Georgia safety plays with a heavy heart

ATHENS, Ga. -- Georgia safety Bacarri Rambo never met Braylin Adriel Rambo.

Bacarri Rambo, a junior from Donalsonville, Ga., said he often wonders what Braylin would have looked like, how he would have acted and how it would have felt to watch him grow up.

"I have some moments where I just sit and cry," Rambo said. "I have some moments where I sit and smile because I know he's in a better place."

Braylin would have been Rambo's first son. Braylin was to be born Oct. 1, the same day the Bulldogs were scheduled to play Mississippi State at Sanford Stadium. But while sitting in class Sept. 21, Rambo received a text message from his girlfriend's roommate. Something was terribly wrong.

LaTori Williams, his longtime girlfriend, who had started dating Rambo when they attended neighboring high schools in South Georgia, had been rushed to the hospital in Statesboro, Ga., where she attends Georgia Southern. Tragically, Braylin had been delivered stillborn. Doctors said the baby died after he stopped receiving oxygen.

Braylin Rambo died 10 days before his scheduled delivery date.

"That was the hard part for him," said Danny Rambo, the player's father. "It wasn't long before her due date. He didn't understand how an infant could die in the womb. He's young and thinks he's going to live until he's 100 years old. It's not that way. We don't have any control over life and death."

As a tribute to his son, Bacarri Rambo decided to play three days after Braylin's death. Rambo had two interceptions in the Bulldogs' 27-13 victory over Ole Miss. He dedicated the rest of the season to his son, too.

"I have my ups and have my downs," Rambo said. "I think about him all the time."

Before No. 14 Georgia plays No. 1 LSU in Saturday's SEC championship game in Atlanta's Georgia Dome, Rambo will write "21" on the tape on each of his cleats. The number has emotional significance because doctors told Rambo and Williams their baby would be a boy on the 21st day of the month and Braylin died Sept. 21.

"It's a reminder to him that you've got to enjoy life to the fullest," Danny Rambo said. "It doesn't matter if you're old or young; life can end. He prays before every game and after each game. I told him his son is looking down on him. I told him to always do his best because his son is in heaven cheering for him."

Bacarri Rambo has been a big reason for Georgia's success this season. After losing their first two contests of the season, the Bulldogs won 10 games in a row to win the SEC East. Georgia ranks No. 4 nationally in pass-efficiency defense (98.7 rating), No. 5 in total defense (217 yards per game), No. 6 in rushing defense (94.7 yards) and No. 10 in scoring defense (17.7 points).

Rambo is tied for second among Football Bowl Subdivision players with seven interceptions and is fifth on the team with 47 tackles.

After struggling with new coordinator Todd Grantham's 3-4 defensive alignment last season, Rambo has developed into one of the country's best safeties this year.

"I think he has a better understanding of the system and the importance of his position," Grantham said. "He's the guy that gets us lined up and makes all the checks. He has to be consistent because if he's not, he'll give up a lot of explosive plays. He has good awareness and instincts, and does a good job of reading routes and understands where the ball is going to be thrown. He's done everything we've asked him to do."

Remarkably, Rambo has done it all while playing with a very heavy heart. Rambo said losing his son so late in the pregnancy made it even more devastating. Williams' girlfriends had given her a baby shower. The young couple had already purchased clothes, a stroller, car seats and a crib. They'd picked out their soon-to-be-born son's name.

"We had everything prepared for him," Rambo said.

Danny Rambo, a disabled veteran who helped coach Bacarri in youth and high school football, said his son was really looking forward to being a father.

"He said, 'Daddy, I'm going to raise my son the way you raised me,'" Danny Rambo said. "It made me proud because I felt like I'd done something right. He asked me to help him guide his son the way I guided him. Of course, it never happened. I think that's what hurt him so bad because he didn't get a chance to do the things he said he was going to do as a father."

Bacarri Rambo, 22, said the experience of losing a child made him realize what's really important in life.

"It made me take life more serious because there's no telling when you can leave this earth," Rambo said. "I think it broke down life for me. My character has changed a lot. They would have judged not only me by my actions, but also him because I would have been his father. I would have had to act a different way -- a parent way."

Grantham said Rambo asked his coaches to play in the Ole Miss game, after grieving with Williams in Statesboro. Grantham said being around his teammates helped Rambo cope with the tragedy.

"We left it up to him," Grantham said. "He said this was what he wanted to do. You could see how hard he took it when he came back. You could tell he was grieving. To his credit, he stayed the course in doing what was important to him. He loves football and being around his teammates. We have a close-knit group of guys, especially on defense, and I think being around his teammates was really good therapy for him."

UGA cornerback Brandon Boykin, one of Rambo's closest friends, said the team has rallied around Rambo.

"It was very inspirational," Boykin said. "I was one of the few people he told at first. Just for him to set that aside and go play so well is pretty amazing. He's played so well because he has [Braylin] in his heart."

On Saturday, Rambo's reminders will be written on his shoes.

"I'm out there playing for him," Rambo said.

Mark Schlabach covers college sports for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.