Brooke Foster plays for son

Brooke Foster always has 4-year-old Layton cheering her on at North Texas home games. Graham Hays/ESPN

DENTON, Texas -- "Can you hold that not so close to your face? Thank you."

Layton Foster furrowed his eyebrows at the request from his mother, and the almost angelic patience he had displayed for the better part of the past hour dissipated ever so slightly into the stubbornness more readily associated with a 4-year-old boy, especially one who had recently skipped his regular afternoon nap. He grudgingly moved the tablet in his hands an almost imperceptible distance from his face and continued to play a video game.

"Hey," came his mom's voice, and the sudden sharpness of that word conveyed a note of warning. "Not so close to your face."

Her patience tried, he did as she said without further complaint and resumed his wait.

For Brooke Foster, talking about motherhood didn't mean a break from motherhood.

A 24-year-old senior at North Texas, Brooke is one of the more talented shortstops in college softball, certainly one of the best in Conference USA. She has range in the field and a strong arm. She hits for power and has a leadoff batter's speed. She already owns the Mean Green record for career stolen bases and is 15 hits from claiming that record, too.

She is on track, after completion of a final internship this summer, to be the first member of her family to graduate from college.

All of which are true not so much in addition to her being a single mother nor in spite of her obligations to Layton. These things are true because of the shy boy with blond hair and the Atlanta Braves cap whose feet didn't reach the floor as he sat next this mother.

Brooke could easily have become a cautionary tale, the uber-talented athlete whose unplanned pregnancy led her to drop out of school and drift away from a future once seemingly in focus. All of that happened, and left her on a precipice. Hers isn't a path even she would wish to tread again, not through times both dark and lonely. But Brooke came all the way back. Not to reclaim that which she lost, but to protect what she gained the best way she knew how. Really, the only way she knew how: with a bat and a glove.

She will graduate from college because of Layton. And she plays softball for him.

"I was determined that he was going to be mine, and I was going to be able to raise him and I was going to be so happy," Brooke said of Layton. "I was just so defensive over him. And I still am. Any time anyone tries to say anything, I'm like, 'You know what, I have been to hell and back so many times for this little boy to be here.'

"I was determined to be a really good mom."

She was always a good shortstop. Growing up in Wylie, a small town on the far fringes of the sprawling Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, she enjoyed playing volleyball as much as softball. But as someone who never grew beyond a lithe 5-foot-3 frame, she listened to those who told her the diamond was the best route to a college scholarship. She didn't really know what she wanted to do with that scholarship; didn't have a grasp of what it was, exactly, that college was supposed to be about. She just knew it was the prize.

Get the scholarship, and softball continued. That much made sense.

An all-state selection as a high school senior in 2008, she earned that scholarship from Houston Baptist University. But over Christmas break of her freshman year at that school she found out she was pregnant, the father in Wylie. She dropped out and moved back to Wylie, although the turn of events left her estranged from her mother and father.

Those were the darkest days, when she was adrift and terrified. She had no idea what was coming, had never had baby siblings or even cousins. But she reconciled with her parents as the pregnancy progressed, moved in with them and took on a full-time job at a local pharmacy -- it became a point of pride for her that she paid for her own doctor's visits.

"It was ugly at first," Gary Foster acknowledged of wrapping his mind around his daughter's new reality. "But once it happened, and it took a while, once she had the baby, you know ..."

He left the thought unfinished, but you do know. It wasn't the path he would have chosen for the daughter who followed in his footsteps as a star high school athlete. It isn't a story he is comfortable yet rehashing with strangers, maybe with anybody. But once Layton arrived, it wasn't about what had been before. It was about what was next.

Not that her world suddenly became an easy place after Layton entered it on Aug. 21, 2009, three and a half weeks premature but healthy. Barely a year removed from high school graduation, Brooke was the former star athlete who was back home with a child while many of her friends and classmates readied for their second year of college. She had her family back, but Wylie isn't a big enough place for her change in circumstances to come without stigma, self-imposed or otherwise.

"I know it looks bad -- it still does look bad," Brooke said. "But it doesn't mean I'm a bad person, you know? It was really hard because I was like ashamed of myself, and I was embarrassed."

