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Rayna's second season

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First of two parts

Long before Rayna DuBose became a basketball star - and half a lifetime before the day she got sick, went to the hospital and almost never came home - she was a dancer. Ballet, to be specific. The soft, poetic music and her long arms and legs formed a natural partnership. Dance was her first love, and as is often the case with first loves, she never forgot what it felt like, to twirl and spin and smirk at the limitations of gravity.

The DuBose family was not rich, but there was money for tutus and ballet slippers, even if Rayna would outgrow them in mere months. At recitals, she towered above the other giggling 9-year-olds, like a redwood in a forest of firs. When it was her turn to whirl across the stage, her 1,000-watt smile lit up the auditorium.

My God, her father thought, my little girl is fearless.

You've got to get a basketball in that girl's hands, Rayna's pediatrician kept telling her parents.

I don't want to play! she would protest.

Rayna, they don't give out many scholarships to girls wearing tutus.

No! I don't want to play basketball. I want to dance! Her parents just shook their heads and laughed.

Even then, long before she would trade her toe shoes for high-tops, long before her spinning and soaring would thrill crowds in a gym in Oakland Mills - and even longer before an illness would steal away the game she loved - Rayna DuBose had an unbending will and a bullheaded determination. She was, from the beginning, a force to behold.

They were the worst months of her life, and yet she has almost no memory of those 97 days and nights that began in April 2002 and stretched into July. They run together, overlapping and blurring until they're impossible to retrieve. But maybe the details aren't important. Maybe if you can see her here, sitting on the stairs in her parents' house in Columbia on the day she's finally going back to college, maybe that's enough - a picture that hints at her journey through all that darkness.

It's May 17, 2003, and as her parents load the SUV with boxes, Rayna sits in the foyer, talking quietly on her cell phone. A stuffed blue monkey rests in her lap, and in the monkey's arms is a tiny orange basketball.

When it's time to go, Rayna pulls herself up and steadies herself on legs made of plastic, silicone, titanium, aluminum and stainless steel. She walks down the driveway and folds her 6-foot-3 frame into the SUV. Clothes, lamps and light bulbs, CDs, sweat shirts and food fill the back - and enough pairs of basketball shoes to outfit three teams. She puts her stuffed monkey in there, too, next to her extra set of arms. -Those awful months, those weeks when doctors weren't sure she'd ever open her eyes again, are a memory now for her parents. Some details are gone; some, they will never forget. What's important now is this moment, their 19-year-old daughter on her way back to Virginia Tech, to college life, to independence.

Her coach has walked this road with them, and grown to love Rayna like a daughter. Where Rayna's memory is blank, where her parents' is blurred, the coach's is painfully clear. Piece their memories together, and they not only tell a story but they also raise a question: How much courage does a single step require? If you're inching along a ledge on an icy mountain peak, or walking a tight rope suspended high above the ground, the answer seems easy. Each step puts your life at risk, so it requires all the courage you can muster in order to stay alive.

But what if you're not risking your life? What if you're trying to get it back?

* * *

I think I can play in the boys' league, she said one day.

I think they'll hurt you, her father said with a grin.

I ain't worried about getting hurt.

At the first game, the tallest player was the one with a pony tail. She stuck out, and yet she was invisible. None of the boys would pass her the ball. Rayna went home so mad, she burst into tears.

She'd given up ballet for this, stood on the court hour after hour, practicing bank shots. How could all that work pay off if they wouldn't even give her the ball? She knew exactly what she wanted: to be a star like her brother Quinton. Sixteen years older than Rayna, he had gone off to college on a basketball scholarship. To hear their father tell it, it was watching Quinton play at Providence College - and seeing the crowd erupt in rapture - that lit the fire for Rayna. After all, says Willie DuBose, "There ain't a whole lot of hollering and screaming in ballet." Night after night, he would come home from work dog-tired, barely able to keep his eyelids upright - and there was Rayna, tugging at his sleeve.

C'mon Dad, let's go practice.

The next game was more of the same: The boys didn't want to pass to a girl. But a loose ball rolled her way, and with a flick of her wrist, she had her first basket. Minutes later, she had her second. Her last was the game-winner. From then on, the boys were feeding her the ball.

