The details of that day, now more than three years gone, still are vivid in Javis Austin's mind. How could they not be?
The darkness of that late autumn afternoon when he awoke, hours after crying himself to sleep. The darkness, too, of his feelings: despair over his future, frustration at a football career he saw slipping from his grasp, and anger. Feelings that gripped his mind and heart like a vise.
He remembers the sight of his gun on his bedside dresser. And offering up this a silent prayer: "Lord, anything you can do to help me. I don't want to do this."
He pointed the .38-caliber pistol at his right temple and shot himself. Afterward, Austin says, "I felt no pain." Instead, what he felt was shock and alarm.
"I'd shot myself. I was lying down on the bed. Then I stood up, thinking, 'Why am I not dead?' "
The rest is a jumble: picking up his phone, dialing 911, telling an operator what had happened, where he was. Walking outside to his porch, sitting down, hearing the voices of emergency workers shouting, "There he is!" then blacking out as help reached him.
Hours later, after surgery that saved his life but couldn't save his right eye, or most of the vision in his left eye, Austin awoke again, this time in an Anderson hospital. His mother, Frances Grate, stood by his bed. Others - family, friends, Clemson football teammates and coaches - waited nearby.
At that moment, Austin says he felt ... relief.
"Believe it or not, I was a new man," he says now. "A pressure had been lifted. I decided I am blessed, I am lucky. Those were heavy bricks lifted off my shoulders."
How had it come to this? How had this 21-year-old fallen so far - from local hero, devoted son, trusted friend and valued running back for the Tigers, a seeming rising star, to a self-blinded gunshot victim clinging to life, yet seemingly glad for the near release?
And why did no one see it coming? Not his mother, the person closest to him; not coaches, current or former; not teammates or friends. No one.
Only Javis Austin knew the depth of turmoil in his soul over family tragedies - the sudden deaths of his beloved brother, Louis, and his cousin, Terry Smith. Knew, too, the feelings of shame at lost playing time, of insults real or perceived. Knew the feelings of rage that, he says, were at first aimed toward his coaches - Tigers head coach Tommy Bowden and running backs coach Burton Burns - before ultimately being turned on himself.
"When I knew I couldn't be a murderer," he says, "that's when I thought about shooting myself. I was so deep into it, my pride level was so high. I was going to snap or blow up.
"If I walked away, whoever was trying to make me walk away was going to win. It was like a competition at first, but it built into something way more than that."
Something that very nearly cost Austin his life. And yet, also something that, years later, ultimately gave him back that life.
REBUILDING HIS LIFE
It's two weeks before Javis Austin is scheduled to graduate at Clemson. His mother, from her home nearby, offers one word for that day: "Glory," Frances Grate says.
May 9, 2003, is a landmark date in her son's life. And that, in turn, led him to face yet another moment of self-realization.
This day, after 31/2 years of mostly self-imposed silence and semi-seclusion, Austin, now 24, will tell his story.
On a warm afternoon, he sits in Clemson's Vickery Hall, where athletes come for tutoring and academic advisement. With assistance both technical and emotional, he has earned a degree in marketing and rebuilt his life.
"Before I started school, I promised my mother I'd get my degree," he says. "Both my brother and sister got theirs. It would only be right for me to get mine."
Austin currently shares an apartment with a cousin, who provides his transportation. He plans to apply for federal grants available to the disabled. He wants to start his own business: a child-care center or, perhaps, a restaurant. "Two industries that won't die out," he says, smiling.
Just reaching this point, teachers and advisers say, has been as heroic as any touchdown run. Maybe more so, given the obstacles Austin has had to overcome.
Carol Miller, Clemson's acting director of Student Disability Services, says Austin has gone from having tests and materials read aloud to him, to working with computer programs that enlarge type on a screen so he can read the text. Imagine being able to view only a few words at a time, then having to do so while absorbing college-level material.
"A test an average student can take in 50 minutes, he could take three, four hours," she says. "Javis had to learn to read again, and fatigue is a factor.
"I can only imagine the frustration. I know sometimes, he'd be exhausted. But he kept coming back for more."
Along the way, Austin stretched "muscles" he once used to master a football playbook.
"He has the most incredible memory," Miller says. "I could read him 100 multiple-choice questions, and he'd say, 'Go back to No. 13 and read me the 'B' answer.' "
Seeing Austin this day, after not doing so since that 1999 season, is jolting. He's 15 pounds heavier, his face rounder, and he wears smoke-tinted glasses to protect his eyes - his eye - from casual observers. His right eyelid is shut, the eye removed by surgeons. His left eye has only 20/400 vision due to damage from the gunshot wound. He wears a watch with oversized numbers that he can read.
The scar from his self-inflicted wound remains visible on his right temple. Other scars, though, he carries inside.
