Alabama assistant coach Mike Locksley was sitting in the tunnel of Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, waiting as players trickled out of the locker room following the Crimson Tide's season-opening win over Florida State last September. As he does after every game, Locksley started to call and text his four children to see if they had seen it.
His son, Meiko, answered his cellphone.
"Hey, did you watch the game?" Mike asked.
"Man, you guys looked good, Pops," Meiko said. "You guys got a chance to probably win it all if you all can keep everybody healthy."
"Man, you guys looked good, Pops. You guys got a chance to probably win it all if you all can keep everybody healthy." Meiko Locksley, to his father, Mike Locksley
Mike chuckled at how much his 25-year-old son sounded like a coach. Someday, he thought, Meiko might become one.
"Of all my kids," Mike said, "he was the football junkie."
Mike and his wife, Kia, returned to Tuscaloosa around 2 a.m., exhausted. Still, Mike went into the office on Sunday, and Kia joined him there later in the evening for a dinner hosted by Alabama head coach Nick Saban and his wife, Terry, a Sunday tradition during the season. Mike came home around 10 p.m., and the couple fell asleep after watching television.
Several hours later, at around 3 a.m., Kia heard a light knocking on their front door. She nudged Mike to see if he had heard it, but he hadn't, and it was quiet again, so they drifted back to sleep. Kia thought it would be strange to hear a knock on the door since the Locksley's two-bedroom apartment was on the fourth floor, and the main entrance to the building required a key.
They awoke again moments later to the sound of a loud banging.
"Boom, boom, boom," Kia said, "like somebody was trying to break the door down."
They both jumped up and went to the door. Mike looked through the peephole and saw three officers from the University of Alabama Police Department. Kia assumed one of the Crimson Tide players had gotten into some trouble. It never crossed her mind the visit might involve one of her children.
Mike had a different, more sickening feeling.
One of the officers asked him if he was Michael Locksley.
"Please don't tell me my son is dead," he said.
"I got really pissed at him," Kia said. "Why would you say something like that? They hadn't said anything but, 'Are you Michael Locksley?' I was yelling at him, 'Don't say things like that!' They confirmed it and I didn't want to believe it."
There was no way to ease the blow.
"I got really pissed at him. Why would you say something like that? They hadn't said anything but, 'Are you Michael Locksley?' I was yelling at him, 'Don't say things like that!' They confirmed it and I didn't want to believe it." Kia Locksley
At around 10 p.m. on Sept. 3 in Columbia, Maryland, Meiko Locksley was shot and killed. He was 25.
Mike and Kia, still reeling from their own grief, immediately set out to deliver the news to their other three children -- quickly -- before the police released it to the public and they found out from somebody else. Meiko's younger brother, Kai, was at Iowa Western Community College. Meiko's 30-year-old half-brother, Mike Jr., was the oldest of the siblings and living in Washington, D.C., with two young children of his own. Their sister, Kori, the youngest in the family, was in her freshman season playing soccer at Auburn.
By about 6 a.m., they all knew.
"I sat at home that day," Mike Sr. said, "Kia and I, and we cried and cried and cried."
By around 1 p.m., news of Meiko's death had spread throughout the program, and Mike's phone lit up with text messages from receivers Calvin Ridley, Robert Foster and others, saying things like, "Coach, we need you, man. We want to be there for you."
The next day, Mike drove to the football facility. He said it was "like he was floating." He went to see Saban, who asked him what he was doing there.
"I said, 'Coach, I need to be here, because this is the best way for me to heal,'" Mike said. "This is my soul. This is the one thing that allows my mind to not think about what happened, why it happened -- the anger that comes along with having a son murdered and no answers."
The grief has become a part of the identity of the Locksley family members, sometimes hiding, sometimes blindsiding them. It comes when Kai hears Meiko's name, or when Mike Jr. hears a certain song on the radio, or when Kori and Kia take time to look closely at the nature surrounding them. It will sometimes sucker-punch Mike Sr. when he is driving into work, or at 2 a.m., when it's quiet and there is no football to distract him from his thoughts.
