When a loud scream roused him from sleep Jan.15, 2009, Serderius Bryant already knew what was happening.
The woman who had raised him, the woman who had picked him up from the hospital the day he was born, was dying.
“I was asleep on the couch, and the only thing I heard was a loud yelling noise,” Bryant recalls of his grandfather yelling from the other room. “I went in the room and was doing CPR on my grandma while I was on the phone with the ambulance people … and my granddad, that's what really hurt me to my heart . . . he came in and was like, ‘She's not dead, she's not dead. She's just asleep. She's just asleep. She ain't dead.'
“It was the worst feeling I ever had. It hurt my stomach a lot. You know, like how you're getting ready to cry, and your stomach like cramps up. I didn't really know what to do. I was like 16 or 17, and I was like, ‘Dang, man, I lost the only woman I ever knew, really, in my life.'”
It's a moment forever etched in his memory and forever etched on his forearm. A tattoo that reads, “Dorthy, 03-12-1935 R.I.P 01-15-2009.” He thinks back to the moment often even now as he sits in his apartment in Oxford, Miss.
Serderius “Bird” Bryant, a sophomore linebacker with a promising future at the University of Mississippi, used to terrorize opponents on the Seminole High football field in Sanford.
After Dorthy Bryant Holmes' death, Serderius Bryant was on his own — or at least that was what he thought.
The young man who had been so tough growing up, the one everyone in the neighborhood looked up to, the one everybody called “Bird,” was suddenly being forced to leave the nest.
He wanted to run. Running had always been something he had done well, especially with a football in his hand. He wanted to hit something or someone. That, too, was something he did exceptionally well on the football field: hit people. Football had always kept him grounded, kept him out of trouble, kept him in school and focused on his grades.
Now it would be football that would get him past the biggest hurdle life had put in front of him.
Big words from a little lady
If it would bring back his grandmother, Bryant would probably give up his spot on the Ole Miss football team. He knows, however, that kind of thinking only would draw a scolding from Mrs. Holmes, a small but strict woman who raised all four of her daughter's children as if they were her own.
“I miss my mom,” says Shonda Bryant, who gave birth to Lakeita, Sergio, Lashonda and Serderius but never really took much interest in raising them until after her mother died. “She did a very good job with my kids. She didn't play. She was stern with me. She was stern with my kids. She was a little lady, but when she talked, she meant it ... big words.”
The big words never really hit home with Shonda. She took to the streets early and ran amok in a helter-skelter world of drug addiction and petty crimes that saw her in and out of jail.
“I really don't like to talk about the past because the past is the past,” Serderius Bryant said. “But when she was out on the streets, we'd see her once a week or sometimes once a month, and that's when she'd come over and say hey to us and then leave, and that was only for like one hour or probably … 30 minutes.”
Dorthy Holmes made sure her grandchildren didn't know about their mother's problems.
“She hid it from all of us,” says Sergio Bryant, Serderius' oldest brother.
Time to step up and be a mom
Shonda Bryant was arrested numerous times during more than 20 years of running the streets.
“Every time she went to jail, my grandmother always used to tell us was she went on vacation,” Serderius Bryant said. “We never knew what she did. We were young, so we never did ask ... we just knew she went on vacation for a long time.”
At the time her mother died, Shonda Bryant had hit rock bottom. She decided to make changes. Her three oldest children were pretty much grown, but she had one last chance to be a part of the youngest one's life.
Custody of Serderius initially became the responsibility of his older brother, Sergio, but Shonda started to help.
“She finally snapped out of it and realized, ‘I'm too old for it. I have four kids who I didn't really raise, and it's time for me step it up and be a mom,'” Sergio said.
Serderius never knew his real father. He credits his brother, youth coach Henry Collier and Seminole High football coach Rob Vite with stepping up as key mentors.
“Henry Collier, he was a big inspiration in my life. He was my Pop Warner coach, and me and him have had a good bond my whole life,” Serderius said. “He went on my official recruiting visits with me. He did a lot of things with me, and I'm glad he was there in my life with me.
“And in high school, Coach Vite was the biggest influence in my life. He saw me come from almost getting kicked out of school my ninth-grade year to graduating and going to college. He really helped turn me around. I didn't know what was good or bad.”
He also turned to his faith, often — especially while living in the crime-ridden community of Midway, a Sanford hub of nightly gunshots, sirens and helicopter flyovers.
“I just thank God, and I know that if it wasn't for God I wouldn't be where I am right now,” Serderius said. “I already see that God took me away from a lot of things. Out of all the people that have gotten shot in Midway, he didn't let me get shot when people got shot around me. ... I'd say 10 yards away from me people have gotten shot right in front of my face, and it wasn't me ... So I say, ‘Thank you, God,' 'cause he did that. A lot of amazing stuff that I have overcome.”
It would take focus and determination to get him out of Midway.
“Everybody says you'll be back,” Serderius said. “It's like no one wants you to do good.”
Ole Miss takes a chance
Football was easy, but he quickly learned it would take a lot more work in the classroom to reach the next level. So he buckled down. As he was working on his grades, his mom was working on being sober.
“I got sick and tired of doing the same things. I did have an addiction. It was drugs. I saw myself falling into a pit. Once I was at the bottom, there was nowhere else but up,” Shonda Bryant said.
She went to rehab and started to become the mom she never was. She got help from her longtime friend and now husband, Wilson Cunningham, and she helped Serderius get a tutor for school.
With his grades on the mend, he could concentrate on getting to college. Serderius was an all-state linebacker and the Orlando Sentinel's 2010 Central Florida Defensive Player of the Year, but that wasn't enough.
He was 5-feet-10, 215 pounds of fast, strong football talent, but people kept telling him he was too small to play college football.
“I'm glad Ole Miss gave me the chance that they gave me,” he said. “They offered me, and they believed in me.”
They offered him a scholarship, and he took it. He showed the Rebel coaches they were right. He started three games last year and was fourth on the team in tackles, with 61. He was named to the SEC coaches' All-Freshman team and third-team freshman All-America by Phil Steele.
Serderius earned his first career start Saturday against No. 1 Alabama. Ole Miss was overmatched and overwhelmed in the contest, but it didn't diminish from his increased role on an SEC team.
He has been living a somewhat parallel existence with his mother. They said Serderius would never make it in college, and Shonda Bryant would never get clean. She has enjoyed watching her son shine in college.
When she sat in Vaught-Hemingway Stadium in Oxford, Miss., for her first game, part of 60,000-plus screaming Rebels fans, it was like a high she had never felt before.
“Everything was just going on the inside and the adrenaline,” she said. “... I was so excited to be where he's at … to be there for him. Once I got to see him come out the tunnel, it was like, ‘Whooo, there's my baby.'”
The Bryant family now plows through obstacles together.
The house Serderius grew up in caught fire during one of mom's trips to Oxford last year.
“They were all out there visiting him in Mississippi,” Sergio said. “I live a couple blocks over, and by the time we got there . . . it was pretty much done.”
The family still had one another, and that's what Serderius said he has always cherished most. He didn't have to accept his mother back into his life. The choice was his, as it was for the rest of his siblings.
“God says you've got to always forgive people for their sins,” Serderius says. “She messed up, but she's still your mom. She brought you into this world, and you've got to always forgive her.”
Chris Hays is the Sentinel's recruiting coverage coordinator and can be reached at email@example.com. Follow us on Twitter at @Os_Recruiting and Facebook at Orlando Sentinel Recruiting and now on Pinterest at Orlando Recruiting.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun