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Beyond brothers: Rhoden raises Witter after mother’s passing

November 3, 2017 GMT

Carol Witter was dying. Her son knew it.

She had been diagnosed with leiomyosarcoma, a cancer that affects soft tissues in the body. Within six months, she would be gone. At the time, 10-year-old Ish Witter happily brought his toys to his mother’s bedside, so long as he could spend time with her.

His mother couldn’t leave her bed or speak but still managed to provide Witter company as he acted out stories from his imagination. But even the mind of a 10-year-old can’t create a scenario in which his sole caretaker suddenly dies.

In the aftermath of Carol Witter’s passing, Witter didn’t have a clear home. The boy went to live with his father, Delroy Witter, temporarily, but the situation couldn’t be permanent.

Delroy Witter didn’t have the financial resources to take care of his son. He remarried and got a job in New York, and the family as a whole decided it was best for Witter to remain in Tampa with half-brother Conrad Rhoden.

By the time Witter moved in with Rhoden, the elder brother already had a family of his own. Rhoden is 24 years older and had three kids by the time the sixth-grader moved into his new home.

“I tried to treat him the same as my kids so he didn’t feel out of place,” Rhoden said. “The same things I gave my kids, I gave to him. … Whatever, my kids got, he got the same.”

It was a familiar environment when Witter moved in. Rhoden had been Witter’s youth league football coach throughout his childhood and often hosted his youngest brother for sleepovers on weekends while Witter still lived with his mother.

Rhoden’s oldest son, Alante, is a year older than Witter and was Witter’s teammate from youth league through high school. Alante Rhoden spent most of his time as a defensive back and wide receiver and was instrumental in building Witter into an eventual college prospect.

“I call him my nephew, but I count him as my brother,” Witter said. “We were kind of competitive with each other, trying to see who could score the most touchdowns.”

The push to excel in football specifically hadn’t always been there when Witter was with his mother. While she was her son’s biggest fan, it scared her when her son was tackled.

“When Ish wanted to play football, she wasn’t all for it,” Rhoden said. “You know how moms are, don’t want their kids to get hurt.”

After his mom died, there were times when Witter didn’t want to play. While Conrad Rhoden said Witter was a hard worker, the boy would rather have stayed home watching cartoons and playing with his toys on some days.

But Witter’s brother saw potential and wasn’t having it. He continued to push Witter just as hard as he did his three other children.

As Witter continued to progress on the field, opportunities he couldn’t have imagined popped up in his head. Early in his high school career, Witter realized he had the potential to play college football just before Rhoden bought him his first car.

The potential turned into reality when Witter chose to play Division I football at Missouri after a 10-touchdown senior season, just like his brother thought.

“He’s basically kept me in football all my life,” Witter said. “He’s the reason I’m here now.”

The drive that allowed Witter to become Tigers’ starting running back midway through the 2017 season still gets its fuel from the woman who wanted to protect her son from tackles. Carol Witter still provides him company in the moments before games, even if she can’t talk or be seen moving.

“I definitely think about her a lot,” Witter said. “I’m sitting there before games, and she’ll pop up in my head. She still brings me joy.”