When Chris Taylor saw Shaquille Powell back on campus, he ran up and hugged him.
“When he came back, it was kind of like seeing a family member that you haven’t seen,” said Taylor, a redshirt freshman wide receiver. “Everyone was nostalgic.”
While most Duke football players took classes both summer sessions, Powell, the senior starting running back, spent nearly two months at home in Las Vegas with his little brother, 7-year-old Malachi Briggs, who had been battling stage 4 kidney cancer since September.
By the beginning of June, it was clear that Briggs wouldn’t suffer much longer. His appetite gone, communication limited and breathing labored due to the tumors in his lungs, he started showing these and other end-of-life changes. And even though the first summer session wasn’t quite done, Powell knew he needed to go home.
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“My mom really wanted me to finish class,” Powell said. “I said I would hold out as long as I could. Obviously as things got worse, I just said I have to go home. I have to be with my family.”
Coach David Cutcliffe helped get him on a plane the next day.
‘This is family’
The Duke football team has had an unfortunate number of opportunities in past years to grow closer through tragedy. On July 4, 2012, current undergraduate assistant Blair Holliday had to be airlifted to UNC Trauma Center with life-threatening head injuries after a Jet Ski accident. Assistant coach Jim Collins lost his wife and unofficial team photographer, Geri, to cancer in December 2012. Former quarterback Brandon Connette’s mother had emergency brain surgery three days after the 2013 ACC Championship game. Punter Will Monday’s mother is battling cancer in her lungs that has spread to her brain. And redshirt freshman cornerback Johnathan Lloyd’s mother passed away unexpectedly in May.
“This is a family,” tight end Braxton Deaver said. “I love Shaquille like my brother. Like I really, truly love him. He is a wonderful person. Just like Jonathan Lloyd, when his mother passed – he has 100 brothers at his back. That is what Duke football is about, and that’s what is special here.”
Cutcliffe has been consistent in his message to each player coping with family illness and loss: Take as much time as you need.
This is a family. ... he has 100 brothers at his back. That is what Duke football is about, and that’s what is special here.
Braxton Deaver, on the team’s support of Shaquille Powell
“Coach Cut giving me that time and all the guys respectfully giving me that time, it really helped me go through it all,” Powell said. “Just knowing that I had the support when I needed to come back, that helped me a lot. The university just being there for me, I never even knew that I would have that much support from all these different types of people.”
Powell had made several 4,500-mile round trips back and forth to Las Vegas since Briggs’ diagnosis in September. Their mother, Skarlet Forwood, took Briggs to urgent care on Sept. 10 for constipation and a bulge under his right rib cage. Doctors found a large tumor on his right kidney. A CT scan showed smaller ones on his lungs. Briggs had surgery two days later, but because of its size and location, the tumor was deemed inoperable. An online fundraising effort was set up – the tumor was discovered during a two-month gap in the family’s health insurance – and it raised $39,775.
While Briggs was in the hospital and the Duke homecoming game tickets for him and Forwood went unused, Powell ran for 68 second-half yards in a 20-13 win against Virginia. He returned home next weekend on Duke’s bye week, bringing his little brother the game ball. Then Powell went home at Christmas. And at the beginning of summer, Powell and Forwood tried to figure out the best way to manage his need to take classes with his desire to be home.
“It was a difficult situation,” Powell’s position coach, Re’quan Boyette, said. “Just understanding the relationship and it being his sibling – his mom, and with him being so far away from home, it was a difficult situation.”
Powell is the man-of-few words type – “He speaks production, is what he speaks” was how Taylor put it – so teammates struck a balance between letting him know he had their support and giving him space.
“It’s kind of something where, what do you say?” redshirt sophomore running back Joseph Ajeigbe said. “But people who were really close to him like me and a few of the other running backs, we could ask him from time to time how everything was going, how are things back home, if you need anything, let me know. It’s just something that you want to ask about, but sometimes you don’t really want to bring it up, especially if it looks like he’s doing good.”
When it was time to go in early June, all of Duke, beyond just football, rallied to support him. The team, with NCAA-approved funds, arranged his flight home. Teachers recorded lectures and told him he could take his final when he returned. And Cutcliffe told him to not set a return date – take it day by day and just let him know.
Briggs passed away at 4 a.m. on June 13, surrounded by family.
“It’s indescribable, man,” Powell said of that experience. “I needed that, and my family needed me. My brother needed me. That’s where I needed to be.”
Back home, at Duke
Powell was surprised two weeks later at the celebration of life for his brother by Duke Associate Athletics Director Gerald Harrison, Boyette and wide receivers coach Jeff Faris and players Jela Duncan, Ryan Smith, Corbin McCarthy and Ajeigbe, who were able to travel with NCAA-approved funds, too. At that time, Powell floated an idea of a return date, about a month away. He returned the week of July 20, two weeks before preseason camp.
His teammates welcomed him back – Taylor with his hug and others with more subtle gestures. Powell has embraced his return to the familiar rhythm of football.
It’s indescribable, man. I needed that, and my family needed me. My brother needed me. That’s where I needed to be.
“It’s good getting back into a sound routine,” Powell said.
Powell said he and his mother realize the grieving process has no time limit. Cutcliffe said Powell was moving past his trying summer and in a good spot when camp opened Aug. 5. His teammates agreed.
“It was kind of like he went home, did what he needed to do, got all that out of system, and as soon as he got here, he was back to normal Shaq,” Ajeigbe said. “I’m sure some days are hard for him, just thinking about that, but you wouldn’t be able to tell, honestly.”
Deaver said Powell is the same as he has always been – remarkably consistent, a desirable trait especially in the preseason grind. The speed and conditioning work he did this summer in Las Vegas with his trainer Brent Browner has paid off – of the four running backs on Duke’s depth chart to start August, only Powell is not hurt. The no-hurry, deliberate approach he took to his physical and emotional health this summer has left him fresh.
“It was great of Duke to give him that time to decompress, give him a lot of time with his family before and after (Briggs’) death,” Browner said. “It really helped him not having to rush back right away. It let him figure things out that he needed to figure out. He had time to grieve before going right back into it.”