Brooke and her father were watching the Women's College World Series on television together one afternoon when she told him she was good enough to play with those girls. He told her, sure, he knew she was, even if the sentiment seemed past tense. But it was more than a lament or a passing thought to her. She didn't necessarily like school, but she wanted to go back because in her mind it meant a better life for Layton. Softball had been the means to go to college once, so maybe it could be again. Her dad told her the school would need to be close, but he and her mom would help if they could.

Then the coach at North Texas, T.J. Hubbard -- now an assistant at Louisiana-Lafayette -- told her he didn't have any scholarship money left, but he offered her a chance. If she wanted to walk on, she was welcome to try.

Still living in Wylie as she started school at North Texas in the fall of 2010, Brooke would wake up before dawn to make the hour drive to Denton for weightlifting and conditioning. When practice ended, she would get back into the car and make the return trip, which took twice as long in the throes of evening rush-hour traffic. It was like that five days a week because starting from scratch academically, she had little leeway with her schedule (with the help of her academic adviser, she has been able to cram her classes into two or three days in subsequent semesters).

There were times early on when her parents had to almost pry Layton off her leg when she left their house in Wylie. On the rare occasions she spent the night on a teammate's couch in Denton, she might hear his voice on the other end of the phone asking her why she wasn't home yet. Those were the times she wondered whether it was worth it: the loan debt, the commutes, the homework, the physical toll of reclaiming athletic conditioning two years dormant.

Just as often, though, Layton has been by her side. She has taken him to weights or conditioning when a babysitter falls through. He generally spends his days at an in-home daycare in Wylie, picked up by his grandparents while Brooke makes the trip back from Denton, but it isn't uncommon to see him sitting in the dugout -- tablet in hand -- during practice, either.

"She's always, always, always Layton's mom," said North Texas senior Ashley Kirk. "I just love seeing that, and how you can tell how much she loves him and how much she's given up for him to be here, to do this."

Brooke is part of the team, but she isn't part of it in the same way as everyone else. She can't go out at a moment's notice. Her daily drama comes from a different script than that of most undergrads. And if Layton was up sick the night before and she didn't get much sleep, she isn't likely to be in the best of moods around the field. That's the deal.

It doesn't hurt that she mashes the ball like she does. She saved her best for last, hitting .354 with a .677 slugging percentage this season entering Wednesday's game at Oklahoma State.

"It's not until you get out here on a daily basis and see what the kid does," first-year North Texas coach Tracey Kee said. "She just plays the game flat out. She will lay out, she's just constantly a true competitor. She doesn't take a day for granted. ... She is our little engine at the front of the lineup that can drop a bunt or drive it out of the ballpark."

For now, at least for the remaining four home games, Layton will watch his mom play. He usually starts each game in the stands with his grandfather, pointing out Brooke when she comes to the plate and sometimes running down to give her a high-five through the metal fence that separates field from stands. If he needs to wander, or if the wind kicks up by the late innings, he and his grandfather will retreat to the pickup trick the latter parks in a line alongside others out beyond the right-field wall where occupants can still see the action on the field.

Soon the roles will switch and Brooke, who brags as a mother might about Layton's athleticism, will take him to his first T-ball games.

"I just bought him his first baseball pants, and I'm wearing my last ones," Brooke said. "It's just weird. And I bought him his first glove and I'm using mine for the last time. It's kind of cool, though, because once I graduate he starts kindergarten and school and a whole new chapter of our lives begins."

She said she wanted people to be proud of her again when she returned to school.

"I'm extremely proud of her," her father said. "There's not a lot of people that'd do this. There's not a lot of people that could sit out two years and play at the level she's played at, either. She's going to be -- her desire is to get a college education so she can take care of her son, to be able to get a good job."

She wanted to be proud of herself again, too. And perhaps that was more important.

The degree will help her provide for Layton, but nothing will help him more than her belief that she can meet challenges ahead.

"I will never let anybody tell me that I can't do anything because not one person told me I could do this, and I'm doing it," Brooke said. "I think [Layton] is going to be proud of me, and I think it's going to say a lot for my family because my whole family had to go through this situation. It wasn't just me."

Nothing is just her anymore. It never is for a mother.