"She started dominating these 10-, 11-, 12-year-old boys," Willie recalls, laughing. "Parents were beside themselves. They were saying, 'Damn, this girl is killing my son!' "

Word soon got out, and what do you know? Everyone wanted her on their team. Can Rayna come play on our travel squad? Can she go to New Orleans for this tournament? Girls' leagues, boys' leagues - didn't matter.

Fast forward: 1997, Oakland Mills High School in Columbia. At 14, Rayna makes the girls' varsity team, mostly because the coach looks at her - 6-foot-1 and still growing - and dreams of rebounds. At first, the young freshman comes off the bench, just a quiet contributor on a team full of veterans. There is a pecking order coach Teressa Waters wants to uphold, but after a few weeks she sees that it's pointless. The seniors are dropping hints.

Are you going to start Rayna this week? We need her out there.

Oakland Mills begins the season with the modest goal of simply getting to the state tournament, but the more Rayna blossoms, the more the future becomes clear. People start to believe. By mid-season, the precocious freshman is grabbing rebounds, hitting jumpers, pushing her opponents aside. Waters can't keep her out of the lineup. She's just too good. By the time the playoffs start, Oakland Mills is in it for one reason only: to win the state title.

State championship game. Oakland Mills is playing against Williamsport, and the whole team is a mess. Nervous, frazzled players are tossing up air balls and flinging passes into the seats. The Oakland Mills fans, ablaze in orange and black, are hushed, as if they are sitting on their hands. The girls haven't played this poorly all year. At halftime, Oakland Mills clings to an 11-10 lead that is even uglier than it looks. In the locker room, Coach Waters is livid, about to peel paint.

Is anyone here going to step up and win this game?

The crowd comes to life as the teams take the court for the second half. But then, more air balls. A year's worth of hard work is getting flushed away as Williamsport pulls ahead. Oakland Mills has never won a state title before in girls' basketball, and the way things look, that drought won't end tonight. Waters stomps her foot and folds her arms, pleading with her team to make some baskets.

But wait a minute - who's that? It's Rayna, grabbing an air ball and turning it into a layup. My goodness, she did it again! Oakland Mills has the lead back! The band is playing, the crowd is pulsing, and Rayna has eight points in eight minutes. Just like her brother, she finds a way to get baskets when the team is about to buckle.

Can the girls hang on? The seconds tick down. Finally, the buzzer goes off and sets every last one of them free. Tears run down their cheeks. The scoreboard reads Oakland Mills 38, Williamsport 31.

When Waters gave her halftime speech, someone was listening.

The quiet freshman leads the team with 14 points.

The following season, the game comes easily for Rayna. She has grown another inch, and with the grace of a dancer, she spins through the lane, between two defenders, and kisses the ball off the glass for a left-handed layup.

Halfway up the bleachers are her mom and dad, beaming as their daughter scores 29 points in an upset of rival Mount Hebron. Andrea DuBose is the one talking to everyone, giving out 11 hugs a minute because she's too nervous to watch closely. She worries about Rayna's asthma, worries that she has forgotten her inhaler. Willie? He's the guy with the shaved head, thick mustache, the one rocking back and forth quietly as Rayna brings the ball up. His eyes never leave her, even when she gives up the ball. That's his baby, right there.

The team goes 10-13 for the season, but Rayna averages 16.3 points and 11.7 rebounds. Some nights, she can't be stopped, even by the best teams. She's a star, everyone says. Can't wait to see her next year.

But wait. Who's this new coach? His voice is like a bullhorn, and his icy glare can cut you in half. He takes one look at his star player and scowls.

"He told me I was fat," Rayna recalls. "He went around telling the whole school I weighed 200 pounds. Not funny."

But after years of praise, isn't this what she needs? Marcus Lewis, a three-sport star for Oakland Mills in the late '80s, decides he's going to coach girls' basketball with a football mentality. No prisoners. No excuses. He figures Rayna has barely tapped her potential. She's lazy. So he runs her.

And runs her.

And runs her.

Demand the ball, he says.

Get in the weight room, he scolds.

If you listen to me, you can dominate.

It drives her crazy - who does he think he is? - but she's too scared not to listen. Her junior year, she averages 18.1 points and 15.1 rebounds and wills Oakland Mills to a 15-9 record. Still, it's not good enough.

Rayna, do you want to play in college? Lewis asks.

Yes. Of course.

Then seek out the best competition. Stop settling for "good enough."

