David Amerson stood and talked as the distractions came and went, a helicopter passing overhead and fans pleading for autographs.
The Washington Redskins rookie cornerback was unfazed — his eye contact unbroken, his words uninterrupted. This, Amerson said, is part of the job, and he learned poise long before the Redskins drafted him four months ago out of North Carolina State.
“Being in the NFL,” he said, “you become a role model to a lot of people.”
One of those people sat a day earlier in the booth of a Greensboro, N.C., burger joint. Noah Amerson was on his lunch break from the construction site across the street, and he spent the hour describing how, even though Noah is six years older than his brother, he nonetheless looks up to David.
“We went two different routes,” Noah said, picking at his food. “My brother, he stayed on the right path. He made it.”
Noah, 27, isn’t proud of these facts, but they are undeniable: His athletic career and life were interrupted by bad choices and a 16-month prison term. He missed important moments with his family, and whatever promise he once carried was lost to a youth filled with mistakes.
Motivation sometimes comes from unusual places, and each brother said the other serves as an example. David, 21, said he has reached the NFL in part because he learned from his brother years ago what not to do; Noah said his brother’s success reminds him daily to make the right decisions — because the alternative could mean being absent from moments such as those already lost.
Years ago, two paths diverged. Now the men traveling them are trying to learn from each other.
“We’re brothers,” Noah said, “but we’ve experienced two different things in life.”
The boy used to follow his brother everywhere. To the gym, to Noah’s girlfriend’s house, to the basketball court.
“I was always behind him,” David recalled.
Noah tried often to go solo, but their mother, Tawanna, wanted them to spend time together. The family had moved often — Noah was born in Bethesda, and the boys’ father, Efland, had been stationed at the Marine Corps base at Quantico before they moved to New York and then Hawaii. Then the parents divorced. Tawanna, who moved her sons to Greensboro after the divorce, wanted to see the brothers together.
“A way of staying connected,” she recalled.
David mimicked his older brother, playing the same sports Noah liked and turning away from his soft-spoken nature because Noah was a class clown. Wasn’t he supposed to be, too?
“A lot of things he has in him,” David said, “I have in me.”
Noah started smoking in high school, an obstacle for his own football career, and he eventually discovered drugs. Looking back, Noah didn’t want to discuss the specific mistakes he had made; he said only that he “made some bad choices,” though public records show a cluster of gun- and drug-related arrests.
In those later years, David kept following his brother. Only this time, Noah pushed back on his mother’s wishes. There were things Noah didn’t want David to witness, things he hoped David wouldn’t be exposed to — despite their prevalence where they grew up.
“The lifestyle that he was living at the time was all around us,” David said.
Once, Noah said, the brothers attended a family gathering. Noah found that some of his friends had gotten high school age David “a little tipsy.” Noah erupted at the friends.
He told them that, unlike the rest of them, David had a future.
After his parents’ divorce, Noah joined his father for a short time in Hawaii. David remained in North Carolina, where Tawanna had remarried. Her second husband, LaMont Taylor, acted as a mentor for young David while Noah was away.
Then Efland Amerson was transferred for duty in the Middle East, and Noah rejoined the rest of his family in Greensboro. He was a teen then — too old, he said, to accept Taylor as quickly as David had. Noah said this was where his path diverged from David’s; without a consistent father figure, he felt lost.
“I was constantly gone,” Efland Amerson, now a Navy psychologist, said this past week. “. . . You look back on that, and your heart hurts.”
Noah found his place on the streets of Charlotte and Greensboro, where his brother was beginning high school and had grown taller than Noah, on his way to 6 feet 3.
Noah was arrested six times in 17 months, and in late 2009 he began a prison sentence.
He missed David’s senior season at Greensboro’s Dudley High, and he was locked away far from the crowd’s cheers and the feeling of watching his brother succeed. The pictures Tawanna brought to the prison and the picture her words painted were no substitute.
“It hurt me, man,” Noah said.
Years earlier, David had been told sports could be his ticket to success. A college scholarship was possible and maybe a professional career but only if he avoided a path like the one that had claimed his brother. He said later he broadened his focus to grades and, with Noah’s mistakes in mind, taught himself to avoid distractions. Tawanna said David returned to his soft-spoken way. Recruiters and scouts look at everything, coaches and advisers had told him, and he remembered that.
“Just knowing what my vision was, to be a professional athlete, I knew I had to start doing the right things off the football field,” he said.
Noah was released from prison in 2011 before David’s sophomore season at N.C. State. Noah said he rejoined his family in the bleachers, this time at Carter-Finley Stadium. Before one game, Noah told them he could feel it; David would have an interception that day.
When his younger brother came down with two, Noah stood with the others and cheered.
Noah was there often when David set school and Atlantic Coast Conference records in 2011 with 13 interceptions, including two returned for touchdowns. He was there when David succeeded and struggled.
His junior season at N.C. State wasn’t as spectacular — he had only five picks, which still led the Wolfpack and tied for the ACC lead — but it confirmed he was an NFL prospect. David said he and his brother spoke regularly, celebrating after good games and discussing ways for David to improve after forgettable ones.
“Tough love,” David said, a moment later emphasizing that it’s still love.
Noah said his words have a purpose.
“All I can do is tell him from life experience and wisdom,” he said. “I just tell him to keep his head on straight.”
Those are the conversations and those are the moments, Noah said, that he never again wants to miss. So after his release two years ago, Noah said, he has avoided trouble and the temptations that still exist in his home town, and his three children, as well as David, are among his reasons.
“They’ve got an uncle to look up to,” Noah said, adding that he wants his kids to have opportunities — and a father figure — like David had.
The Redskins, who had no first-round draft pick, selected David with the 19th choice in the second round in April (51st overall). He and his brother have taken different paths, but they have some things in common: Both are low on their jobs’ hierarchy. David is a rookie who often bears the wrath of defensive backs coach Raheem Morris, and Noah moves from one construction site to the next, usually on the cleanup crew.
“They kind of feed off each other,” Tawanna said. “They both need each other.”
They try not to tell each other about their bad days, choosing instead to stay positive. It helps that David now has his dream job, which afforded him the ability to buy his mother a house and to help his brother occasionally with spending money, and that the turbulence of Noah’s life has subsided for now.
“It’s really just taking heed to my blessings,” said Noah, who traveled with his family to Nashville to watch David’s first appearance as an NFL player, the Redskins’ 22-21 preseason victory over the Tennessee Titans on Thursday. “His blessings are my blessings. It’s like a dream of mine, so it’s like I’m living through him.”
They tell each other about their days, one in a hard hat and the other in a helmet, and they assure each other that, with work and the right choices, things can get better.
“He’s got his life together now; he’s on the right path,” David said. “All that stuff in the past, I don’t hold it against him at all. Whatever I’m doing here, playing for the Washington Redskins, making good decisions, it gives a little spark in him to kind of do things the right way.
“Any little thing that I can do to help my brother out, obviously I’m going to do.”
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