and stormed out of their house. "That was the first time we ever fought," Shanay said. "I saw in his face he was angry. I had never seen him upset or mad about anything until then. He was tired of everything going on in life."
Quinton turned to Brown. "Coach, I'm done," Quinton told him. "I don't want to play football anymore. I don't have the same feeling that I used to."
Quinton recalls Brown asking him, "If your mom was still here, would you play?"
"Yeah," Quinton said.
"Don't think she's not watching you," Brown said. "Don't think she's not seeing everything you're doing."
Quinton understood. "I don't want to be a guy that ends up in the street and tells little kids that looked up to me, 'Oh, I was one of them dudes that did this, that broke high school records,'" he said. "I want guys to look up to me and say, 'I want to do what he did, make a change, be different.'"
Through all the tragedy, Quinton had two things going for him: a large, supportive family and football. Like Brown, those closest to him urged him to put his faith into fulfilling his mother's dying wish.
To get to college, he needed a football scholarship. To accept a football scholarship, Flowers needed a guarantee that he would be allowed to stay at quarterback, the last position his mother saw him play.
Offers poured in. Only one coach made Flowers that guarantee: Willie Taggart at USF.
So Quinton packed up and headed to Tampa.
The emotional weight Flowers carries with him, plus frustration from not playing right away, led him to question whether he had made the right decision.
He thought seriously about transferring and found it hard to stay positive.
In November of his freshman season, Taggart told Flowers to get ready: He would get the start at SMU. He called Nathaniel Jr., buzzing with the good news, but when he stopped talking, there was silence on the other end.
"What happened, what's wrong with you?" Quinton asked.
Nathaniel Jr. paused. It was quiet.
"Hello?" Quinton asked into the silence.
Nathaniel Jr. broke down. Quinton learned that his oldest brother, Bradley Holt, had been shot while trying to protect a group of children in their Miami neighborhood from an erratic driver. When Quinton hung up the phone, he took the long way back to his room, crying and praying for answers.
Holt died two days before the SMU game. Quinton got on the airplane with his team, determined to play for Holt. Teammate Deatrick Nichols, his best friend from childhood, saw an emotional Quinton and pulled him aside on the field.
"I had to give him a little bit of tough love that day and just tell him, 'I know you just took a big loss of a family member, but the other team really doesn't care about that, so you have to breathe in and breathe out and play the game as hard as you can,'" Nichols recalled. "'No one is going to feel sorry for you right now because they see you at a weak moment. They'll try to make it worse for you.' We came out with a win that game, and he played very well. That made me very happy for him."
Quinton made a brief visit home to Miami for the viewing. He put a green and gray USF beanie cap inside the casket, an item Quinton said Holt always wanted from him. Then he left to prepare for the next game against Memphis.
"The people who killed my brother, they were not found at that time, so I felt like if I stayed down there, I'm with my family, and you never know what could happen," Quinton said. "I could have been next. That's another life that's gone, and my whole team would be in a situation to where they'd be hurt, so I didn't want to put my team in that predicament."
In Tampa, Flowers started to settle in and get more comfortable. As a sophomore, he earned the starting job in fall camp and won team MVP honors. Momentum started to build for him going into last season, and he lived up to the advance billing.
Flowers won American Athletic Conference Offensive Player of the Year honors, becoming the first 2,000-yard passer and 1,000-yard rusher in USF and state of Florida history and setting school single-season records for total offense (4,337), total touchdowns (42), rushing yards (1,530), rushing touchdowns (18) and passing touchdowns (24).
Taggart left USF for Oregon, but new coach Charlie Strong came in with an inside edge: He recruited Flowers in high school. New offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert spent the entire offseason working with Flowers on his throwing motion, looking to refine him first as a passer.
"You know his story, and you see his smile and see him working, you can't have a bad day," Gilbert said. "I can't have a bad day. This kid has had a lot of unfortunate things happen to him in his life, and he shows up every day, and he works, and he's rolling. There are a few kids through your coaching career that not only you get to influence, but they impact you every day. He's one of them."
Flowers came to USF not only to play quarterback but also to build a struggling program. There is more to be done beyond building his stats. He wants to ultimately say that he played a key role in bringing USF to places it had never been, and that could happen if the favored Bulls end up in a New Year's Six bowl game.
"Some kids can't take what he's been through," Nick Mans said. "Lose a mom, lose a dad and lose a brother. To keep the poise and keep being himself ... I don't know if I could take it. I just told him, 'Keep your head up, keep a smile on your face, keep God first, and everything will iron out well.'"
Mans, known affectionately around the team as "Unck," plans to be at every home game. So will Nathaniel Jr., Shanay, their kids and Quinton's first child, a daughter born last year. The family usually rents a bus and 25-30 members pile in for the four-hour ride to Tampa.
Before each game, Quinton will listen closely, the way he always does. He says he can hear his mother calling out with the special nickname she used just for him.
"Boobie, keep going! Keep pushing!"
He will go down to the end zone, cross his heart three times and blow three kisses in the air.
"For my three angels."