That summer, she walks to the nearby gym and jumps into pickup games. She's not the tallest player anymore. But like so many years ago, she's the only girl on the court, and the men show her no mercy. She dodges elbows and picks herself up when she gets tossed to the floor. Some days, her father wanders over to the gym to watch, and it takes all the restraint he can muster to stay on the sidelines. In his head, he can still hear her tiny voice. He can almost feel the tug on his sleeve.

I think I can play in the boys' league, Dad.

I think they'll hurt you.

I ain't worried about getting hurt.

* * *

Virginia Tech feels like a dream: People are friendly, the Blacksburg campus is beautiful, and here she is, moving into the dorm, starting a new life on a full basketball scholarship. It's August 2001, and just getting here feels like an accomplishment. The last two years of high school, there was poetry in her game, especially the night she dropped 40 points on poor Wilde Lake. But academics was another matter. She spent long, frustrating nights studying to get her grades up so she could get into the college.

Look out now, Blacksburg. It's Rayna and Monique, friends since kindergarten. Monique Cook has always been Rayna's oasis from basketball, the one friend who knows every secret, every word Rayna's going to say before she says it. Rayna is blunt, and Monique loves her for it. She says what's on her mind. Together, they observe only one rule: No talking about basketball. Talk about boys, talk about freedom, talk about soap operas. Anything but basketball.

"She could be drafted into the NBA, and she wouldn't even tell me," Monique says.

But there's no denying that basketball will play a huge role at Tech. When practices start, it feels like nothing - and everything - has changed. It's the same game, with the same rules, but it's like playing against boys again. Rayna's graceful spins and effortless rebounds disappear; older, wiser players bump her out of the way. She's too timid to push back, and that drives Bonnie Henrickson crazy.

Not yet 40 years old, Henrickson prides herself on coaching hard-nosed, old-school basketball. Outside the gym, she's as likable as ice cream. She has Minnesota roots and Midwestern charm. Players don't call her Coach Henrickson; they call her Bonnie. But on the court, she's a general. Pain is weakness leaving the body, it says on the team's T-shirts. She's one of the hottest young coaches in the country - already Virginia Tech has had to sweeten her contract twice to keep bigger schools from stealing her away.

Rayna, you're my little ballerina! Bonnie is yelling, and practice has ground to a halt.

Don't be such a candy ass! Be physical. Be nasty. There isn't a mean bone in your body, is there? Every day, two hours of running. It feels like boot camp with nets. Rayna's not playing much, either. At night, she blows off steam by blowing off homework. The social scene beckons.

Rayna, did you hear about the party the football team is having? See you there, girl! What the heck. You have to live for the moment. Before long, everyone knows her lyrical name and recognizes her Hollywood smile. Hey Rayna! Are you going out tonight? You know you HAVE to be there, right? First-semester grades come in: a 1.4 GPA. The next thing you know, Bonnie is laying out the the Rayna Rules. No partying, no friends in her dorm room after 10 p.m. Every night, a coach will call to make sure she's there alone.

Rayna says she'll go along with it, that she'll get better grades, and for the most part, she does. But she's still sneaky and stubborn in her own way. At night, when the assistant coaches call, Rayna bluffs like a poker player. Monique is there with her, trying not to laugh, as quiet as a hummingbird.

There is one good thing about basketball, though: Rayna's roommate, Erin Gibson, a tall blond from a tiny Virginia town on the North Carolina border. The two couldn't be more different - black, white, city, country - and yet, they're a perfect match. It's as if Mary J. Blige befriended one of the Dixie Chicks.

They're both power forwards, but instead of causing tension, the situation just becomes a reason to bond. Erin seems even less confident than Rayna on the court, and she's the starter. More than once, Erin sobs on Rayna's shoulder after a bad practice, and in the close quarters of a tiny dorm room, they find strength in each other. They talk about boys, about their families, about the exhibition tour the team will take in two years.

2004. Destination: Australia.

Rayna and Erin can hardly wait. Sometimes at night, they dream of the adventures they'll have on the other side of the world.

* * *

The opening act in Rayna's nightmare begins Monday, April 1, 2002. She's on the squat rack inside Merryman Strength Facility. Freshman season is behind her, and now Rayna, Erin and teammate Fran Recchina - a skinny point guard from Texas who completes this perfect circle of friendship - are beginning the tedium of off-season workouts.

Aren't you guys exhausted? Rayna says, finishing a set of squats. Her T-shirt is soaked with sweat.

Not really, Erin thinks. Not any more than usual. Sounds typical of Rayna, though. She hates squats. Maybe she's just tired from the weekend. She invited Fran home with her for Easter, and on Saturday night, they were up until nearly dawn, dancing at a Baltimore club called Paradox. Monique was there, too. They laughed and grooved to house music, flirting and dancing. It was so hot inside, they shared a water bottle, passing it around among friends.

Aren't you guys exhausted? Rayna says again, as they finish lifting weights.

Yeah, I guess, they respond. For an end-of-workout drill, they decide to juggle bean bags, to improve hand-eye coordination. After several awkward minutes, Rayna stops and sits.

I'm really dizzy. I can't do this.

Dizzy? Of course, you're dizzy, Rayna, you're juggling!

Maybe. But it seems like more than that.

In the locker room, Rayna lies down on a couch. Her eyelids feel like dumbbells.

I just need a little nap, and everything will be fine, she says.

Erin and Fran head to the showers. A few minutes later, they return, and Rayna's lost inside a dream. That's weird, Erin thinks. She's never been one for naps.

They leave Rayna to sleep, only to realize later she is too weak to walk to study hall. With their help, Rayna drags herself there, slumping against the wall the entire way. The team's academic adviser, Katie Emmons, arrives to find her crumpled on the floor, arms and legs in a tangled mess. She's sweating like crazy.

Rayna, c'mon. It's 8 o'clock. It's time to get going, Emmons says.

First semester, Emmons was always riding Rayna like this, especially after she was put on academic probation. But Emmons' heart softened when, in the second semester, Rayna looked like a candidate for the honor roll. Sometimes she just needed prodding. Like, perhaps, right now.

Rayna, what's up, girl? You can't be sleeping here. Let's get moving.

Katie, Rayna pleads, I can't get up. I can't.

Emmons summons Virginia Tech trainer Ron Esteban and Dr. Duane Lagan, a physician in the athletic department. Lagan takes Rayna's pulse, asks about her asthma, then calmly tells someone to call an ambulance. No reason to be alarmed; just want to be safe. Nervous teammates watch Rayna's chest rise and fall as she breathes.

Across town, Bonnie has just returned from the Women's Final Four in San Antonio. She's shaking off jet lag when the phone rings: Rayna is en route to Montgomery Regional Hospital, just up the road, for some tests. She may be dehydrated. Probably nothing serious.

At the hospital, a doctor tells Bonnie that Rayna has a fever. She's probably coming down with something. He never says the word flu, but that's the impression Bonnie will remember having.

In Rayna's room, an IV drains into her arm and brings life to her face again. Bonnie calls Rayna's parents to let them know things are fine, and Rayna watches Juan Dixon lead Maryland to a national basketball title on television. At 11:30 p.m., the doctors decide Rayna can leave. Bonnie drops her off at her dorm and says good night. Get some sleep.

At 6:30 on Tuesday morning, Erin's alarm wails at them to get out of bed. They have to be at the gym at 7:15 for the team picture. Bonnie is headed out on the road again to do some recruiting, and this morning is the only time everyone can get together. Erin's feet hit the floor, but Rayna's do not.

Erin?

Yeah?

I don't think I can get up. I don't think I can move.

At 6:50, Erin calls Bonnie. There's fear in her voice. She's like she was yesterday. What should I do?

Well, Bonnie says, can she walk? If she can come here, someone can take her to the student health center after we take pictures.

After a few minutes, Rayna decides that, yes, she can walk to the gym. On the way over, sweat runs down her face. This isn't normal, Erin thinks.

In the locker room, Rayna is too weak to dress herself. Erin and Fran help her into her uniform. When they get to the gym, the photographer fiddles with the lighting, and Rayna, in the back row, struggles to hold up her head. Between each snap of the camera, her chin rests against her chest.

Playfully, the coaches and the photographer tease her. One more big smile, Rayna. We're not taking the picture until we get one of your real smiles.

In the weeks and months to come, this is the moment assistant coach Angie Lee will replay in her mind with anguish. She still won't look at the team picture taken on that day; her copy remains in its bubble-wrap packaging, stuffed in a drawer. But she doesn't have to see the photo to recall the image that haunts her. That day, she remembers, the whites of Rayna's eyes were yellow.

