West Virginia junior at another precipice in his life

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Travis Bell stood at the doorstep of the little, red-roofed bungalow on Third Street. It was a sunny morning in December in Belle Glade, Fla., and Bell, his life coming apart at the seams, had returned to a home that was not his own and to a family that was not his own to bury a father who was not his own.

What brought Bell, a junior cornerback at West Virginia, back to his hometown was the news that Derrick Peterkin had lost his battle with prostate cancer. Peterkin, 74, had been the lone father figure for much of Bell’s childhood.

Bell was 14 when he discovered Peterkin, his mother’s longtime companion, wasn’t his biological father. That came the same day Bell found his mother in bed and tried to shake her awake. She was gone, dead at 54 from an apparent heart attack.

That was the day Bell’s life unraveled for the first time. Now, it could be happening again.

On Dec. 1, a week before Peterkin’s death, Bell, 22, was booked for DUI and driving with a suspended license, his second arrest in 10 months. The incident occurred just hours after a triple-overtime defeat in the season finale against Iowa State in Morgantown, W.Va.

Police had been alerted to a domestic disturbance at Creekside Condos around 3 a.m. They arrived to find two men and two women standing outside a black Hyundai Accent in the parking lot.

Bell had a cut on his forehead and a bloody lip, according to the police report, and his girlfriend was bleeding from a cut on her knuckle. In separate conversations with the officer, Bell’s girlfriend admitted she hit him, and both said Bell never struck her back.

The group had just returned from downtown Morgantown, the girlfriend said. The officer could smell alcohol on their breaths. Bell admitted he drove. He failed three field sobriety tests and recorded a blood-alcohol content of 0.152, nearly twice the legal limit.

From the police station, Bell phoned Cathy Seider, his godmother.

Open door, open heart

Seider is a mother of four, but “mom” to nearly half of Belle Glade. The little, red-roofed bungalow on Third Street is home to Seider, a high-school secretary; her husband, Jay, a former athletic director and track coach; and, in days past, their children Ja’Juan, Jyron, Crystal and Ja’HShaun.

Their door had always been wide open, an invitation to every struggling son or daughter of this proud, tough and troubled town.

Here, in the mineral-rich land along the southern shores of Lake Okeechobee, boys chase rabbits through burning fields. Here, the median household income is less than $23,000, and the violent crime rate is among the highest in the country. Here, the cash crops are sugar cane, sweet corn and football.

The Seiders can hardly remember how many kids came and went from their home. She counts back now, remembering each name with a smile and a story, and eventually she runs out of fingers.

There was Erica and Shamerial and Desreen and Taraus, and there was Travis. Orphaned at 14, he, too, found shelter in the home that turns no one away.

“There’s a special love I have for children,” she said. Her own father died on Christmas Day in 1957 when she was only 10 months old.

This revolving door, whisking in one struggling child after another, hasn’t always been easy. That empty bedroom off the kitchen hasn’t always been empty, either.

The night before school opened in August 2000, the Seiders’ middle son, Jyron, was shot and killed in downtown Belle Glade while watching a dice game on a street corner. He was 18.

A six-foot, 220-pound linebacker, they called him “Big Country.” Maybe his NFL-bound brother made him a target, some said, or maybe it was his shiny Nissan Pathfinder.

Ja’Juan, six years older, was in his rookie season with the San Diego Chargers. He was at dinner with teammate Jim Harbaugh when he got the call that Jyron was murdered. His NFL dream started to die that day; the Chargers cut him the next year, and Ja’Juan moved back to Belle Glade.

Four months after Jyron’s death, the Glades Central Raiders captured their third consecutive state title. Receiver Santonio Holmes, formerly of the Steelers and now with the New York Jets, cried and carried Jyron’s No. 54 jersey into the postgame celebration.

“I wish Jyron were here to see this,” Holmes told the South Florida Sun Sentinel. “With all my heart, I wish he were here.”

Finding a family

Another teammate in that championship huddle was offensive lineman Nija Peterkin. Eight years older than his half-brother Bell, Peterkin would take custody of Bell when their mother died.

