He lost his mother. He lost his grandmother and his great-grandmother on the same day. Then Demetrius Rhaney nearly lost his college dream because he lost his high school.
What he still had, though, were the contents of a little sandwich bag. And from that little bag came one of the most inspiring journeys to the doorstep of the NFL.
The offensive lineman's late grandmother, Estella Holmes, was an ebullient woman with an easy manner and a hope for Demetrius: she wanted him to go to college. Rhaney grew up in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., and lost his mother to a sudden illness when he was in seventh grade, but not before he promised her he would go somewhere and graduate. The path eventually led him to nearby Academy High in Coral Springs.
Then, before Rhaney had a chance to graduate, the school closed. Rhaney moved to Stranahan High, where he had gone for ninth grade, but when he got a football scholarship offer from Alabama A&M, he was asked for a high school transcript. He could provide one, from Stranahan, but not the other.
"After I signed," Rhaney said, "I was trying to get through the clearance house. They needed a transcript from the private school. I couldn't get in contact from anyone at the school. I didn't know what was going on."
Rhaney needed help, but his mom had passed, his dad had gotten into some legal trouble, and his grandmother and great-grandmother had died on the same day in 2009. Jamillah Shakir, a neighbor of Rhaney's, decided to start calling, and calling, and calling anyone she could to get a copy of that transcript.
"It was very, very hard to try to find them and get any information," she said. Shakir, who had known Demetrius since birth, would call at the beginning of each workday and remain on hold for hours. She says she never tracked down anyone who could help her. (Efforts to reach a representative from the school were not successful.) Rhaney had seemingly lost his shot at a scholarship.
"I didn't think I was going anywhere after that," he said.
Rhaney did have a former teammate who went to a junior college in Iowa Falls, Iowa, and he recommended giving the coaches at Ellsworth C.C. a call. He did, and he got some positive feedback. The coaches would give him a shot if he showed up in time for the team's first game.
There was just one problem: getting there. Ellsworth C.C. couldn't offer a scholarship or even a plane ticket. So one night, Rhaney's family and friends got together and brainstormed. A flight to Iowa would cost almost $600 one-way. Nobody had that kind of money on hand.
Then the eyes of Rhaney's grandfather's lit up. Ralph Holmes got up from the table and went into another room. He quickly returned with a sandwich bag. Inside was a collection of rings, bracelets and necklaces: his late wife's jewelry. Holmes left the house, went to a nearby pawn shop and returned with nearly enough for the Delta ticket.
"It was important for me to get him through school," Holmes said. "I promised his momma before she died. I promised I'd put him through school."
Shakir started working the phones. Friends started coming over with a dollar, $20, $25. "It was almost like the spirit of his mom and grandmother took over," Shakir said. "Nobody said no. Nobody said, 'We don't have.' Everybody said, 'We're coming right over.' "
Rhaney soon had the money, in cash. He had his flight. He took out a loan for his living costs. And he boarded for one of the first plane rides of his life. He was terrified as the jet flew, but he made it to Iowa. An assistant coach picked him up at the Des Moines airport. Rhaney had no return trip; he couldn't afford it. This was his shot.
"I had never seen snow or anything," he said. "I'd come home from practice and sleep. I had on a hoodie, sweat pants, whatever I could find. There was frostnip on my fingers."
The first game was days away.
Rhaney earned his way onto the field and started 11 games at right tackle. He came back the next year, moved to guard, and started 11 more games. He got some Division I offers. This time, though, there wouldn't be a transcript issue: Rhaney got an associates degree at Ellsworth. He was going to college, and he was going for free.
He chose Tennessee State because it was closer to home, but not without some due diligence. Rhaney asked head coach Rod Reed to get his grandfather's blessing, and Holmes insisted on meeting Reed in the front yard of his house. "I wasn't invited in," Reed laughed. "I thought, 'I guess this is where it's gonna go down.' There were neighbors looking across the fence." If it took a village for Rhaney to get to school, it would take a village to vet the school.
Reed won the village over, and Rhaney started seven games at right guard for Tennessee State as a junior. Coaches then moved him to a more difficult position – center – for his senior year. Rhaney started all 14 games there. Position coach Russ Ehrenfeld remembers getting a call at 7 a.m. on a summer Sunday from Rhaney.
"I got up, made the coffee, my phone rings and it's Rhaney," Ehrenfeld said. "In my mind I'm thinking, 'This isn't good.' I picked the phone up and I said, 'Rhaney.' He says, 'Hey, coach. Got a few minutes? I want to go over some plays with you. Like the inside zone play.' Inside, I'm laughing – it was hilarious but it was great. It really made a tremendous impression on me. He cares so much about being good and wanting to do everything correctly."
Ehrenfeld made sure to tell every NFL scout that story.
In front of officials from 31 NFL teams, according to Rhaney’s agent, the lineman ran a sub-5.0 40-yard dash at his pro day on the Tennessee State campus last week. Although he's slightly smaller (6-foot-1, 300 pounds) than most elite offensive line prospects, that's a fast time for his position. He's not going in the first round, but teams have shown interest.
"Rhaney's gonna make it with somebody; I have no doubt," Ehrenfeld said. "Because of his personality and his fight."
Perhaps the best example of his fight – other than flying one-way to Iowa and taking out a loan just to give himself a shot at a scholarship – is that he earned his degree in a year and a half. That was after earning his associates degree at Ellsworth. He is the first man in his family to graduate from college. Shakir, the neighbor who spent all those hours on hold, framed the diploma just last week.
"I'm proud," Rhaney said. "Not only did I graduate high school, but I graduated from college. I'm real proud."
So is his grandfather, who got his own work ethic from years planting crops on a farm in Georgia with his father, and now might have a grandson in the NFL.
All because he and Demetrius turned a beloved grandmother's jewelry into something even more precious.