* * *

In Columbia, the phone rings Tuesday night with the news that Rayna is back in Montgomery Regional Hospital. She has been sent there from the student health center for tests, including a spinal tap. The doctor on the line uses a word that will soon dominate the DuBoses' lives: meningitis.

According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, meningitis is "an infection of the fluid of a person's spinal cord and the fluid that surrounds the brain." The seriousness of that infection, however, can differ greatly depending on whether it is viral or bacterial. Viral meningitis has flulike symptoms that include drowsiness, headache and fever, and if it is left untreated, a person will generally recover from it in 7 to 10 days. Bacterial meningitis also has flulike symptoms, including drowsiness, headache and fever, and if it is left untreated, it can kill a person within hours.

Willie doesn't remember any discussion about exactly what type of meningitis Rayna might have. He hangs up the phone with the impression that there is no need to panic, that they can wait and drive down first thing in the morning.

At 2 a.m., the phone rings again. Another doctor.

I'm sorry, he says, but Rayna has taken a turn for the worse.

What?

Rayna's white-blood cell count is through the roof. It is so high, doctors think it must be an error. But when the tests are repeated, the results are the same. Rayna appears to have bacterial meningitis, and her body is shutting down.

We're flying her to Charlottesville. To the University of Virginia Medical Center.

When?

Now. You need to come right away.

What are you saying?

I'm saying she may not make it.

* * *

A car flies down the highway. Inside, silence.

Don't talk, don't think, just drive. Three hours to Charlottesville. Three hours through the rolling hills of Virginia. Three hours to let the imagination run.

Twenty-eight years. Is that how long it has been since they promised they would always be there for each other? Twenty-eight years of laughing together, praying together and raising two children. Twenty-eight years of basketball games and Sunday dinners.

In 1973, Andrea Burton was on her lunch break from work at the state library in Norfolk, Va., when she met a tall, handsome man standing in line at McDonald's. He made her laugh, and she made him smile. That night, Andrea went home and told her momma she'd met the man she was going to marry.

Andrea had a 3-year-old son, Quinton, from a previous relationship, but Willie was always dad. They went to church together, the three of them, and for the first time, the preacher's words moved Willie.

His own father had died when Willie was 7, his mother when he was barely 20. They were hard-working people, holding down multiple jobs, doing anything they could to give him a step up in the world. But when they passed away, he was all alone. When he and Andrea married in 1979, he had the family he'd long dreamed of.

Willie was selling insurance, but he wasn't making a lot of money. Before long, he made a decision that would change their lives. Purex Corp., the detergent company, was hiring in Columbia, Md.

Andrea didn't want to leave Norfolk until Quinton finished the school year, so they stayed behind while Willie went north and found an apartment. He tossed a mattress on the floor, and that's where he slept until his wife and son joined him.

They'd been in Maryland barely a year when their community realized what Willie and Andrea already knew: Quinton was an artist with a basketball in his hands. In Norfolk, Willie had nailed a backboard and hoop to a pole in their backyard, and from that day forward, Andrea had to drag Quinton inside for dinner. In Columbia, he blossomed into a star, playing on all the best club teams, dribbling as if he had the basketball on a string. Private schools with prestigious alumni began begging Quinton to transfer.

No thanks, the DuBose family said. The neighborhood was safe, they were happy. At 16, Quinton was a star at Hammond High School.

When the DuBose team at home learned it was expecting a new member, Quinton started scanning books containing names for babies. His parents had given him the job of naming his sister.

Eighteen years. Is that how long it had been since that October day in 1983 when Rayna arrived? Hardly seems like it now, as Willie and Andrea rush down a dark Virginia highway. Eighteen years of ballet and basketball. Eighteen years of watching with pride as their little girl became a woman.

And now, three hours through the rolling hills of Virginia. Three hours to let the imagination run. Three hours to think the worst while praying for the best.

* * *

Wait a minute, are you telling me she's not going to make it?

In Blacksburg, Bonnie Henrickson is on the phone, hearing the impossible: Rayna DuBose is dying. The coach was asleep when the phone rang, but the nurse's words start to sink in.

She's not going to make it.