There is in Austin a quiet bitterness for the two men who "had a great influence on my future" but, he says, "were not in my best interest." He refuses to speak their names aloud, calling them "the head coach" (Bowden) and "the position coach" (Burns).
"They handled me with disrespect, even though I gave them the utmost respect," Austin says. "It's a fine line between treating a player as a player, and treating him as a person."
Bowden and Burns are aware of Austin's feelings. The coaches, choosing words carefully, say had they known the depth of Austin's despair over not playing, they would've tried to help him deal with his disappointment.
But how, each asks, could they know what would happen?
"I didn't view it as taking away his livelihood," Bowden says. "I guess you see it in a different magnitude through the eyes of a 19-year-old (sic) versus a 48-year-old. You don't see it as catastrophic, if they don't play as much, as maybe they do."
Austin's attempted suicide still haunts Burns but not for the reason Austin suggests. "I beat myself up. I ask, 'What did I miss?'" he says. "I knew (Austin) was disappointed when he wasn't 'the man,' but he knew he had a role and could help us. I didn't see it."
In 1999, Austin went from starting tailback in Clemson's opener against Marshall to not playing in six of his final seven games. Bowden and Burns say they weren't punishing Austin; Travis Zachery simply was playing better.
Austin saw in his demotion other, long-range implications.
"Football was all I had, really," he says. "What I was looking to use to feed my family one day or at least get a chance to do that. I saw that blown away."
Nowadays, Austin uses his experiences for inspiration when he speaks at schools and Fellowship of Christian Athletes gatherings, which he has done a half-dozen times this year. His message, he says, is designed to "give any young athlete who comes up against adversity the things to get them through. It helps me cope with my life, and it helps them.
"I tell them where I came from: a young boy who had a dream of playing pro (football), and then it was like a rug was pulled out from under me. From that, I decided to attempt suicide.
"I let them know I was lucky. I tell them that the choice you make, there are results. And I tell them to have faith, in God or themselves."
MAKINGS OF A STAR
The first time Allen Sitterle saw him, he knew Austin could be the best running back in the history of Daniel High School. It was during a game Austin's freshman year, when he played quarterback for the junior varsity.
"Javis was running down the sideline, four guys between him and the goal," Sitterle says, sitting in his coach's office at Daniel. "Next thing you know, there's four guys on the ground and he's in the end zone. No one touched him.
"Bob (Bodine, an assistant) and I looked at each other and we both said, 'running back.' "
Austin blossomed at the position with an elusiveness that made tacklers grab air. "He was so smooth, so pretty, so beautiful to watch," Sitterle says. "I knew he'd be special someday."
Austin had played quarterback because his brother, Louis, older by seven years, did so for Daniel and later at Catawba College. In their single-parent household, Louis was Javis' father figure, role model, the man he most looked up to.
Then in late August 1994, when Javis was 16, he and 23-year-old Louis, back home looking for a job, went out to play pickup basketball. They split up, Javis playing on an outside court, Louis inside a gym. During his game, Louis collapsed and died of a congenital heart defect.
That day, something in Javis died, too.
"The highlight of my high school career," he says somberly, "was the first game I played for the Daniel varsity vs. Liberty High, at Singleton Stadium. That was the first (and only) game my brother ever watched me play.
"I scored two touchdowns, gained 150 yards, and he bragged and bragged on me to his friends on the phone that night."
Louis was dead 48 hours later.
Then in 1997, his cousin, 26-year-old Terry Smith, a former Tigers receiver, was shot dead by Atlanta police. Officers fired when Smith stabbed his estranged wife during a domestic dispute.
Meanwhile, schools from around the country had recruited Austin, including the one a few miles down S.C. 133. Clemson coach Tommy West saw a perfect successor to Raymond Priester, the Tigers' all-time leading rusher. "He was that type runner - hard- nosed but with more 'wiggle' than Raymond," says West, now head coach at Memphis.
Before Louis' death, Austin had planned to go away to school to escape the expectations of his community. But how could he leave his mother alone now? "Family, those close to your heart, are more important than anything," he said in 1998. "I didn't want to leave my family after that."
West was ecstatic, but warned Austin what playing at Clemson would be like. "I told Javis, 'The easy thing is for you to go off to school. Easier on you, and me,'" West says. "I told him there'd be pressure on him, and me, for him to do well."
West also came to understand the impact of that gaping hole in Austin's life. On the first anniversary of Louis' death, Daniel's star tailback collapsed on the practice field. Later, Austin would have similar anxiety-produced incidents at Clemson, under West and later Bowden. Medical exams showed no physical problems. "Stress," Austin says now.
Despite the episodes, he started fast at Clemson. With Priester at tailback, West moved Austin to fullback to get both players on the field. Sitterle told West, "Putting Javis at fullback is like having Michelangelo paint your kitchen."
