|Thursday, December 12
Updated: February 26, 3:48 PM ET
A future once fuzzy comes into focus
By Wayne Drehs
ATHENS, Ohio -- The robe was royal blue, cotton, with tiny blue leaves across it. Perfect for a mom to climb out of bed and stumble to breakfast in.
But here, in the center of this sleepy college town's shiny new Wal-Mart, a 6-foot-8, 275-pound man takes the robe off a plastic hanger, slips it over his arms and ties it around his waist like some sort of Hugh Hefner wannabe.
He just loves his mom.
A few feet away, Vivian Barrett sits in a wheelchair. Stricken with diabetes and nearly blind, she wears dark sunglasses to cover her eyes left bloodshot and swollen from three surgeries in the past month. Her head constantly rotates from the dull gray carpet below to the bright lights above to the rack of pink cotton nightgowns beside her.
She sees nothing more than large, fuzzy shapes.
"Does it fit?" she asks, looking off in the distance as her son stands directly in front of her.
"Sure does, Viv. I think it'll work."
The robe is slipped off, tossed into a cart and the Barretts move on. Delvar knows people are looking at him. But he has learned to ignore them.
This is his life.
Barrett is a junior basketball player at Ohio University whose life is vastly different from any other student athlete in the country. He grew up in the poverty-stricken, gang-infested Robson neighborhood of northwest Detroit. And he now uses his college free time not to chase girls, chug beers or pound the buttons of a PlayStation console, but to take care of Vivian, his mother.
At 57 years old, Vivian says her diabetes isn't life-threatening. Her mind is still sharp. But years of poor medical care in the inner-city has left her with only a fraction of sight remaining in her left eye. She's weak on her legs, often relying on the bulky arms of her son to help her up and down stairs or in and out of the car. She doesn't always eat right. And whether or not her pride will let her admit it, she desperately needs someone to help her with the little things in everyday life.
"That woman has a heart of gold," Delvar says. "My entire life, she did everything she could to raise me and my two sisters. So I'd do anything for her."
Since arriving in Athens in July, Delvar has struggled with life as a full-time student, full-time athlete and primary caregiver. On top of classes, study hall, homework and practice, there are doctor appointments to coordinate, medications to manage and cooking, cleaning and caring for two.
If that weren't enough, he also monitors Vivian's diabetes, a disease Delvar also has battled since he was 14. Every day begins with a blood sugar test and, if necessary, the administering of insulin. Delvar takes his with a pill. Vivian needs injections.
"When I tell people, they think I'm lying to them," Delvar says. "They're like, 'C'mon, your life can't be that hard.' But they have no idea. It's not like one day it's basketball, one day it's take care of Vivian, one day it's study for finals. Everyday it's everything."
And it never seems to get easier. Last week, he broke up with his live-in girlfriend, leaving him heartbroken -- not because the girl he dated for three years is now out of his life, but because it means he has to put Vivian in a nursing home whenever the team takes a road trip.
His frustration makes you wonder if it's all worth it. And just when you do, just when you question why this chunky power forward with the slightest of chances to play professionally puts himself through this, Delvar reaches into his wallet.
"There she is," he says. "The reason I do what I do."
As Delvar sees it, his crazy, hellish life is Kierra's ticket out. He is already the first from his family to graduate from high school. But if he can survive these two years at Ohio, get his degree in economics and land a job in accounting, life will be set. And Kierra, who lives with her mom in Detroit, can escape a neighborhood where, as Vivian puts it, "gunshots are as common as breathing."
"Here's a kid who gets it," says Ohio head basketball coach Tim O'Shea. "Here's somebody who's had a difficult, challenging life, but has found this incredible amount of courage and perseverance to try and better not only his life, but that of his mom and his daughter as well. It's inspiring."
Said Delvar, who knows that people back home will criticize him when he eventually moves his daughter out of Robson: "People can say that I'm a traitor. But I don't care. My daughter is not growing up in poverty. She's not going to have the life that I did."
A life of poverty and basketball
In the heart of the inner city, where nobody has money, Delvar was teased for having the least.
"I went into a shell," Delvar says. "When I think back on it now, it was a punk excuse. But I just wasn't tough. I didn't know how to stick up for myself. And I didn't have a dad to show me how."
The support of Vivian, as well as his high school coach, coaxed him back into classes. So, too, did his ability on the basketball court. With soft hands, a great touch and an electric smile, kids turned on Delvar -- the right way -- and started calling him "Baby Shaq."
"They'd call the house and be like, 'Is Shaq there?' " Vivian says. "And I'm like, 'Who?' "
Today, Barrett's on-court abilities are a far cry to the Diesel's. He still has the soft hands, great touch and is the only Bobcat who can give teammate Brandon Hunter, an All-American candidate, fits in the post during practice.
Much like how the Bobcats have gotten off to a slow start with a 1-3 record, Barrett, the team's starting center, has struggled to become effective in his first season on the Division I-A level, averaging only 6.5 points and 3.3 rebounds. Part of that is because the games have been fast paced, hardly ideal for Delvar's bang-and-bruise style. And part of it, he admits, is a lack of focus due to the whirlwind life that spins around him.
"The coaches always tell us, 'When you come to practice, all we ask is that you give us three hours of your undivided attention,' " Delvar says. "But, man, let me tell you, it's not that easy."
Luxuries are limited. Beds sit without headboards. If more than three people are in the apartment, someone must sit on the floor. Yet it's better than the old home in Detroit, they say. By a landslide.
"That place was falling apart, the pipes were bursting, it was terrible," Delvar says. "This is like a hotel compared to that."
The apartment, government-subsidized Section 8 housing, costs the Barretts $132 a month. They survive on Vivian's disability checks of $545 per month, $85 worth of food stamps and the $1,300 a semester Delvar receives from a Pell Grant.