“I was raised without a mother by my brother,” Bell said last fall. “He tried. He did everything that he possibly could, but it’s tough at such a young age.”

Cathy Seider noticed young Travis. It wasn’t right, she thought, the way he spent Thanksgiving and Christmas alone. “I wanted him to have that family life,” she said. And there was always more room at her table.

So, she invited Bell to join the three-car caravan to church one Sunday. He piled in, and off they went.

Nobody really remembers when Bell moved in.

The Seiders would invite Bell home for lunch, and it wasn’t long before he was sleeping on the couch. Finally, sometime around Bell’s sophomore year at Glades Central, she laughed and told him to just move the rest of his stuff into the empty bedroom off the kitchen.

And so he stayed.

Lost and found

The Seiders never talk about losing Jyron, Bell said. He doesn’t talk often about losing his mother, either. Quietly, they helped mend the holes in each other’s lives and stitched together a new, patchwork family.

Cathy called Bell “the missing link.”

The family struggled to find closure after Jyron’s death. One man had been convicted of his murder, but in 2006 the verdict was overturned on appeal.

The family was left without justice.

By then, they had another middle son, and Travis had a family again.

“It really helped bridge the gap from losing Jyron,” Ja’Juan said. “It was good for Travis, and it was good for everybody in our house.

“And it was really good for my younger brother, Ja’HShaun. Just show him that you still can achieve your dreams. You don’t have to stop because of a hiccup in your life. You just learn from it and keep moving; there are still people out there who care for you.”

Ja’HShaun, now 17, took to Bell immediately.

“Oh, boy,” Cathy said with a laugh. “That was the next best thing to collard greens for him to have a big brother in the house.”

Ja’Juan, now 36, was integral in getting Travis to Morgantown — but this recruiting journey had plenty of twists and turns.

In 2008, Ja’Juan returned to West Virginia as a graduate assistant. He spent three years there in the late 1990s before transferring to Florida A&M, where he passed for 2,512 yards and 27 touchdowns and earned All-America honors as a senior.

The West Virginia coaching staff offered Bell a scholarship, and he pledged to the Mountaineers in September 2009.

Four months later, West Virginia assistant coach Doc Holliday took over as head coach at Marshall and took Ja’Juan with him. Bell wavered, quickly flipping his commitment to Marshall but ultimately choosing West Virginia.

This past spring, Ja’Juan returned to Morgantown as running backs coach, where he was reunited with “little brother.”

“We needed that,” Bell said. “It’s a brother-brother relationship. Everybody would love to have that, especially in college.”

Two families

Today, Travis Bell is at a crossroads.

For now, he’s still a member of the West Virginia football team. He’ll be in court today, and the outcome of the hearing on the DUI charge could affect his status with the team. After his previous arrest, on a domestic battery charge, he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to home confinement.

To the Internet message-board jury, Bell is already as good as gone. He started nine games this fall, but he’s replaceable, quickly dismissed as yet another South Florida kid who couldn’t escape a checkered childhood.

He does still have his family behind him, but it’s not blind loyalty.

“If you’re wrong, admit you’re wrong,” Cathy said. “If you’re right, don’t take the blame for something you didn’t do. I pray that things work out for him and he can put this behind him and move forward and not have it be something that is hanging over his head the rest of his life.”

Bell’s story is one of misfortune and, at times, missteps. Once orphaned, he’s on the precipice of becoming an outcast. He might suit up for the Mountaineers again, or he might not.

He might lose one family, but he won’t lose both.

“Honestly, I don’t think [the Seiders] would ever want a ‘thank you,’ ” Bell said last fall. “They would just be proud of me actually being successful and graduating from college. That’s what they care about most.”

If life throws him another step back, he can always pack up his troubles and carry them back to a place he knows, back to the doorstep of the little, red-roofed bungalow on Third Street.

Stephen J. Nesbitt: snesbitt@post-gazette.com, 412-290-2183 and Twitter @stephenjnesbitt.

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