BAMBERG - As his former Bamberg-Ehrhardt teammates ran through cone drills outside the school's field house one afternoon this week, A.J. Cann worked out by himself in the weight room.
But he was not alone.
With a Lil' Wayne song testing the bass limits of a portable stereo, Cann push-pressed 185 pounds above his head in sets of five. The broad-shouldered Cann had his shirt off and a gold-beaded necklace stretched across his neck featuring a pendant of the name, Catherine.
Catherine Odom is Cann's mother. She will not get to see her son compete in the state track and field championships at Lower Richland, attend his high school graduation this month, or sit in the stands at Williams-Brice Stadium for his first game at South Carolina.
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Odom died following a lengthy battle with throat cancer on Oct. 7, 2007, a month shy of her 40th birthday and two days after Cann made his first start on the offensive line against Allendale-Fairfax.
But Cann has kept his mother close to him. He has a tattoo on the inside of his right forearm of angels' wings and a halo above his mother's name, accompanied by the words, "In loving memory, 1967-2007."
And the necklace, which fits the 6-foot-2, 285-pound Cann more like a choker, seldom comes off.
"I wear it all the time," he said.
He had it on Saturday when he competed in the Class A shot put and discus events at the state meet.
And he will have it with him next month when he begins summer school and strength and conditioning drills at USC, although his father, Isiah Cann plans to have the necklace redone so it fits his son better.
"He never takes that off," Isiah Cann said.
Isiah and Catherine were high school sweethearts at Bamberg-Ehrhardt in the 1980s. Though the two never married, they had three sons separated by a total of six years. Isiah, a supervisor at a Bamberg plant that manufactures hydraulic accumulators, coached the couple's two youngest sons as a volunteer assistant for the Red Raiders.
He remembers getting a phone call on a Friday afternoon in the fall of 2007 from a member of Catherine's family, informing him she had taken a turn for the worse at an Aiken hospital. Isiah told his youngest son the news before that night's game against Allendale-Fairfax. Cann, then a 15-year-old sophomore, decided to play in her honor.
After playing both ways in the Red Raiders' 14-7 win, Cann went to the hospital to see his mother. Though unable to talk, Catherine's spirits were lifted when her son entered the room.
"I knew she was happy to see me," he said. "She gave me a little smile."
Cann spent the night in his uncle's SUV in the hospital parking lot, and visited her again the following day. Catherine died early the next morning.
Cann has dealt with losing his mother as best he can. It helps that he has a good relationship with his father's longtime girlfriend, Eartha Ford, who considers herself Cann's step-mother.
"Being that young, I thought he did an excellent job of handling it," said Kevin Crosby, who coached Cann in football and track at Bamberg-Ehrhardt.
Crosby called Cann a "great kid" who always responded to coaches with "Yes, sir," or "No, sir." Isiah said the only "write-up" he received from a teacher about Cann was a note praising his son's attentiveness and behavior.
"Hard work is what he does," Isiah said. "He always worked and did everything you asked him to do."
Crosby believes that work ethic will pay off for Cann when he arrives at USC as part of an offensive line class ranked in the top 10 nationally by Rivals.com. Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier mentioned Cann, who is expected to play guard, as one of three freshman linemen who could vie for immediate playing time.
"We like A.J.," Spurrier said. "A.J. is a young man with a strong commitment to really do well."
That commitment was on display this week. On Mother's Day, Cann took flowers to his mother's gravesite in Ehrhardt with his brothers. The following day he was back in the weight room.
With the coaches outside running spring practice, it would have been easy for Cann to slip out the back and call it a day. Instead, he lifted for 45 minutes after throwing the shot and disc for a half hour.
"You want to stay ahead of the game. You don't want to fall behind," he said.
"He's been one that hasn't skipped a beat. He's in the weight room every day," Crosby said. "I'm just excited to see him work himself to get better because it's going to pay off in the long run when he gets up to Carolina."
And Cann will have a golden memory of his mother with him when he gets there.
Signing Day video: A.J. Cann signs with USC