WEST DEPTFORD, N.J. -- All Jamil Pollard knew about his Signing Day ceremony was that he needed to bring a Penn State sweatshirt and his parents should be there.
When he walked into the small gym at West Deptford High Feb. 1, television cameramen and reporters with microphones waited in front of a table. His parents were there as planned, but they wore stern expressions.
They had been told that their son's most recent grades had fallen short, putting his future as a Nittany Lion football player in doubt, and that he'd been thrown out of gym class the previous day for horsing around. They pulled him aside and began to scold him. He had come too far from a tragedy four years ago that threatened to rip his family apart to lose focus now. Through it all, the 6-foot-4, 275-pound defensive tackle had kept a smile on his face -- the trademark of the young man whose strength had pushed West Deptford to a New Jersey Group II state championship back in the fall.
Across the country at settings just like this, families were celebrating dreams come true as their sons accepted college scholarships. But at West Deptford, Mr. Pollard's parents forced canned smiles as their son went through the motions of signing slowly for the cameras.
"Can I really sign it now?" he asked his coach, Clyde Folsom.
The 18-year-old signed the next four-plus years over to Penn State, a decision that had been met with skepticism since he committed to the Nittany Lions Dec. 29. That day, he became the first player to choose Penn State after the Jerry Sandusky scandal broke on Nov. 4 when the former coach was charged with multiple counts of child sexual abuse.
Certainly, the coaches in University Park, Pa., were in desperate need of some good news. For 57 days after the Sandusky story first engulfed the campus and headlines around the nation, Penn State's football program had not picked up one verbal commitment, and at least three players formerly committed to the Nittany Lions had decided Happy Valley was no longer the place for them. Mr. Pollard had been taking ribbing from players committed to other schools.
"All the kids were like, 'You're going to get Sandusky'd,' cracking those wise jokes," he said. "They turned Sandusky into a verb."
After making his signing official, he stepped in front of those cameras, which were there because he was rated the No. 7 player in New Jersey by Rivals.com but also because he went the unconventional route of picking Penn State before the school had named Bill O'Brien as the successor to Joe Paterno, who was forced out in the wake of the Sandusky scandal.
"You pick a school based on how a program is and what it always will be," Mr. Pollard told reporters. "Not based on a coach."
The young man had paid little attention to the Sandusky news and its ugly aftermath, which wasn't a surprise to those who know him best. The last four years, it had been tough for Mr. Pollard to take anything too seriously, and he had considered questions more complex than this one.
The facts of his life since that night in 2007 had been stark: His two little sisters were dead, at the hands of his older brother. Now it was just he, his mom and her adopted nephew, and Jamil had spent most of his adolescence making sense of it.
His signing with any school to play football and receive a free education was considered a miracle and a testament to the power of community in West Deptford.
It was all on him now, but did he really appreciate the stakes?
"Nothing," he said, "is as important as life and death."
Jamil Pollard had been his little sisters' primary baby sitter for years, and Nov. 8, 2007, seemed like any other day.
After school, his mother, Lucille Bevans, was working at Kentucky Fried Chicken, and his sisters, A'aliah Scott, 10, and India Duncan, 6, asked 13-year-old Jamil if he would take them to play at a park. He said no.
Jamil instead joined his friends playing basketball at a local community center. A'aliah and India were left in the care of their older brother, 18-year-old Marqueese Lee.
For the previous year, Marqueese had not been himself. Jamil and his mother had theories about the cause of the change, but they didn't truly know. Marqueese had begun to hear voices in his head. He went to a psychiatric facility, but nothing was found to be wrong.
Marqueese and Ms. Bevans were fighting often, and she eventually kicked him out of the house. He would usually come by only to shower or to lay his head on a pillow.
That night, when she came home to the one-story blue house on Red Bank Avenue, something was off. It was quiet, and her girls, especially little India, rarely turned down the volume. Marqueese was there, and he told his mother that he had put the girls to sleep. But Ms. Bevans knew it was too early.
Ms. Bevans went into their bedroom, where the girls lay lifeless. She picked up India in her arms, finding her youngest limp and gray. Ms. Bevans went stiff. Marqueese approached from behind and hit her over the head with a hammer. The only thing Ms. Bevans could feel was cold blood running down her face.
She looked up at her son, searching his eyes for any sign of the first child she brought into the world. There was nothing. He looked to be in a trance, still wielding that bloody hammer.
"Mommy loves you," Ms. Bevans told him. "Mommy loves you."
Marqueese snapped out of his blind fury. He put his arms out for his mother. She told him it was too late. He said the voices told him to put his sisters to sleep.
Across town, Jamil -- her big, goofy Jamil -- was playing a game with friends.
When he was through, around 9 p.m., his aunt was frantically calling his cell phone. She said something was happening at the house and came to pick Jamil up. They arrived to see the street lit up with police cars and ambulances. Jamil got out of the car and sprinted to the house, where a cop grabbed him and pinned him against a vehicle. They wouldn't let him through.
Later that night at the hospital, after riding in an ambulance with his mother, Jamil heard the horrific details and put the blame on himself. If he had been there, he could have stopped Marqueese. Ms. Bevans chose to look at it another way -- if he had been there, he could be dead, too.
All over the close-knit town of West Deptford, a suburb of Philadelphia with around 20,000 residents, Jamil's friends learned about the incident over the nightly news.
"The whole town was just in shock," said Jake Hannan, one of Jamil's best friends and the West Deptford quarterback. "How often do you hear of something like that?"
Jamil went to the home of another friend, Phil Fisher, for the night. Mr. Fisher watched as his friend sat on the sofa for hours, not talking, not sleeping, only breathing.
"He was emotionless," Mr. Fisher said. "The TV was on, but he was just sitting there."
Jamil fell asleep sometime that morning. He would wake up to a group of friends hugging him, thankful he was alive.
Within days, the West Deptford Middle School eighth-grade football team had a game. Would Jamil Pollard play?
He answered that question emphatically, pushing his opponents all over the field in a performance that would become an oft-cited story to illustrate the boy's will.
West Deptford wore its white helmets with a black stripe across them to memorialize A'aliah and India, and the coaches even called a trick play that would allow Jamil, an offensive tackle, to catch a pass.
"He caught it," quarterback Jake Hannan recalled. "He didn't get far, but he caught it."
The pass, the cheers from the packed stands and the West Deptford victory finally gave Jamil something to smile about again.
Inside, he battled guilt and anger, but he had to be strong for his mother. She had moved in with family in Camden, N.J., and she would have preferred staying away from West Deptford forever. Her son remained there, though, staying with his friend, Sean Weidler, whose mother was more than willing to host Jamil so that he could continue attending West Deptford.
When the time came for high school, it was clear to Ms. Bevans what she had to do: return to West Deptford. Whatever the future held for her son, he likely wasn't going to have that kind of support anywhere else. She also knew that she couldn't keep going without Jamil.
Ms. Bevans had borne four children with four different men, and now she was living for the child that she could still save. She had help from Jamil's father, James Pollard, who had remained a caring presence in his life, but this was her battle.
So Ms. Bevans moved back to the same neighborhood, to a brown house on G Street, just one block from the site of her family's nightmare. She hung pictures of A'aliah and India on the front wall and put a "Mommy's Lil' Angels" sticker on the back window of her car.
Jamil tattooed the girls' faces and their names on his broad shoulders, but he kept his feelings bottled tightly, rarely discussing what he would call "the tragedy." Ms. Bevans put Jamil into therapy, but her only window into his thoughts came through the poetry he was suddenly writing when his mind wandered in classes.
"He was writing poems that I thought came off the Internet somewhere," James Pollard said.