Go. That's all she can think. No time to grab a bag or ask questions. Just pick up Angie Lee and go. When the assistant coach climbs into Bonnie's car, they begin compiling a mental checklist of the last two days. When did Rayna first start to feel sick? What were her symptoms? How could they have missed the signs?

My God, one of my kids is dying.

Bonnie isn't married, has no children, but every year she sends three or four seniors out into the world and brings in three or four freshmen. Every one of them, all the way down to the last girl on the end of the bench, is family. My kids. That's what she calls them. She'd looked into the eyes of so many parents and promised to take care of their daughters. Rayna had been no different.

We love your game, Rayna. But you've got to step it up in school. I know you're smart enough. You can have an outstanding career at Tech. But you've got to work hard. This is the school for you.

Bonnie could be tough. No question about it. She yelled occasionally. All good coaches do. But she gave out hugs, too. She loved it when Rayna would stop by her office for no reason at all. Georgia Tech, Providence, George Mason - Bonnie had to battle them all to land Rayna, but it was worth it. She was the kind of ego-free player Bonnie loved. She was already showing flashes of brilliance on the basketball court. It was only a matter of time.

Flying down the highway, the minutes feel like days. The coaches race toward Charlottesville in Bonnie's brand new Lincoln. From the corner of her eye, Angie peeks at the speedometer. It edges past 100.

* * *

What do you mean she's not here?

Bonnie and Angie are frantic. They've barreled into the ER at the University of Virginia Medical Center, and the DuBoses aren't even here yet, and now someone is telling them that Rayna isn't here, either.

There were helicopter problems in Blacksburg. The first helicopter couldn't take off, and by the time another one was sent from Roanoke, Rayna's blood pressure had plummeted. She'd had a seizure and couldn't be moved until she was stabilized.

Doctors take Bonnie aside and pepper her with questions: Think hard. What were her symptoms?

She was cranky, she was irritable, she was tired and dehydrated. She just wasn't Rayna.

Willie and Andrea arrive next, at 5 a.m., and finally, 15 minutes later, Rayna's helicopter lands. They can see their daughter for only a moment, as she's being rushed to the emergency room. Running over and over in Andrea's mind is one thought: She's dying. My daughter is dying.

Let us do our jobs, the doctors say. We're doing all we can to stabilize her. But for several hours, they say little else.

Eventually, there is a diagnosis: Rayna has a particular strain of bacterial meningitis called meningococcal meningitis, which strikes about 3,000 Americans every year. The Centers for Disease Control estimate that it is responsible for 300 deaths a year, and five to 15 of those who die are college students living in dormitories.

The sun rises, and there is still no news about Rayna's condition. Around 11 a.m., a doctor walks into the waiting room. His face is like chiseled stone.

Right now, it does not look good, he says. Rayna is in a coma. Her brain is swelling, and her kidneys have failed. Her other organs are beginning to shut down. You need to prepare yourself for the possibility that she might die.

Andrea grabs Bonnie and begins to sob. Over and over, as her tears mix with Bonnie's, Andrea repeats words that make no sense. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry.

You're sorry, Bonnie thinks. I promised to take care of her. I walked into your living room, looked you in the eye and told you she would be part of our family. My God, I'm the one who's sorry.

Talk. That's what Andrea wants to do. If she doesn't talk about what's going on, it will make her crazy. She's always been that way. Back in Norfolk, where she sang in the choir at First Baptist Church on Bute Street, family talked about stuff. They talked about faith, they talked about love, and when they had to, they talked about death. Right now, Bonnie and Angie are family.

But what about Willie? See him over there, staring out the window? One minute he's pacing the hallway, bottling up his anger. The next he's near tears, talking quietly to himself.

I can't lose my baby, he repeats, over and over. Please don't take my baby from me.

When fear and anger finally give way to exhaustion, the cushions in the waiting room come off the chairs, and together, the four construct a makeshift bed in the middle of the room. Bonnie, Angie, Willie and Andrea lie down on the floor, holding hands. They can barely keep their eyes open, but no one really sleeps.

Weren't they just saying how lucky they were? Hadn't they just dropped Rayna off at Tech seven months ago and laughed, figuring they were finally in the clear after months of adversity? When Rayna was a high-school senior, Willie was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Andrea had taken a fall that broke both her arms. What a year, they joked. If we can just get through this, we'll be fine.

