Is it truly a homecoming if the woman who raised you isn’t a part of it?
Safe to say, Neville Hewitt’s emotions will be conflicted Sunday, when the unlikeliest Dolphin makes his NFL debut.
Hewitt, an undrafted linebacker whose earliest years were spent in Metro D.C., returns to the Beltway on Sunday, when the Dolphins face the Washington Redskins in the 2015 season opener.
But his mother, Deon Angella Jones, will not be there to cheer on her eldest son.
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She will be hundreds of miles away, in Arrendale State Prison, 70 miles northeast of Atlanta. And she might be there for nearly another two decades.
Jones is almost seven years through a 25-year stint for cocaine trafficking, a term that is running concurrently with a 10-year conviction for possession with intent to distribute marijuana.
She was arrested in May of 2007 and charged with trying to sell between 201 and 400 grams of coke. The sentence began three days before Christmas in 2008.
Hewitt was still more than three months shy of his 16th birthday.
“I didn’t grow up in a structured environment.” Hewitt said Monday, speaking to the Miami Herald.
To say the least.
When his mom went away, he and his younger brother Horace moved in with her boyfriend. It wasn’t the best environment. Hewitt couldn’t count on three round meals a day. His academics suffered.
And when Hewitt told his makeshift guardian he would be attending Georgia Military College — a liberal arts junior college — instead of a big-time program, mom’s boyfriend faded from the picture.
“He kind of stopped doing things for me,” said Hewitt, who moved to Georgia from Silver Spring, Maryland, at age 13 and attended Rockdale County High School in Conyers, Ga. “He thought I was going to a [big] school and was going to get some kind of money.”
At Georgia Military, he didn’t have to worry about his next meal. But that’s not to say his life was easy.
His day would begin at 5:30 each morning for PT, followed by weight lifting, formation, class, practice, more formation, football meetings and then lights out at 10:30 p.m.
“It felt like jail,” said Hewitt, who acknowledged: “I definitely needed it.”
Bert Williams was Hewitt’s coach at Georgia Military. Hewitt arrived as a quiet, undersized and unpolished prospect.
But despite Hewitt’s challenging background, he was model cadet whom Williams called “one of my favorites.”
“I don't ever recall him being a kid that gave us the least bit of problem,” Williams added. “He got right into the disciplined life.”
The results were stark. Hewitt made the Dean’s List and qualified academically to play big-time football. He chose Marshall University and became a star.
His senior year, he was the Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year — despite undergoing neck surgery for a herniated disc, a pinched nerve and bone spurs just a few months earlier.
Perhaps more importantly, he became the first member of his family to graduate college, earning a degree in business management in May.
That weekend was a total celebration. Just a few days earlier, he signed an NFL contract. Hewitt went undrafted largely because of his size — he weighed just 219 his senior year at Marshall — but Dolphins linebackers coach Mark Duffner saw the upside.
Hewitt impressed scouts at his pro day, running a sub-4.7 in the 40-yard dash; he has also added 16 pounds of muscle in the last calendar year.
The Dolphins view him as a special-teams contributor, the primary backup to weak-side linebacker Jelani Jenkins, and perhaps the team’s dime linebacker when they go with six defensive backs.
Dolphins general manager Dennis Hickey said Hewitt was a draftable player who “just kind of fell through the cracks.”
In Miami, Hewitt “has picked it up well,” Dolphins coach Joe Philbin said.
And he now has the opportunity he has dreamed about since he was a child.
But there’s still one more wish left unfulfilled. His mother isn’t here to celebrate with him. He speaks to her once or twice a week on the phone, but of course, it’s not the same.
Jones has a parole hearing in the coming weeks, and Hewitt is doing everything he can to help.
And in her own way, she does the same for her son.
“She stresses more than I do,” Hewitt said. “She said that football is the probably best thing that she ever put me and my brother in.”
Sunday, a dozen or so miles from his hometown, Hewitt’s life comes circle. But like any circle, there will be a void in the middle.