The first poem Jamil showed his mother was written for her. It began:
This is my mother
So bold and brave
When I'm feeling down and blue
It's okay she would say
Advice is something she always has
It's not always good
but it's never bad
This is my mother
"He would lift me up out of nowhere," Ms. Bevans said.
As prosecutors built their case against Marqueese, Jamil and his mother had no contact with him. Marqueese spent the first two years after the incident in a straitjacket because of repeated attempts to commit suicide.
In March 2009, Marqueese was found not guilty by reason of insanity. He had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, and the court ruled he did not know what he was doing when he strangled A'aliah and India.
The family's 16 months in the media spotlight was over, just in time for Jamil's football career to blossom. His sophomore season, he evolved into a dominant player, and soon the offers would be rolling in. Alabama. Florida. Iowa. Penn State. Boston College.
In April, after being recruited aggressively by Penn State assistant coaches Larry Johnson and Ran Vanderlinden, Jamil gave a verbal commitment to Paterno's Nittany Lions. It all felt so right. The powerhouse program was just 200 miles away, so he could play big-time college football close to West Deptford.
But Jamil hadn't been putting forth the effort in the classroom to match his work on the football field.
"I was just lazy," Jamil said. "All the hype went to my head. As the letters poured in, it just filled my head and I stopped doing work. I was terrible."
In July, the Penn State coaches looked at Jamil's grades and pulled back their scholarship offer. He was crushed but not surprised. He knew he had put himself in a precarious situation -- one only he could fix.
Still, it was hard to know how much it meant to Jamil.
"I get I need to get the grades to go to college," he said. But even if that didn't happen, "I will still live afterwards. I could still go and do other things. I have to buckle down and actually do it."
Steve Czekalski knows Jamil Pollard's grades better than anybody. Mr. Czekalski, a West Deptford teacher and assistant coach, has checked Jamil's marks on his computer almost daily during his senior year.
Like most in the community, Mr. Czekalski understands what Jamil has overcome to get to this point, peering over the abyss that separates success and failure. When asked what he'll remember most about Jamil, Mr. Czekalski paused for half a minute and fought back tears.
"That hits me," Mr. Czekalski said. "Just his smile."
The town that fell in love with Jamil now can't stop worrying about him. While some questioned his decision to attend Penn State in the midst of the Sandusky scandal, it has felt as if they're all Nittany Lions here. At a basketball game last month, when Jamil was playing, the crowd broke into a "We are! Penn State!" chant.
Jamil improved his grades enough to get another offer from Penn State in November. He visited Boston College, where his father wanted him to go, but he couldn't shake his desire to be a Penn Stater. Without a head coach in place, he was comfortable knowing that Mr. Johnson and Mr. Vanderlinden were likely to be kept on the staff.
With his commitment, Jamil signaled it was OK for others to choose Penn State, too.
No matter what has been happening, with school, football or recruiting, Jamil has always had something deeper, more pressing, going on. This year, it's been a weekly 24-mile drive east to Winslow Township, N.J., to the Ancora State Hospital.
Jamil hasn't told many people about his visits to see Marqueese, whose mental state is evaluated every six months by the Gloucester County court. Ms. Bevans said they behave like brothers again, getting into wrestling matches one visit and sharing long talks the next.
"He's still my brother no matter what," Jamil said. "You can't hold that grudge forever."
Usually when he visits, Jamil stops along the way to pick up his brother's favorite foods. It takes a while to get through security, but it's worth it to see Marqueese light up at the sight of pancakes, Chinese food, Reese's Peanut Butter Cups or raspberry lemonade.
Jamil's plan is to make enough money eventually so that he can take care of his brother outside of a drab facility like Ancora. In the meantime, he'll just have to find a way to make sure Marqueese can watch Penn State football games.
That would be a fitting end, but Jamil can't get ahead of himself. There's more work to do, and look at what he's already accomplished.
"I've always had a good spirit," Jamil said. "I just ... can't ... stop ... smiling."
J. Brady McCollough: firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @BradyMcCollough. First Published February 12, 2012 5:00 AM