"He's such a special kid," Sitterle says. "You'd see him and think, 'Nothing bad will ever happen to him.'"
Heading into his junior season, Austin was listed as Clemson's first-team back. But by then, West and his staff were gone. And Bowden planned to use a single-back offense, rather than West's two-back I-formation.
Neither Bowden nor Austin realized the impact that would have.
PLAYING TIME DIMINISHES
Where West had been the classic "players' coach," treating his charges like family members, Bowden's approach with players was more that of an arm's-length chief executive.
But West isn't sure that style made any difference. "I never would've guessed Javis would do what he did (attempt suicide)," West says. "Never."
Austin played 67 snaps in Clemson's 1999 opener vs. Marshall while Zachary was out, 30 in the next game against Virginia and only 22 total the next two games.
Austin's star was falling.
"I was pretty much on the sidelines, following coaches around, not even being recognized."
Things got worse. The week of the N.C. State game, Austin caught the flu. He was weak from vomiting, yet he says the team medical staff told him to don an "injured" jersey and go to practice.
"I told them, 'I need to go home,' " he says, then did so. When the travel roster for Raleigh came out, Austin's name wasn't on it.
"I remember him being sick, missing practice," Burns says. "He missed Wednesday, and we had a rule if you missed (that game-plan day), you weren't ready to play. That was more a rule than a situation for Javis."
Frances Grate says coaches told her Austin would have to miss the N.C. State trip but "on Monday he'd be back in his place. That didn't happen," she says. "They pushed him back, didn't tell him why. They pushed him back and back."
The next four games, Austin saw the field only from the sidelines. Zachery by now had a solid grip on the starting job, and freshman Bernard Rambert got the other repetitions. Austin's frustration grew daily. "They (coaches) came across to me as I was going to have to rebuild my trust" with teammates, he says.
In hindsight, Burns believes Austin was feeling pressure, some self-imposed, some from his family and friends. "He was Mr. Everything at Daniel, the local hero," Burns says. "One time I walked into a gas station and a woman said, 'What are y'all doing with that guy? Don't you realize who Javis Austin is?' "
Austin avoided family gatherings because he was embarrassed about his lack of playing time.
Still, as the season wound down, Austin began anticipating the USC game. He had a history of success against the Gamecocks., but even that hope was about to be dashed.
During a scrimmage, Rambert was hurt, and "the position coach (Burns) had no choice but to put me in," Austin says. "He even told me afterward, 'Good job.'
"As soon as the head coach saw me, his reaction was, 'What's he doing in there?' He told (Rambert) to get in there, there's nothing wrong with him."
On the sideline, Austin's humiliation wouldn't go away. "I knew I couldn't face the coaches another day," he says.
Burns says he doesn't recall the incident but suggests "that happens at practice all the time. Maybe (Bowden) was trying to get on (Rambert) more than pulling Javis."
The next day, Wednesday, Nov. 17, Austin didn't go to practice. "They had crushed my hopes, dreams, my self-esteem."
After a class, he discovered his car being towed by university police. A friend gave him a ride home to his rented house. There, he told roommate and teammate DoMarco Fox he wasn't going to practice. "I couldn't face those people, fearing what I would do," he says.
In his bedroom, Austin looked at a photo of his late brother, remembering how they had shared a dream to use their football skills to "take care of our mother." He lay down on his bed, tears in his eyes, anguish in his heart.
About 2:30 p.m., his mother called, asking about tickets for the USC game. "He was in a rush, said he was going somewhere," she says now.
There was no answer when she called again at 5:30.
'NOW, WE HAVE TO MOVE FORWARD'
Word of Austin's attempted suicide spread quickly.
Bowden knew Austin had missed practice but assumed it was due to a sickness in the family. Now, with then-athletics director Bobby Robinson and academics counselor Bill D'Andrea, he joined players at the hospital, where Austin underwent several hours of surgery to save his life.
The reception Bowden and Burns got from Grate was chilly. "I told them I knew Javis was responsible for his actions, but they should've played a role," she says. "I said if they had a child, how would they feel?"
Burns remembers the day.
"I told her, 'I'm really sorry,' and I got this look from her," he says. That, he says, was the first time he realized she believed the coaches had a role in her son's plight. "I think they (Austin's family) were all looking at us like we're responsible," Burns says.
As Austin recovered - he was able to go home by Thanksgiving - the relationship between team and family deteriorated further. Grate says neither Bowden nor Burns called to ask about her son -"they sent Bill D'Andrea," she says. Both coaches say they did visit, though with diminishing frequency.
Austin says he wasn't allowed to accompany the Tigers to the Peach Bowl. Burns says concerns for the near-blind player's safety kept him off the sideline.
