After wrestling with the decision for months, Nicole McMiller came to South Carolina this year intent upon uprooting her family from the dark side of Fort Myers, Fla., the only home they have known, to follow her son, Sammy Watkins, one of the best players in college football and one of the lynchpins on a Clemson team with towering ambition.
“I had wanted to move here the first year,” she said. “I felt so bad, but we couldn’t afford it, and I didn’t have the will. I didn’t think I could do it.
“Now, I wake up and think, ‘Am I really here? Did I really do this?’ because I did not have the confidence to actually make that move.”
Fearing the violence in Fort Myers might swallow her children, she prayed for a sign. After Watkins’ arrest last May on two misdemeanor charges for drug possession then an illness in the fall, she decided they could ill-afford not to move.
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“I told my husband, ‘I just want to go,’ ” Nicole said. “I told him we just had to get away from there.”
She and her 20-year-old daughter Markesha moved in with the mother of one of Sammy’s teammates and searched for a home and a job over the next several weeks.
“We are a close-knit family. We have laughed together, cried together. We struggled together,” McMiller said. “It just wasn’t complete with Sammy being so far away. I decided I could not leave my son alone for another year.”
Work was never an option for a mother raising four children. Driving a school bus or cement truck, pouring concrete or emptying trash cans into a truck, whatever it took for the family.
“I might not know from one month to another if the lights were going to be on or if we were going to have enough to feed our kids,” she said. “Only me and my husband knew that.”
Between jobs a few years ago, she decided to deliver newspapers. Sammy and older brother Jari rode with her in the wee hours of the morning before school, and though half the money went to gas, she gave them what was left and cherished their time together. Jari would sip coffee and Sammy would sprint between houses to stay awake and throw the papers.
“He was motivated because he knew we needed that,” she said. “That’s the things you have to do when you’re struggling.”
Her husband, James McMiller, has been “Dad” virtually all of Sammy’s life. Though not his biological father, it was James who played with Sammy in the parking lot at the apartment complex, tutoring him on throwing a football and on street smarts.
“We played a role in everything they did. We kept them in some type of program. Anything we could sign them up for, we did,” she said. “I didn’t hold anything back from my kids.
“We would bring them out and point out the guys on the street corner,” she said. “When the police came out to arrest them, I’d take them out of house and let them see and tell them this is what you get.”
Sammy was a natural athlete with a passion to win. In football, he was a quarterback from age 5 to ninth grade. Then he became one of the nation’s most widely recruited high school receivers.
“I saw him do some things he did in high school that were amazing,” she said. “What he did his freshman year (at Clemson) I never would have thought he’d take it to the level he took it.”
Early in April they piled into a truck — James, Nicole, 13-year-old daughter Mykelah and the family dog — with everything they owned and left Florida.
McMiller secured a job in billing and collections at Oconee Medical Center, and James at ITT Conoflow in Westminster. Both girls are living with them, but Jari must remain in Fort Myers for the time being. Sammy also has a half brother, Jaylen Watkins, a defensive back at Florida, but that’s a part of Sammy’s life from which she has distanced herself.
Nicole exhaled, as if she’d been keeping it inside for three months.
“God sits high and looks low,” she said. “I have to keep thanking God to enable me to move my family here.
“I’m not saying I’m doing the best, but everything is working out.”
During the transition, McMiller bonded with Carla Boyd, mother to Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd. A joyful woman with a big heart, Boyd helped build a support system around Nicole because she remembered what it was like when they followed Tajh for many of the same reasons four years ago. Too many young lives had been snuffed out by the violence, too many funerals. Carla Boyd described them as “moms on a mission,” keeping their children out of harm’s way, eyes forward.
“When the streets get them there’s nothing you can do,” McMiller said. “There’s so much killing down there right now.
“There are kids that if they make it to 20 that’s terrific.”
As difficult as it was leaving her mother and five siblings in Florida, McMiller knew this was a critical year for Sammy and the Clemson football team. Family could provide a safe haven. The arrest, she believes, was indicative of his trusting, almost naïve nature.
“After that, I knew I had to do something.” When he fell ill after the Florida State game, she was more resolved than ever. “This is where I am supposed to be.
“Would I do it again, uproot my family? Yes.”
There’s no confusing the blood tie. The facial resemblance is striking. The personalities are similar. McMiller described them both as shy and reserved, which was why she thinks he may have struggled last fall to juggle school, preparing for football and fulfilling the expectations he created with his remarkable freshman season.
“Where I come from, they have a word for somebody who wants something so bad. You work so hard. They say, you’re ‘hungry.’ That’s Sammy.”
Should he have a season anywhere near as productive as his first, it’s likely Watkins will leave Clemson after three years and enter the NFL draft. He and Boyd are projected as potential first-round picks, possibly top 10. It might require another family move, but after watching this year’s draft, she understands there are no guarantees. Until she sees something tangible, she rarely allows herself to dream. In fact, her preference would be that Sammy get his degree at Clemson and graduate.
“That would be going ‘pro’,” she said. “Just to be able to see my son complete college would be good for me. He could go on and start his life and get a job, be successful and have a career.
“In my neighborhood, that doesn’t come lightly.”
The expense and the anxiety have prevented McMiller from traveling to many games the first two seasons, but she wanted to be here for this one so that if something goes awry she can be at his side in 10 minutes.
“I know this whole year is critical,” she said. Frequently she is asked why she isn’t more demonstrative or animated, but blood pressure issues require her to be aware of managing the stress, and she takes nothing for granted.
“I believe God gave it to you, and God can take it away. I have struggled, and I know what struggle is,” she said.
“If he goes to the next level — thank you, Jesus. If he doesn’t, I’ve got the strength in my body to keep on working and taking care of my family.”
Out of curiosity one day, she asked her son what he might buy for himself once he signed a pro football contract.
Sammy told her his instinct would be to repay the family for its sacrifices.