A few days later, during the first week of school in 2010, Shanita passed. The boys were able to say goodbye before she was taken off life support. Her death came a little more than two years after the boys’ father had died from pneumonia.
“I just saw them standing there, and I honestly think it was just God putting it on my heart,” Peterson remembers. “After that, the whole time my goal was to keep them at Patuxent.”
That’s where they stayed.
In a situation in which the two boys had every reason to falter, take a step back from the spotlight or maybe, as Peterson suggests, just scream or yell, they did the opposite. With the help and support both on and off the field from the Lusby and southern Calvert County community, Rafiq has blossomed into a standout running back on the Panthers football team, poised to graduate with a 3.5 grade-point average. Raphael just began his freshman year at Davidson College in North Carolina.
“It was a close-knit community and a close-knit football team,” said Peterson, 45, a teacher at Patuxent. “We just saw the impact of that, and people just really surrounded them and wanted to show support in all kinds of ways.”
There were checks and gift cards left anonymously in Peterson’s mail box at the school — one for $500. The team showed up en masse to Shanita’s funeral, where Patuxent Coach Steve Crounse delivered an emotional speech. The coach has since kept the boys close during their time at the school, a relationship that has only deepened in the wake of the brothers’ losses.
Rafiq, 17, is now a bruising 6-foot-1, 215-pound four-year backfield starter who helped the Panthers to the 2A South region semifinals last season, rushing for 1,363 yards and 16 touchdowns. He’ll lead Patuxent into a critical clash against No. 13 Huntingtown on Friday in a meeting of the two remaining undefeated teams in the Southern Maryland Athletic Conference.
Douglas injured the meniscus in his left knee in last year’s playoff loss to Douglass High and strained his medial collateral ligament and anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in the first scrimmage of 2013.
His return is significant both in terms of yardage and his future. Douglas has 219 yards and five touchdowns in only two games this fall — the type of production that helped him garner offers from Connecticut, Buffalo and Fordham.
It’s also a reminder for the people who stepped in three years ago to support the Douglas brothers
“You’re never going to meet a kid that wants to compete more than him, wants to make the community proud of him,” Crounse said. “He wants people to identify with him, to know who he is, to wear his number nine and show how he’s come back.”
While others in his situation might have withdrawn, Rafiq is more of an extrovert — like his father, he says. He keeps a close group of about eight friends but is known throughout the school and has more like “1,000,” Peterson jokes.
Douglas wants to go to college in a big city, and if he could, he would go far from home. Temple, Boston College, Rutgers and Wake Forest have expressed interest, and he’s on the radar of several Ivy League schools.
His parents emphasized the importance of academics from a young age, Rafiq said
“His parents really taught him — almost like, I want to prepare you for the world type of thing,” Peterson said. “They did what they needed to do to get him ready for the next level.”
Crounse recalls one of Rafiq’s first questions during his visit to Rutgers was not about the girls or the food or the dorms but the school’s masters programs.
The brothers’ maternal grandparents initially pushed for the boys to live with them and their older sister in Fort Washington. Peterson had just began her first year as a math teacher at Patuxent when the boys moved in with her and her two children.
It took some time for both parties to get used to the crowded house. The transition was eased with a call in early 2011 from Charlie Russell, general manager at Quality Built Homes and a former soccer coach of Peterson’s son. Russell, an electrician and several of the company’s contractors offered to finish Peterson’s basement with two bedrooms and a bathroom for Raphael and Rafiq — at no cost.
Russell had heard the brothers’ story and knew Peterson as an integral part of the community. He wanted to give the family a hand in adjusting to the shared space. Russell, a Huntingtown fan, has heard about the brothers’ recent football accomplishments.
“It’s great to be part of a project where you can help someone who is helping others, and Peterson embodies that,” Russell said. “Taking those two boys in was a lot for her, given the circumstances. We like to be able to give back and see them be successful.”
Meanwhile on the field, Crounse pulled Douglas up to varsity shortly after his mother died to keep him closer to the coaches and his brother.
Practice became something of a sanctuary.
“Football played a big part of dealing because it occupied my mind a lot,” Douglas said. “That’s really what I think helped the most, having something to occupy your mind so you don’t think about it too much. You can’t just sit and think.”
Douglas’s ability to cope with tragedy has had a profound effect on his coach.
“At times when life started to bury him, he had to dig his way out, and he always did,” Crounse said. “He’s a 17-year-old who really inspires me in life, and I hope I inspire him half as much as he inspires me.
“It’s going to be very emotional the last time he plays football here.”