Tragedy motivates Jerrell Young

TAMPA, Fla. -- Your son is dead.

Imagine the disbelief. The agony. The heartbreak. The sobs. The terror. The screams.

You lose grip on reality. No, no, no, not now. Not at 15. Not your first-born son. The one who taught his baby brothers how to play football. The one who taught his baby brothers how to fish. The one who played catch with them in the yard of their church.

No. Not Mario.

Minutes pass. A heart surgeon walks by and sees your teenage boy lying on a gurney, no pulse. He cannot accept this.

He goes to work, opening up the boy's chest. Massages the heart. He walks out of the operating room. He finds you.

"Your son is alive," he says. "Praise Jesus!"

Jerrell Young was at home asleep, a 7-year-old boy who loved no one more than big brother Mario. Their brother, J.R., woke Jerrell up to deliver the news.

Mario had been shot. He was in the hospital. Nobody knew what would happen to him.

Jerrell started crying. He could not understand. Kids don't get shot. Big brothers don't get shot.

Back at the hospital, Annie Young did not fully understand what had happened to her oldest son, either. She knew he had been the deejay at a party near their home in St. Petersburg. He went to drop friends off, and was shot in a car, the victim of an attempted robbery. The bullet pierced an artery in his heart. He was rushed to the hospital, but doctors declared him dead on arrival.

Annie and her husband, Leroy, have no idea how an angel of a heart surgeon came to be walking through the emergency room at the exact time her son needed help. They say he revived their son. But Mario lay in a coma, having been declared dead for 20 to 30 minutes before his pulse was restored.

The entire family gathered at the hospital to pray. Annie's mother served as a pastor of her own church, so she led the daily vigils. This was a family of fighters, of survivors. Mario would make it through this.

Annie sat next to his bed every single day, praying. Doctors told her to give up hope; that Mario would never wake up. They told her she had three kids to worry about at home. It was time to disconnect the breathing tubes, they told her.

"How do you tell a mother to give up and let him go?" Annie asks.

Annie knew a higher power made the ultimate decision. She sat next to Mario, waiting for him to come back to her.

Weeks passed. Nothing. Annie prayed harder.

A month passed. Finally. Something.

Mario opened his eyes.

"Nurse!" Annie screamed. "Nurse! Nurse! He's here!"

Doctors told her it was a miracle. Annie knew they just needed a little faith. But the son who returned to her was not the one she kissed goodbye on March 19, 1994. No. Her baby was severely handicapped, the result of the gunshot wound and oxygen loss to his brain when his pulse had stopped.

He would never walk again. He would never talk again, after doctors put a tracheostomy tube down his throat to help him breathe. He could do two things: He could use his hands and he could make facial expressions.

"You know, through it all, he was just happy," Annie Young says. "You'd walk into the room, he would light up. He knew of his surroundings. He knew all of us. He knew. He couldn't talk, but he knew us when we walked in, he would just get so happy. We would sing and pray with him. He knew everything."

Mario was sent to a rehab facility an hour away from their home in St. Petersburg. Annie worked nearby, so she would visit every day. Leroy owned a small business so he was able to stay near their home with their three kids. But her oldest child, Tannesha, could barely cope. She and Mario were just a year apart and were best friends.

Tannesha wanted to find the person who had done this to her brother. She could not focus in school, so she went to live with her aunt in New York. Jerrell and J.R. stayed with their parents. Jerrell saw the strain this put on his mother and father. He saw them work two jobs, 18-hour days. Jerrell may have been only 7, but he keenly understood what he had to do.

He needed to help his parents. That meant being a good boy. No getting into trouble. No talking back. No acting up in school. That meant making them proud in his own way.

After about six months of rehab, Mario came home to live with the family. He had 24-hour assisted care because he could do nothing for himself. Insurance, Medicare and the Young family's savings helped pay the bills.

Jerrell would see his brother lie there day after day. He searched for answers. While his parents tended to his brother, he grew closer to his grandmother.

