At the Military Bowl, a grandmother with split allegiances

December 31, 2013

Essray Taliaferro, left, and Jermaine Carter Jr., right, pose with their grandmother Peggy Carter after the Military Bowl. (Courtesy Jermaine Carter Sr.)

Two hours before her first football game, Peggy Carter was bundled from head to toe in Section 1 of Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, black gloves on her hands clutching two pennants stapled to a stick. It had taken weeks of lobbying to get her here, and still the grandmother of 11 was nervous, wondering what would happen if one of her two grandchildren playing in Friday’s Military Bowl were to get hurt.

The top pennant, a red one, was reserved for Jermaine Carter Jr., her grandson and a defensive back for the Maryland football team. In his freshman season, Jermaine Jr. had made the travel roster but hadn’t played yet, so chances were the Terrapins wouldn’t burn his redshirt in the 13th and final game.

The bottom pennant, colored green, honored her oldest grandson, Marshall running back Essray Taliaferro, a senior playing in his last college game, and it was this prospect of finality which coaxed Peggy Carter into brushing her reservations aside and hopping into a car bound for Annapolis. Even so, Jermaine Carter Sr. kept phoning that car to make sure it was truly real.

“Up until the 11th hour we were still pressing her, still wondering,” he said. “Now she’s here. It might be the start of something for her. She might find herself next year at all the Maryland home games.”

Both Jermaine Jr. and Taliaferro put their grandmother on their ticket lists, a small gesture that, to Peggy, showed she was wanted at the game. Even watching on television was difficult, and the nerves often caused her to flip through channels during Marshall or Maryland games, fearful that one of the beloved boys she helped raise would end up in pain on the grass. She knew what a touchdown was, but little else.

“I watched the Christian station a lot,” she said.

Something more powerful, though, sealed her decision. Two years ago on Dec. 10, 2011, her husband J.T. passed away from cancer. He was a hard-working government man who drove a taxi on the side, just so Peggy could spend time raising her children and then later her grandchildren. He never lobbied Peggy to attend games with him, but before he passed away he also never saw Jermaine Jr. suit up in a Terrapins uniform.

Both Jermaine Jr. and Essray spent their childhood at her house in Northeast D.C., where they grew from bouncy boys with NBA dreams into college football players. Last year, Jermaine committed to Maryland from Friendship Collegiate because he wanted to spend his career playing before family.

Taliaferro, at an unassuming 5 feet 9 and 183 pounds, took a more unconventional route. Last season, as an emergency starter, he rushed for 130 yards, nearly half his previous career total of 313. He won the starting job this season, topped 1,000 rushing yards and, with his grandmother cheering from the stands and waving her pennant, led the Thundering Herd to a 31-20 victory in the Military Bowl with 81 rushing yards and a touchdown.

“Either way, I win,” Peggy said before the game. “I’ve got one on both sides. Either way it’s beautiful.”

Soon, the Maryland football team lined up outside the locker room and sprinted onto the field for warmups as the band blared the fight song. When the evening was over, Jermaine Sr. would joke that his relatives planned to trade in their Marshall gear for Maryland shirts because Taliaferro’s career was over, but for now Peggy planned to remain neutral. Among the sea of white jerseys, she spotted Jermaine Jr., wearing number 23.

“Here they go,” she said. “That’s my heart there. That’s him. Oh my goodness.”

Alex Prewitt covers the Washington Capitals. Follow him on Twitter @alex_prewitt or email him at alex.prewitt@washpost.com.
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Alex Prewitt · December 31, 2013