Financial help is what makes it all work. When Barrett graduated from Detroit's Schoolcraft Junior College last summer and was searching for his next move, he told every coach who recruited him about his mother and the financial assistance they would need. Some called him back. Most didn't.
The Bobcats were initially interested in another big man, but when that fell through they focused on Barrett, regardless of the baggage he brought with him. Athens, the coaches realized, is located in a relatively poor part of southeastern Ohio and offers the public housing and financial assistance Delvar and his mother would need.
Delvar accepted O'Shea's scholarship offer before even visiting the campus.
"It was a no-brainer," he says. "Once they told me everything was set up so I could help my mom, we were there."
Says O'Shea, who frequently has to reschedule practice to accommodate Delvar's hectic schedule: "When you have a kid with that sort of character, it's contagious. We thought he was someone who could help us on the basketball court as well as off it. And he has."
Dealing with the disease
Vivian hasn't been nearly as lucky. She never realized she had diabetes until her vision started to fade three years ago. By then, it was too late.
Delvar remembers the first time he came home from school and discovered his mom couldn't see. His sisters had warned him, but it didn't hit him until he walked into the house, stood before his mom and heard her ask, "Who's there?"
Later that week he took her to the doctor. For the first time in five years, he cried.
"The doctor was asking her, 'Can you see this? Can you read this?' And she couldn't. He would ask, 'What letter is this?' And she didn't know. That just hurt my heart so bad."
This fall, Vivian underwent three surgeries on her left eye to salvage her limited vision. Doctors won't know if it the procedures were successful until the swelling subsides.
"Every time we step into a doctor's office, I pray there's nothing new," says Delvar, who has also helped his mom quit smoking since they moved to Ohio. "And people don't realize how scary that is."
Despite her struggles, Vivian is a vibrant, colorful woman who lives for weekday afternoon trash TV and entertainment gossip. To watch television, she puts her face just inches from the screen. Even then, she can see only bright flashes and sudden movements. While she can name the stars in nearly every movie, on a bus trip to Philadelphia a few years back she couldn't figure out why she didn't run into actor-rapper Will Smith.
"Oh, man," Delvar says. "Don't get her started on that story."
On days off, when everyone else is cramming at the library or vegging on the couch, Delvar is at home, waiting for Vivian's request. A Kleenex. A bottle of lotion. A glass of water. Though he doesn't dress his mother, he lays out her clothes. He also tests her blood sugar. Gives her insulin shots. Makes sure she doesn't rub her puffy eyes. Pours her something to drink. Cooks dinner. And makes sure she has taken a bath.
"Not to minimize the situation, but in many respects, it's sort of like caring for a baby," assistant basketball coach John Rhodes says. "The things he deals with are unlike any 23-year-old I know."
Says Vivian: "I can't think of many sons who would do the things he does for me. Most people would just stick me in a home."
"Now remember," he tells her, "There's 15. Count 'em."
Once to the car, guiding Vivian into their rusting, mid-'80s Chevy Caprice also can be a chore. Delvar eases her into the passenger seat, swings her legs into the car and makes sure she doesn't get tangled in the seatbelt. Once they arrive at their destination, it starts again. Doors to open. Stairs to climb. Wheelchairs to push.
"I always tell him, he's an old soul," says Lori Friel, who has worked with Delvar on his class load as the university's director of academics. "The things he has to deal with and the pressures that he carries on his shoulders -- he's like a fully grown adult in a kid's body."
The adult decisions grew even tougher this past week, when Delvar split up with his girlfriend of three years. Christina moved with Vivian and Delvar from Detroit, but when she spent more time on the phone than helping around the apartment, Delvar says, it was time for the split.
"If you don't want to get a job, fine. If you don't want to go to school, fine. But at least cook or clean or do something," Delvar says. "I'd get home at 11 o'clock at night and I'd have to clean the place, cook for myself, cook for my mom and she'd be running up the long distance talking to people back home. It just wasn't working."
The timing couldn't have been worse. Delvar booted his girlfriend two days before the team's longest road trip of the season -- an eight-day jaunt from Toledo to Chicago to Boston and back. With nobody in town to care for his mother, he was forced to put Vivian in a nursing home temporarily.
Says Delvar, jokingly: "This might be one of those times where maybe it isn't entirely a bad thing that Vivian can't see."
Vivian barely said a word. She asked only if the place had television and if there were any other "darkies," her word for African Americans.
"I promised myself I'd never do that to her," Delvar says of putting Vivian in a home. "And I know she's not happy about it. But I just don't see any way around it. And it's only for a couple days."
An ongoing struggle
Giving 100 percent to any one thing is impossible. His game isn't where he wants it to be. His grades aren't much to brag about. And he isn't able to spend nearly as much time as he'd like helping his mom.
Yet one probing question remains. And neither he nor Vivian are certain of its answer.
Where would Vivian be without her oversized son with the overwhelming heart?
"I don't know. I honestly don't know," Vivian says. "And it isn't something I want to think about."
Says Delvar: "I can't even begin to fathom that. Probably in a home somewhere."
Then, in three whispered, progressively softer sentences, Delvar speaks the undeniable truth. He puts his lanky arms behind his head, leans back on his dining room chair, looks to the spackled ceiling and in the most introspective of tones, reveals what's painstakingly obvious.
"She doesn't have anyone else," he says, teetering on the hind legs of his chair. "She doesn't have anyone else …
"She doesn't have anyone else."
In a split second, the chair falls back to the ground, Delvar's arms land back in his lap and the kid who gets it points out a fact slightly less obvious, but just as blindingly important.
"Better yet," he says, "Where would I be without her?"
Wayne Drehs is a staff writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.