During his murdered brother's funeral last year, Jermaine Morgan promised he would turn his mama's tears of grief into tears of joy.
Nine months later, the Columbus State University basketball player delivered.
Family and friends celebrated the release of the 24-year-old's self-published autobiography, "Destiny Child," January 27 in the Liberty Theatre. It was the day before his brother Jeff would have turned 26.
Jeff, known on the street as "Byrdman," was shot and killed in a drug dispute last April at the Sands Apartments on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Morgan also lost his best friend, Kollister "MJG" Williams, in a June 2007 drive-by shooting at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Fifth Street. Williams was 19.
Never miss a local story.
Morgan feared the same fate.
Known as "Young 1," he was a enterprising drug dealer. His single mother, Gloria Morgan, raised Jeff and Jermaine in the Peabody and Warren Williams public housing complexes, but he said Booker T. Washington was his main drug territory.
He bragged about making his first $1,000 at 16, more than $60,000 at 17 and more than $200,000 at 18. He carried a gun, not a book. In the school of cocaine, he graduated from grams to ounces to kilos.
He smoked blunts, drank Grey Goose vodka, wore Coogi and Girbaud and drove a pearl black Chevy Caprice with 22-inch rims.
Jewelry and women hung on him. He flashed gold teeth and wads of cash. He partied. He preened.
He thought he was invincible.
But after too many brushes with the law and death -- and losing his brother and best friend -- he willed himself away from the seemingly easy money and intoxicating infamy.
In his book's foreword, Morgan wrote: " If life's trials and tribulations have stolen your dreams and you feel as if you have nothing more to live for, take time to think about the things God brought you through. Remind yourself that God did not waste his time delivering you so that you could sit back and allow life to defeat you, and remind yourself that you are a 'Destiny Child.'"
Jordan High boys basketball coach Gerald Turner called Morgan the most talented player he had seen coming out of middle school in 38 years of coaching. Morgan played for Marshall Middle School, then was a double-figure scorer as a Jordan freshman before quitting during his 2004-05 sophomore season and dropping out of school at 16.
"I really didn't think he would make it because of the other influences around him," Turner said.
Still, the coach saw his potential.
"Jermaine is not a dummy," Turner said. "He's a brilliant academic-athlete. He's a smart individual."
Columbus State men's basketball coach Robert Moore said Morgan's perseverance boosts his team.
"For him to overcome all that and be a student-athlete, it's not an easy path," Moore said. "It's remarkable."
Even after Morgan leaves the disciplined cocoon of college basketball, Moore predicted, the drug-dealing life won't entice him.
"I think his mindset is so different," Moore said. "I think his environment has changed so much, he doesn't want to get back to that life. He has seen how it ended for his brother and friend, and it isn't worth it."
Michael Grant, a pastor at Faith Worship Center, also believes Morgan is on a constructive -- not self-destructive -- path.
"The proof is in the life he has made now," Grant said. "He has had the opportunity to go back, and he has not. He still is connected to people who access that world, but his desire is to help those people. Jermaine really is locked in."
Grant met Morgan in 2008, when the then-struggling 20-year-old was making the tough transition from the streets back to the classroom.
"I think he's a good-hearted guy who always wanted to help people," Grant said. "His heart was trying to ensure everything was right for his family. He had a connection to the church, but he didn't know how to get out of trouble. Being a product of his environment, it was all he knew."
Morgan's mother, Gloria, said, "As he was growing up, he was always very different from the other guys, but he always wanted to fit in. He was really just following his older brother's footsteps. I was always trying to tell him, 'Jermaine, you're different.'"
But instead of just moving away from drugs, Morgan needed something to move toward.
That's when he turned to Carla Thornton, who had risen above her life of drugs and dedicated her life to Jesus Christ. She guided Morgan along his journey.
"I give all the credit to the Lord and Jermaine," said Thornton, a 1990 Jordan graduate who played on the Lady Red Jackets girls basketball team that was Class AAAA state runner-up in 1988. "He was determined to get away from that life of drugs. I was just a mentor, someone to encourage him and spend quality time with him."
As they played Scrabble, Thornton spelled out the Word for Morgan.
"I treated him with love, didn't judge him," said Thornton, who now works for an asset recovery company in Marietta, Ga. "The counsel I gave him was from God. He already was hungry for it, so he ate it up. Jermaine actually got to the point where he was giving counsel to himself. I just listened."