"I said, 'Coach, I need to be here, because this is the best way for me to heal.' This is my soul. This is the one thing that allows my mind to not think about what happened, why it happened -- the anger that comes along with having a son murdered and no answers." Mike Locksley
Mike's second son was the one he often worried about the most because Meiko was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder when he was a 22-year-old senior at Towson.
"We worried a lot," Mike said. "He really went from being a normal, football-playing 21-year-old to struggling with understanding reality from myth. And when he was on his medication, he was almost who we knew him to become. And so we fought those demons of having to battle through the mental health part, which we did for two, three years."
The mental health condition, which caused hallucinations and symptoms of a mood disorder, could be controlled by medication -- if Meiko took it.
Kia and Mike would call or text him daily to check on him.
"That's the part with mental health issues, they're not always in control of what they do, what they say, how they say it," Mike said "... that's why we did everything that we could and we provided him with the resources, the doctors, the medications, the resources of meeting with the mental health psychiatrists and all the different people involved.
"But you know, some of it with us as parents, you can do so much," he said. "We felt like we had turned a corner with him because I think he really started to understand finally that he was a little different because of the mental health issues."
The Locksley's grief has been compounded by the uncertainty over the circumstances regarding Meiko's death. Seven months later, the investigation is ongoing, and according to Howard County (Md.) police, there were no eyewitnesses, and there are still no suspects, and no motive.
"I just want to know why," Mike said.
"Whenever I find myself asking why, I try to redirect and be grateful for the 25 years I was given instead of what was taken," Kia said, "because that's the only way I can go on."
Football was the only way for Mike to go on.
As Alabama's receivers coach and co-offensive coordinator last season, Locksley would head into meetings with veterans Cam Sims, Foster and Ridley. At times, he would get frustrated with the unit because they weren't giving the effort they needed. Locksley said they hit a spell at one point in the season when the "energy wasn't there."
"I could just remember having the conversation," Locksley said. "I would take time out to talk to those guys about my feelings about Meiko. I would say, 'Man, look, you guys are crying about having to go block a safety or run a route 100 times.' I said, 'I guarantee you Meiko would love to be here to do it.' And they would kind of get it. They understood it.
"I said, 'Look, if I'm gonna be here putting in the time and energy with you guys, then I expect you to give it back.' And those guys gave me everything."
In January, Mike found himself back at Mercedes-Benz Stadium as Alabama played Georgia in the College Football Playoff National Championship.
It was the first time the Locksley family had been in the same place since Meiko's funeral. The Crimson Tide receivers knew that returning to Atlanta would be emotional for their position coach. Every time the bus parked under the stadium, for practices or the game, it triggered the memory of the last time Mike had spoken to Meiko.
"It was bittersweet," he said.
Before the game, defensive end Tony Brown approached Locksley on the field and asked him for a marker so he could put Meiko's name on his glove. When Brown intercepted a pass from Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm in the first quarter, he secured the ball in his right hand before he hit the ground -- the same hand that had Meiko's name written on it.
"That really was crazy to me when I saw it," Brown said. "It was a special little moment in that the reason I did that was to try to support his son and then I made a game-changing play in that game with the glove on. On top of that, his son's premonition came to fruition, and I was a part of that in a big way. That's pretty intense."
The Crimson Tide would go on to win in dramatic fashion and claim the national championship. For the first time since the funeral, the Locksley family was together again, only this time they were able to celebrate.
"That was a speechless moment for everyone," Kori said. "... I know my dad was just in awe. And in tears. In the same stadium where he last talked to him, too. So it was just amazing."
Foster walked up to Locksley after the win and said, "This was for Meiko."
"That's kind of when I lost it," Mike said, "and my family and everybody was there to get to enjoy it, and finally win, because we lost a lot. And we finally won."