Getting over the loss of a parent is a difficult experience for any child, a lesson Marcus Jefferson unfortunately had to endure first-hand when his world came crashing down last May.
He and his mother, Darcus, were an inseparable pair while he was growing up and she was a single parent working long hours in an industrial steel mill to make ends meet. Seemingly nothing could break their bond, that is until the cancer arrived. After battling the insidious disease for months, Darcus Jefferson finally passed away, leaving a huge void in Marcus' life.
Darcus' dedication to hard work and taking care of her only son is something Marcus will never forget, whether he's competing for the Iowa State men's basketball program, finishing the work on his Marketing degree, or raising a three-year old daughter of his own. Marcus is determined to live up to his mother's high standards.
"With any human being, there are hard times when you feel like you should cower away," he said. "But I think about my mom working 23 years in tough conditions. If I can't get to the point where I feel like I'm doing well enough in life, basketball or school, I look at what she did raising an only child. I can't give up because things get hard. I try my best to work hard the way she did, not give up and take care of my daughter the way she took care of me.
"I have her work ID in my car, and I look at it and kiss it from time to time because I know she was a hard working single parent raising me. That comes into play a lot when I'm on the court, preparing for a game or working out. I know I can never do enough because of the effort she gave in raising me."
Nearly nine months have passed now since Darcus Jefferson died of lung cancer. With memories and her strong legacy to lean on, Marcus returned to the court for his senior season. The Cyclones opened the season winning seven of nine non-conference games, and Marcus was a key factor as a valuable sixth man, sparking the Cyclones with 8.2 points and 4.4 rebounds per game off the bench.
Life may appear to be back to normal for the senior forward. However, Jefferson will be the first to say that it's anything but business as usual in his first season of competition without his mother.
"In elementary and junior high I played on some pretty good teams, but the gym never really got that loud until my mom started out-yelling everybody in there," he said. "I used to be kind of embarrassed about it. I wish she could be here doing that now, but she's not.
"We used to hang out and laugh a lot. We watched TV together. She was my best friend, my buddy. With me being away at college for four years we used to talk every day. If I was doing bad, she would comfort me about things. She came to watch a few games, but worked so much. Her last game was the NIT game against Iowa."
Jefferson admits that in the nine months since her death, it's been difficult moving on. Yet between his education, basketball, and his daughter depending on him he hasn't had a choice but to look ahead and stay focused.
"This has brought so many other things into perspective," he said. "A lot of people go through things in life that alter decisions and goals. You've got to find a way to carry on. I have a daughter that I have to provide for and take care of, and I try to give her the same love my mom gave me. My mom did a great job of raising me.
"My family back home is not that big, but since my mom's passing everyone feels that they need to step up and make sure I finish school. They continue to motivate me positively in school and by helping me take care of my daughter. My family has done a great job."
After starting 22 of 31 games as a sophomore, Jefferson took on a new role in his second season under Larry Eustachy. He moved from starter to utility man, and despite starting just two of 29 games, he actually improved his scoring average from 7.3 to 8.4 points per game.
ISU was destined for a return to the postseason under Eustachy, and would end up finishing the campaign with a pair of NIT games against Iowa and Wichita State. Everything appeared to be on the up and up for Jefferson on the court, but little did he know that his life was soon to change.
Jefferson took a trip home to East Chicago over Christmas. While he was there, he could tell something didn't look right with his mother.
"I came home and saw that she had lost weight," he said. "No one knew what was wrong with her. My grandmother knew she was sick. After we had played Kansas (on Jan. 6), she said she wasn't feeling good so I told my grandmother to check on her.
"They went to the hospital, did some tests and a week later found out the diagnosis. I could have plead temporarily insane. It was a bad part of the season for our team. Everything really hit me hard."
So began the real test for Jefferson, who said initially he didn't know the extent of his mother's illness. He made numerous trips home to Indiana while attempting to balance the demands of basketball and school. Even though his mother's condition continued to worsen, he still didn't think it would end in her death.