Ironically, the law finally caught up with Morgan on Sept. 30, 2008, when he committed a traffic violation while driving home from a Bible study class in Phenix City.
He still had outstanding warrants, so he sped away as two police officers approached his car. The high-speed chase ended in surrender with officers pointing their pistols at him, according to his book.
Morgan served 30 days in the Russell County Jail, but he said Columbus defense attorney Stacey Jackson helped him get the rest of his criminal record expunged, including an arrest for cocaine possession with intent to distribute. Morgan received first-offender status, paid some fines and served three years of probation, he said. Jackson confirmed that resolution of Morgan's legal issues.
Morgan received his GED at Tillinghurst Adult Education Center, then returned to basketball to finish his education.
"When I got myself together, I got a job at the Waffle House, but I realized I didn't want to be slaving and working at minimum wage," he said. "So, I decided to give my God-given ability another chance."
He joined then-CSU player Steve Peterson, a former teammate at Jordan, for the Cougars' summer pickup games. Morgan played the 2010-2011 season for Tennessee Temple University in Chattanooga, Tenn., but he stayed only one year. He missed home too much, he said, especially his now-5-year-old son, Jaquez.
Morgan repeatedly visited Moore's basketball office at CSU, asking for an opportunity, but the coach was wary of his background. Moore finally relented when the CSU administration approved -- but it came with a stipulation. Morgan had to agree to a zero-tolerance behavior policy.
"If you mess up one time, it's over," Moore warned.
Morgan isn't the star he was in middle school and could have been in high school. He has started only seven of this season's 19 games for CSU. But the 6-foot-4, 180-pound redshirt sophomore is a productive forward. He is averaging 6.7 points and 4.9 rebounds, and he has received more playing time lately, starting the past five games. He led the Cougars with 16 points in Thursday night's home win over North Georgia.
"His athleticism is just off the charts," Moore said. "He would be a top Division I player if he had taken the time to hone his skills when he was younger."
Morgan's story is too useful to be contained in only a book, Grant said.
"One of the elders at another local church intends to get him to speak to their youth group," Grant said, "and we're definitely looking to get him on our list."
U.D. Roberts with Brentwood Publishers Group of Columbus helped Morgan self-publish his book. Morgan said he already has sold half of the 400 copies in the first printing.
"Everybody deals with some sort of struggle," Morgan said. "Everybody thinks about giving up at some point. So, hopefully, 'Destiny Child' is an inspiration.'"
Morgan is on schedule to earn a bachelor's degree in criminal justice this year. He first wants a job that would allow him to travel. His ultimate goal is to obtain a master's degree and doctorate, probably in education, by the time he is 30. Teaching or coaching -- not dealing or using -- are possibilities, he said.
Regardless, helping others surely is in his future, Thornton insisted.
"Jermaine is a very determined young man," she said. " He wants to please God and be a blessing to his family."
Thornton acknowledged some might misinterpret Morgan's book as glorifying his street life, "but the majority will identify with his story because they will see a young man who didn't allow his disadvantages to crush him and stop him."
It was too late, however, for Morgan's best friend and his brother. Williams, the best friend, started attending church with Morgan before he was gunned down.
"He was trying to do something positive with his life too, but he ran out of time," Morgan said. "My brother, right before he got killed, also started talking about opening a business, buying and selling cars, but he ran out of time too.
"That's why, by the grace of God, I'm here. There's no guarantee anyone gets out of that lifestyle."
Gloria Morgan is grateful she didn't lose another son.
"I am just beyond happiness with Jermaine," she said. "I always knew he had this capability, but I guess he had to travel through his tribulations to get to where he is now. I am so proud of him. I just hope he stays focused and humble."
The last time he dealt or used drugs, Morgan said, was right after Williams was killed 5½ years ago. That was around the birth of Jaquez. His son now is a kindergartner at Downtown Elementary Magnet Academy. Morgan is divorced but has custody of his child.
That privilege and responsibility of being a daddy, not just a father, is a lesson Morgan has had to learn without an example. He never has lived with his father. His father was a drug dealer who spent time in prison, Morgan said.
Morgan wants to break the cycle for Jaquez.
"He views his father the way I wish I could have viewed my father," Morgan said. "When he looks at me, he says he wants to be like his dad."