Even teammates couldn't bridge the gap. "The big thing was, he wasn't around anymore," says lineman Kyle Young, Austin's teammate at Daniel and Clemson, now a Tigers graduate assistant coach. "When a guy leaves, relationships change. I'd see him at Vickery, and it was extremely awkward."
Eventually, D'Andrea, then in charge of Vickery Hall and a former coach, became the player's lone link to Clemson's athletics department. He began talking to Austin about returning to school, using his scholarship. He learned about Austin's frustrations but tried to move him past that. "I told him, 'We're here. Now, we have to move forward,' " D'Andrea says.
Austin's despair over playing time was matched by his frustration over earning a degree. Academics adviser Joe White says Austin enrolled at Clemson in the spring of 2000, again in the fall and in spring 2001 but withdrew each time, unable to keep up.
"I'd come to class late and couldn't see the empty desks. I'd be thinking everyone was looking at me, and that was discouraging," Austin says.
Finally, in the summer of 2001, he enrolled at the S.C. School for the Blind, where he found people with worse vision problems. "It was an experience to see them try to be effective in the world. I spent a lot of time thinking."
When he finished the school's program, he returned to Clemson.
"College and graduating became my main objective," he says. "I haven't stopped since."
SETTING, REACHING NEW GOALS
When Ernest Martin met Austin soon after his post-suicide surgery, the player was "probably at his lowest point," the Anderson psychiatrist says. "He didn't have the will to go on."
Martin knew the drill.
In his 12 years practicing in Anderson, the Detroit native had worked with suicide-attempt survivors as well as paralyzed victims of accidents. Austin at first refused to talk to "the shrink" but later, as he slowly opened up, Martin heard the frustration, the rage and despair - over football, not his near-blindness - come pouring out.
"Usually those who try to hurt themselves have gotten to a point where there's no way out," Martin says.
In Austin's case, the pressures had seemed like an avalanche. When his brother died, "he saw himself as having to make up for the brother being gone within the family," Martin says.
Martin tried to help Austin see another way besides football to succeed. They talked about other goals: a degree, starting a business.
Slowly, Martin says, Austin began to redirect his energies. "He's a goal-oriented person. He tends to do best when he keeps setting goals and works toward them."
In the fall of 2001, Austin returned to Clemson and completed 45 hours of classwork over four semesters. This spring, Austin took 15 hours, what he needed to graduate. "A lot of work, a lot of papers," he says. "I spent a lot of time on campus. Everything takes longer now, my eye gets tired."
He says he never asked for special extensions, though. A degree worth having, he says, is worth working hard for.
"I try to be as equal (to sighted students) as possible," he says. "It usually works out."
Martin, who once met Austin every week, now talks to him every couple of months. They chat, businessman to future businessman, about the world that awaits Austin.
"Losing his sight was a severe price, but I think he learned other things about himself," Martin says. "He was able to regroup, see what he had to work with, the foundations he has.
"I think he'll do well. Some things are a blessing in disguise."
'HE'S COME A LONG WAY'
On Friday, Austin made the biggest gain of his life, even if it was only a few yards. Along with other gown-clad graduates, he crossed the stage at Littlejohn Coliseum and received his diploma as family - a gathering of more than 200 - cheered.
It wasn't 80,000 at Memorial Stadium. But to Austin, it felt every bit as supportive and far more personal. "He's come a long way," his mother says.
The bitterness toward his ex-coaches remains: a small, knotted fist deep in Austin's psyche. Probably, it will always be there.
D'Andrea praises Austin's resilience.
"We're very proud of Javis," he says. At the same time, he acknowledges there is, in Austin's mind, an unbridgeable chasm between himself and Clemson football.
"I don't think Javis will have anything to do with (the coaches)," D'Andrea says.
Bowden says he still isn't sure what he could've done differently. "Promotions and demotions (in football) are so common," he says. "That doesn't trigger in your mind that it'll cause something like this."
For Austin, that part of his life is done. He has attended one Clemson football game since 1999, sitting on the end-zone hill with friends. He says he has "no idea" who the Tigers were playing that day, nor who won. He left at halftime.
"I miss it," Austin says. "But I tell kids (in his speeches) to have more than one dream."
His daughter, Nikia, 5, who lives with her mother, was 1 year old when her father tried to end his life. Austin has told her what happened to him because "it's kind of hard to hide it. She asks questions and I tell her the truth.
"She might not understand it all right now, but she treats me no differently. I'm still Daddy and always will be."
Austin's only contact with football these days, sort of, is occasional talks with Daniel High coach Sitterle. Now, though, their conversations are about life, not games.
Sitterle has faith in his former player, now more than ever.
"Knowing his competitive nature, Javis is going to be successful whatever he does," he says. "I think only good things can happen to him. There has to be a purpose for all that's happened."