“He just broke down after that and was like, ‘Why? Why now?’” Aisha Demus said of her oldest son. “That just hurt me to my heart.”
As a senior in high school, that age when you’re becoming an adult but are also still a kid, Dontay Demus Jr. began grappling with the hole left by grief. The wide receiver from Washington reported to Maryland a couple months later on Father’s Day, the first one since his dad’s death. Every highlight Demus creates as a Terrapin — the sophomore leads the team in receiving with 34 catches, 529 yards and five touchdowns entering Saturday’s season finale at Michigan State — his dad never had a chance to see.
“It was just devastating to know my role model is not here with me anymore,” Demus said, “to know my No. 1 fan, the person that was always with me and the one that pushed me to do everything, is not here.”
The two connected through sports. Demus played basketball at home with his dad, even after he had just finished a football practice. Together they watched the NBA and the San Francisco 49ers, his dad’s favorite team.
“They just had an unbreakable bond,” Demus’s mom said, her voice trailing off.
On the day Demus signed his letter-of-intent to play for the Terps, his dad wore a Maryland sweatshirt with a 49ers hat. Demus’s dad had worn Maryland gear even before his son committed. Once Demus officially decided to attend the school near home, his mom said, “the biggest smile came across my face and also his dad.”
Demus can talk like his dad and can make similar jokes, but when Aisha Demus sees her son play sports, that’s when the similarities rush back.
“It's wonderful and it hurts at the same time,” she said, “but he lives on through his children.”
Demus looks up after any big play to “recognize who I’m doing it for,” he said. He always wears a necklace tucked into his jersey, too. It’s a small, silver football that holds some of his father’s ashes. Demus’s brother has one shaped like a basketball.
The day he died, Demus’s dad left the family’s home in Waldorf, Md., around 11 a.m. He rode toward a friend’s house so he could fix one of his motorcycle tires he had plugged. In the community of those who ride motorcycles, Demus’s mom said fellow bikers will circulate the news if they see an accident. She received a call asking about her husband because a friend recognized the bike. She knew which direction he had headed but waited to see a photo. Once she received the image, she drove toward the crash site, knowing it was her husband. A state trooper then returned her calls to her husband’s phone and told her the hospital where she could meet him.
She knew the outlook didn’t look great, but she continued to think positively as the doctors had instructed. Her husband died around 2 p.m.
Demus shared the news on Twitter a couple hours later, again asking, “Why now?” The tweet is still pinned to the top of his page. The date of his father’s death, April 28, 2018, appears in Demus’s Twitter bio, just below an image of a memorial stone.
“He was just always there for me,” Demus said. “He was the one I looked up to.”
Possibly Demus’s worst game of his college career came this season against Minnesota. Twice, Demus couldn’t secure passes and instead tipped them into the hands of a defender. The Gophers returned one for a touchdown. Demus said a few weeks later his focus was off during that game. It’s normal for college players to have blips of inconsistency like that. But Demus knew the reason behind his uncharacteristic outing: The day the Terps played Minnesota was his dad’s birthday, “so I was kind of in my head about that,” he said, “knowing that he’s not here.”
Demus’s jersey last season didn’t carry “Jr.” — his high school team didn’t have last names on jerseys, and his freshman year of college he asked for the addition too late. But now it’s there — a reminder that he’s a different person but also of how he carries his dad with him.
Aisha Demus attends every home games and occasionally some that require travel. After her son’s college debut against Texas last year, she placed the ticket from the game on top of a clear box in her living room. Inside there’s a gold 49ers helmet that holds her husband’s ashes. A commemorative game ball from the Texas game, wrapped in plastic, sits behind the organized line of about a dozen Maryland football tickets. She isn’t sure how the idea came to her, but it felt right to give her husband a symbolic piece of every game.
“I wanted him to feel like a part of him was there with us,” she said, “even though I feel like that anyway.”