"She's the one who kept me grounded," he says. "She kept me focused with everything, always telling me to watch the company you keep, go to church, stay in school and get my degree. What really kept me going was not wanting to disappoint my family."

Jerrell continued to play the game Mario loved, and began to blossom into a bona fide football player. By the time he reached high school, he was a highly sought-after recruit in the Southeast. Florida offered him a scholarship. Auburn, too.

But there was no way he was leaving his family. He committed to USF. Former coach Jim Leavitt sold him on being a part of something special, of getting the chance to play in front of his mom, dad, grandmother and family.

All the recruiting attention got to Jerrell. His grades slipped. He failed to get a passing score on the ACT.

Jerrell was denied admission into USF.

"I'm the little brother and they all want the best for me, and I felt like I let them down," Jerrell says. "It hurt me to know that I could have prevented that from happening. I never let anybody know, but it hurt me. The whole year sitting out, not doing anything, feeling down on myself, it hurt. Just knowing all my parents sacrificed for my brothers and sister.

"My mom used to get up at 5 a.m. and get off at 11. My father would get up at the same time, laying hardwood floors all day from morning to night. I just wanted to make them happy."

In the year he sat out, Jerrell never once thought about going to a junior college or another university. He had to go to USF. Friends already on the football team kept in touch with him, and he worked out with them whenever he could.

After several failed attempts, Jerrell finally got the ACT score he needed.

He arrived at USF in 2007 and redshirted. But he slowly made his way up the depth chart, quietly working his way toward becoming a team leader. His moment to start at safety came in 2009, but tragedy hit. His beloved grandmother died a month before the season began.

The two used to pray together before all of his football games. On the day of the season opener against Wofford, he had no one to pray with him. Jerrell took the field. A few plays in, he dislocated his elbow. It was the first injury of his entire football career. Jerrell saw this as a sign from his grandmother.

He now prays with his mom before every game.

You watch your son on the football field. Elected team captain. Senior starter. Making one of the biggest plays of the young season at Notre Dame when he forced Jonas Gray to fumble -- a turnover USF returned for a touchdown. Making yet another big play in that same game, intercepting a pass to kill a Notre Dame rally.

Jerrell will graduate in December. "He's every mother's dream," you say.

You think of Mario. Imagine what he would say to his baby brother. How proud he would be of his baby brother.

You call Brenda Stevenson, a cold case investigator with the St. Petersburg Police Department. You want answers.

Stevenson picked up the case in 2007. She has sent evidence to the lab for DNA testing on numerous occasions. She is in contact with Annie, making her feel included in the entire process. Stevenson reviews the case a few times a year, hoping the passage of time will allow her to see the evidence and the facts just a little differently.

"I don't give up on the cases," she says. "Sometimes it can be frustrating when you get lab reports and testing does not give you any more answers. … This is such a tragic story. But as long as I'm working here, I'll keep working on this case."

Seventeen years have passed since Mario was shot. There are no solid leads. Stevenson has worked on cold cases since 2006 and closed just seven cases. All but one ended with an arrest.

"If cold cases were easy to solve, they wouldn't be cold cases," Stevenson says.

But justice must be done for Mario, for Annie, for Leroy, for Jerrell. For the entire Young family.

Because whoever did this stole a brother, a son, a grandson, a nephew, a friend.

Stole a beautiful boy, the one you held and swaddled and coddled. The one you sang sweetly to sleep. The one who looked up at you with big brown eyes and a devilish smile, who gave you joy beyond expression.

You cry when you think of him. You cry when you think of how he was taken from you. Eleven years ago. On your anniversary.

Mario died April 8, 2000. His injuries were simply too much to overcome.

He was 21.

You are thankful you had him with you for six more precious years. You are thankful he is the one who inspired Jerrell to play football, to work hard, to make you proud. But you also know you are not the only one who aches without him.

Before every game, your baby Jerrell talks to Mario.

"Come play with me," he says.

Andrea Adelson is a national college football blogger for ESPN.com. She can be reached at andrea.adelson@gmail.com.