"I went through so many turns during that time that I can't even begin to express and explain it," he said. "Just being away from the game that I love and seeing my mom. She was very special and important to me. I never really knew how long she had. I didn't think her illness would take her life, because she never told us how much pain she was in."
Even with all of his problems at home, basketball still provided an escape for Jefferson. In fact, with a new sense of purpose, he played his best basketball of the season down the stretch. He scored in double figures during five of the Cyclones' last seven games, topping out at 19 points and seven rebounds in a Big 12 Tournament victory over Texas A&M.
"He expressed to me one time that the best thing he had was that 40 minutes during the game when he could play," ISU assistant coach Bob Sundvold said. "He didn't have to think about his mother and how sick she was, whether she was in the hospital or out of the hospital, what kind of treatment she was getting, and whether that treatment was good enough. Basketball was a great release for him. He got to escape that for two hours a night. He was very focused on helping his mother and being with her. It worked out that he was able to be with her in her last weeks."
In reality, Darcus Jefferson's cancer was not detected until it was in its fourth stage. ISU's season would end on March 21st with an NIT loss to the Hawkeyes, a game in which Darcus was still able to attend. Jefferson then put basketball behind him and returned home to tend to his mother.
It was after his final return home to East Chicago that Jefferson admits to hitting rock bottom. Basketball was a thing of the past, and without that release his focus turned to spending the quality time he had left with Darcus.
"During the time I was home I really felt like giving up," he said. "I didn't know what to do and didn't really care about too much. My grandmother told me that my mother wanted to see me carry on and make her proud. I continued going about my life. That was a very tough time for me."
He also dealt with feelings of guilt. What if he hadn't spent so many years pursuing his basketball career at ISU, Providence and at prep school? He felt remorse for the lack of time he spent in his mother's final years.
"That's what made it hard, being away at school all these years and not knowing anything was wrong," he said. "Then everything popped up at the last minute and you think about how much time we could have spent together if I wasn't away at school."
One person Jefferson could confide in was his fiancé Lebella Smith, his girlfriend of seven years and the mother of his child, Amari. Smith's mother was murdered when she was in high school, and it was Jefferson who had comforted her during that difficult time.
"She played a major role," Jefferson said. "We both lost our mothers at early ages, so she really helped me. We lean on each other's shoulders. She's a real strong person."
Jefferson spent his final days with his mother alongside her in the hospital, reflecting on their lives together and planning for the difficult journey without her.
"It would be late at night that she would wake up," he said. "Then we'd have our deep mother to son conversations. She would tell me about the family and rites of passing, just important things I needed to know. We talked about my daughter, and how she wanted me to finish school and be the best man I could be.
"We didn't really discuss too much basketball. My mom was my biggest fan and believed in me so much. It was just like, ‘Go out there and keep playing.' We didn't talk about it much. Basketball was a very minor issue at the time."
Darcus Jefferson passed away peacefully on May 15, 2003.
She was laid to rest a few days later in front of family, friends and a contingent of Cyclone coaches that made the trip from Ames.
"I went to the funeral and saw how close that family and community is," Sundvold said. "Marcus has a lot of people pulling for him and providing a very good foundation and base of support for him. As a student, they told him to get his degree and get on with that next portion of his life after college. I think he'll certainly do well. He's certainly grounded and very mature. Because of that support he has, he will do well."
He'll also succeed as a father for Amari, much in the same way Darcus did for him as a mother throughout his life.
"I try to give my daughter the same love my mom gave me, and in turn everything will work out," he said. "My mom did a great job of raising me, and I'm going to return the favor to my daughter. She was such a wonderful person. As humans we all make mistakes, but your heart should be the deciding factor on how you judge a person. I think my mom had a great heart and a huge heart."
Little Amari is probably thinking the same thing about her daddy.