LEXINGTON -- Between the sounds of weights clinking and rock music playing from the speakers, Nygel Gates piped up with a story to tell. His friend Shaq Roland had just walked into the weight room at Lexington High, and Gates reminded Roland about what happened after a recent basketball game at Aiken.
Gates raised his voice a couple octaves and imitated what he overheard one of those Aiken girls say: "That Shaq Roland is fine." The words were barely off Gates' lips before he and Roland cracked up. Even they find humor in the amount of attention Roland receives, and while Roland understands, he could just as soon do without it all.
Roland is the best high school football player in South Carolina, a 6-1 wide receiver whose ability to elude defensive backs and out-leap them gave him his pick of colleges. He chose the University of South Carolina, and his No. 66 overall ranking by Rivals.com makes him the Gamecocks' second-highest rated recruit in the Class of 2012, which will sign national letters of intent Wednesday.
Students at Lexington started asking him for his autograph when he was a junior. Before road basketball games, opposing fans approach him for a signature while he sits with his teammates and watches the girls' game. He doesn't quite get why his peers "think I'm like a celebrity or whatever," just because they've seen him on television. He obliges their requests, though sometimes, everybody recognizing him is "overwhelming," he said.
He likes to keep his routine simple, but the things he has experienced, on and off the field, are not. On Friday nights after games, he hangs at McDonald's with teammates Jalen Cook and Taquan West, his friends since elementary school. In his spare time, Roland enjoys playing a college football video game, and using teams with sharp-looking uniforms.
Every now and then, his cell phone rings, and he is reminded of how atypical his life is for an 18-year-old kid. The man's voice on the other end, which Roland heard most recently about a week ago, usually talks to him about "keeping my head on straight," Roland said. It tells him, as so many people already have, that "I've got a chance to be something great."
The man speaks from a different perspective, of failure and caution, and as he talks into the phone 95 miles away, it is essentially another planet.
Roland's father, Carlos Roland, is inmate No. 00226118 at Lieber maximum-security prison in Ridgeville, where he is serving a 20-year sentence. Ineligible for parole, he is projected to be released in 2020, as a registered sex offender.
He will never witness his son playing college football.
In the beginning
Tina Etheredge had just started dating Carlos Roland when she got a surprise: She was pregnant for the second time, at age 19. Three years earlier, she got pregnant the first time and had to quit her high school track team.
Now, her little boy Adrian was about to have a half-brother. Carlos, a former high school football and basketball player, was 17 when Shaquille was born. Carlos picked the name - after Shaquille O'Neal. Tina and Carlos soon split up, but Shaq still spent every other weekend with his dad and paternal grandparents.
He was a fidgety kid. He did so many flips in the house that Tina bought a trampoline. When he was 6, he climbed a tree on Halloween, fell and broke his collarbone, ending the night's trick-or-treating before it began. Around this time, he blinked so uncontrollably that a neurologist diagnosed him with a mild form of Tourette syndrome that he grew out of within a couple years.
They put Carlos away when Shaq was 9. It wasn't Carlos' first slip-up. In 1994, nine months after Shaq was born, he was arrested in his hometown, Batesburg-Leesville, for burglarizing two stores in the middle of the night.
At one, he ripped off the shingles and used a hammer to break through the roof, according to court records. The charges were dropped. Tina said he was trying to get money to feed a crack cocaine addiction, which he developed when they were dating.
Drugs, she said, also resulted in the crimes that earned him a 20-year sentence. (South Carolina does not allow prison inmates to give media interviews.) In the wee hours of July 5, 2003, Carlos broke into a home three-tenths of a mile from his residence in Batesburg-Leesville and committed "sexual battery" against the woman who lived there, court records state. He pled guilty to first degree burglary and second degree criminal sexual conduct.
By then, Tina had already supported her sons for years, though Carlos' parents provided significant financial assistance. Tina's own father was never around and her mom died when she was 22, from accidentally mixing too much alcohol with her prescription medication.
Tina was enrolling in nursing school when she became pregnant with Shaq, but ditched those plans to earn money by working at a sewing factory, then a home for mentally handicapped women. She later soldered circuit boards used by railroad companies.
A year ago, she earned her bachelor's degree online in health administration. She couldn't find a job in the field, and the family's one-story suburban house wasn't going to pay for itself. So she now works 12-hour shifts, sometimes overnight, at the Michelin factory in Lexington, operating a machine that prepares giant tires for earth-moving vehicles.
At first, the rubber smell "made me sick to my stomach," she said. It clung to her clothes and hair. Her legs ached from standing for so long. The graveyard shifts confused her eating schedule, and she lost 12 pounds soon after starting the job. But she got used to it all - the smell, the pain, the vampire's schedule - because, "I've got to work. I can't settle for a minimum-wage job."
She never married. Her kids became her life, and she used her vacation days to travel to their sports tournaments. She guards them closely. She told Shaq he had to "cut off" a friend who did jail time, because she didn't want the friend changing Shaq the way she saw Carlos' friends change him, by introducing him to drugs.
Tina, now 38, knows life would have been easier if Carlos had stayed straight. But she insisted, "I don't hold grudges." Years ago, when Adrian teased Shaq about his father's imprisonment, Tina snapped at him, "Don't you do that again. Shaquille doesn't ever need to be ashamed of the mistakes his dad did."
Lexington High's principal, Melissa Rawl, calls herself Roland's "momma at school." He is one of several students who she personally monitors. When Roland's grades sagged during his freshman year, Rawl and Tina nudged him until they improved. He is more attentive to schoolwork now, and much less fidgety than the fast-blinking child he once was.
Other things change slowly. Roland delayed taking public speaking until this semester, because he doesn't enjoy it. When an Under Armour representative came to the school for a ceremony to honor Roland's selection to the company's All-American game, the rep asked Roland if he had anything to say.
"No, sir," Roland said, catching the rep off-guard. During the recruiting process, Roland eliminated schools that sent him too many text messages.
For all his modesty, he knows he is a great athlete, and takes at least some pride in it. He autographed the cleats he received from the All-American game, even though they just sit on his bedroom dresser. He described his on-field persona when he lines up against defensive backs as "very cocky. I like to talk a lot, especially to the DBs. I can't stand ‘em."
Roland must know folks in Lexington will talk for years about moments like the 2010 game when he gathered an errant pitch on a two-point conversion, ran back to the 30-yard line, sprinted ahead, dodged the entire defense and scored. After all, that's what his coach, Scott Earley, told him in practice to do if the pitch sailed awry.
"I was making a joke in practice," Earley said.
Part of Roland enjoys performing. He'll stand on the sideline while the basketball reserves scrimmage and imitate his coach, Bailey Harris, by putting a towel on his shoulder and shouting Harris' standby lines about boxing out. In the weight room last week, Roland took off his jersey, draped it off his forehead like a cape and danced while chatting with his teammates.
Though he is still unquestionably a kid, the signs of growing up are everywhere as he prepares for the bigger world of USC. Carlos' dad just gave him his first vehicle, a Jeep. His first tattoo shines freshly on his left biceps. It reads: "YOLO," short for "you only live once."
Roland last saw his father a year ago. When Carlos calls or writes, he tells his son he doesn't want him to repeat his mistakes. "I respect him for that," Roland said. Roland has come to believe that his life, filled with boundless promise for his future, has no room for bitterness about his father's absence in the past.
"At first, I was a little mad about it," Roland said. "But I realized that people make mistakes and I just forgave him for it."