Willie's own father knew all about hard times. Willie Sr. was an honest man who did all he could to provide for his family. He spent a lifetime working with his hands, cutting marble and coming home exhausted. He barely had a third-grade education. The only thing he could write was his name. Every week, he proudly signed his paycheck.

He never once saw a doctor, and liver problems took his life when Willie was 7. After he died, money was scarce but Willie's mother, Rosa Lee, managed. Willie would wake up in the morning to find her already gone, off to clean houses, earning money to pay the rent. There was always food on the table. She made sure of that.

Her son didn't know how sick she was until he was older. Cancer. Heart problems. A lot of different things. She tried to keep her ailments to herself, even near the end. Willie had a chance to leave Norfolk, offers to play basketball or football on scholarship. But he stayed home, went to Norfolk State, and worked to earn money for her medical bills.

Now he and Andrea were survivors, too. They had jobs they liked - Willie as a supervisor for American Greetings, Andrea with the federal government - money in the bank, and good health. Doctors had caught Willie's cancer early, and he beat it. Andrea had both arms in heavy casts for months, but the bones healed.

They had come through it whole, and they swelled with pride to see their daughter walk across the Blacksburg campus. It was Rayna's turn to go out on her own, to get a shot at her dream. Willie had sent her off into the world knowing he was a lucky man.

* * *

Treat them like adults.

That's the best way to break the news to the team, Bonnie decides.

We can't go from 'She's going to be fine' to 'I'm sorry, but she's gone,' she tells her assistant coaches. We need to get them together right now and tell them it doesn't look good. Don't keep them in the dark.

The task falls to Bonnie's assistant on campus, Karen Lange. She's so scared, she's shaking after getting off the phone with Bonnie. She writes down what she wants to say and calls the team into the locker room. They know something is going on. Because meningitis can spread so easily, they've all been to the health center for a dose of the drug Cipro as a precaution. Ten seconds into Lange's speech, the whole room is in tears.

Erin sobs on Fran's shoulder. Her mind keeps replaying the last time she saw Rayna, trying to remember what she said when she told her goodbye.

My God, Erin thinks, what about Monique? Does she even know?

Later, Fran fires off an instant message to Monique on her computer. Within minutes, Monique calls Fran, hysterical.

Don't you tell me my best friend is dying. Don't you do that.

What is going on? Hadn't they just been laughing together, pointing out cute guys across the room as they danced well into the morning hours in Baltimore? That was Easter weekend, only three days ago. They were hugging and joking about how hot it was in the club. Sharing the same water bottle.

Why not me? they ask themselves.

Fran and Monique become obsessed with the question, as if the answer will bring them any comfort.

Why not me? Fran asks. I was with her the whole weekend.

It doesn't make sense, Monique says. Every single one of us drank from that bottle after she did.

Why is Rayna the one fighting for her life?

Tomorrow: "A Day of Rejoicing," in the Today section.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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  • The Staff

    - Kevin Van Valkenburg, 26, is a Montana native who moved east to join The Sun in 2000. He has covered high-school sports in Howard County, the Winter Olympics and, for the past two years, college football. E-mail Kevin Van Valkenburg. - Nanine Hartzenbusch, 43, has been a staff...

  • Rayna DuBose

    Previous stories from The Sun on Rayna DuBose, a basketball player at Oakland Mills and Virginia Tech.

  • 50 Women to Watch 2014
    50 Women to Watch 2014

    The Baltimore Sun canvassed readers, sources and leaders to determine the area's most intriguing movers and shakers of 2014.

  • Menswear looks for the man (or woman) on the go
    Menswear looks for the man (or woman) on the go

    The versatility of this season's menswear allows you to stay on the go whether it be by plane, train or automobile. Capture the season's hottest trends - coats, leather, tailored suits and hues of blue, brown and green. And although some say it's a man's world, women can...

  • 100 best places to take the kids
    100 best places to take the kids

    We've rounded up our favorite spots for some family fun, locally or within the surrounding area. Our picks include places in Delaware, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Washington, D.C., and of course, Maryland.

  • Retro Baltimore: The Baltimore Marathon of 1923
    Retro Baltimore: The Baltimore Marathon of 1923

    This weekend's Baltimore Marathon follows in a grand tradition of people running long distances on the streets of Baltimore.

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