Lanett High School, on the edge of east Alabama, less than a mile from a big bend in the Chattahoochee River, is a 50-minute drive from Eagles Trace Apartments in south Columbus.
But for Ja’Won Howell and his mother, Yolanda, the distance is far greater than the 47.9 miles of interstate and country roads.
And Wednesday when Ja’Won, an Alabama 2A All-State linebacker and running back on a championship team, signs a football scholarship with the University of North Alabama, the journey will have been worth every step.
In the summer 2014, Yolanda Howell faced a decision. Her youngest son — “her baby” — had just completed his eighth grade year at Eddy Middle School and was preparing to follow his sister to Spencer High School.
They were living in Eagles Trace, a 380-unit, low-income housing complex off Torch Hill Road not far from Fort Benning, when Yolanda became concerned about her 13-year-old boy.
“Columbus is really fast,” Yolanda said. “There was a lot going on in our area. ... People were hanging out, doing a lot of different things. A lot of shootings were going on.”
Ja’Won could see the trouble, too.
“They had these big brawls in the middle of the field at Eagles Trace,” Ja’Won said. “Some people were in gangs.”
Some of his friends were beginning to make bad decisions regarding gangs and lifestyle that scared Yolanda, who had been working a full-time job for a maid service.
“They were doing things and getting in trouble,” Ja’Won said. “She was concerned I would go down the same path they were.”
Yalonda trusted her son to make the right decisions, but her concern was growing that the influence to “do something stupid,” could come into play.
“He always made good grades and he was a good kid, but he started to want to hang around with them because it was there,” Yolanda said. “It was right there.”
She was no longer working and was at a point in her life where she could do something about it. And she did. She made the decision that she and Ja’Won would move north to Lanett. She knew the area because she had previously lived in Valley, Ala.
But it was all new to Ja’Won, who had spent 10 of his first 13 years in Columbus, where he had attended Gentian Elementary, South Columbus Elementary, East Columbus Magnet Academy and Eddy Middle School.
A solid student, it was away from the schools where there were issues.
“In Columbus you can get in a whole heap of trouble,” Ja’Won said. “A couple of my friends were in the Youth Detention Center. ...”
Ja’Won steered clear because of his mother.
“It was tempting at times to do the stuff they did, but I just knew when I got home I had to deal with her,” Ja’Won said. “And I didn’t want to see that. My mindset was I could hang and have fun, but don’t do nothing stupid.”
Yolanda just laughs.
“He didn’t want to deal with me,” she said.
And when it came time to move to Lanett, Ja’Won didn’t want to go. He lived in a large city and his mother was taking him to a town of about 6,500 people. Despite the dysfunction of what was going on around him, he had friends and connections in south Columbus.
“At first, I didn’t want to leave where all my friends were,” Ja’Won said. “I didn’t want to leave my friends and the people I grew up with. We had built a bond.”
‘I could tell he was raised right’
Lannet High School Principal Jennifer Boyd was at the school when Yolanda Howell came to enroll Ja’Won for his freshman year.
Boyd, a career educator and charged with leading a high school that averages between 200 and 225 students in the top four grades, sized up Ja’Won quickly.
“Just the initial feeling was he’s a good kid,” Boyd said. “You can see it on his face. He’s always smiling. Even in the midst of adversity.”
Ja’Won was an athlete and when an athlete transfers to a new school, the coach is the first to know. It wasn’t any different at Lanett, where Clifford Story was turning around a football program and making it one of the best small-school programs in the state.
“We were having orientation and my wife was telling me about this kid, he was so humble and so sweet,” Story said. “As a coach, ‘I was like, what does he look like?’ A few minutes later, Coach (Chip) Seagle came in and said, ‘You got to meet this kid, he’s a great kid.’ I was like, ‘What does he look like?’ He said he was a little small, skinny kid right now, but he has something in him.”
Seagle, who is also in charge of the school’s weight training program, was blunt.
“He was maybe a buck 25 and pretty puny,” Seagle said.
But Story and Seagle both saw more.
“After seeing him and meeting his mom, I knew he was the kind of kid who was going to put on the bulk and do the things he needed to do,” Story said. “I could tell he was raised right.”
And that raising starts with Yolanda, Story said.
“She had her plan laid out,” Story said. “She knew what she wanted for her child. She said, ‘We’re giving him to you. Make him a man.’ I got three boys and I knew he was going to be somebody I was going to treat just like my own kids.”
The fact that he was moving out of a bad situation and into Lanett also told Story something.
“It told me she wanted the best for her child, and that’s what all moms want,” Story said. “For her to entrust us with her son, that meant a lot to me. For her to transition from one area to another. What she was saying was, ‘Coach, I am putting him in your hands. We need for you to help mold him into what I know he can be.’”
By the second semester of his freshman year, Ja’Won set a lofty goal. He wanted to be good enough to earn a college scholarship to play football.
By the time he was a sophomore, he had earned playing time at running back and linebacker. The second game of the season, he broke his shoulder that required surgery and a pin to hold it all together.
Before the last game of the season, Ja’Won had been cleared by the doctor to play again. He walked into Story’s office, the pin that had been in his body now in a jar, and told Story he was ready to go.
“Well, suit up,” Story told him.
Just before his junior season started, Ja’Won’s world was rocked again.
In June 2016, Yolanda was involved in a serious automobile crash. She was leaving work at LaFayette Nusing Home early in the morning when her car was struck. Her Chevy Trailblazer was T-boned and went into roll.
She was airlifted to Grady Hospital in Atlanta, where she spent two weeks in the Intensive Care Unit and two months in the hospital.
Story knew that Ja’Won’s mother had been in a car wreck, but did not know how bad it was until the boy’s uncle showed the coach photographs of the Trailblazer.
“I just broke down in tears when I saw it,” Story said. “Ja’Won had not talked about it much and I really didn’t want to ask him that much about it until he brought it up.”
It was in the wake of the tragedy, that the principal and coach became even more impressed with Ja’Won.
“It was then I knew he had a solid foundation and he understood the Lord,” Story said. “I told him, ‘I know your mom’s in the hospital. Don’t worry about Lanett right now.’ I said, ‘Go ahead and stay with your family and tend to your family.” He said, ‘Coach, I’m good. I need to be here. It helps keep my mind off what’s going on. I am going to come to work and I am going to come to practice.’”
Ja’Won knew his mother was where she needed to be in the Atlanta hospital working to recover. What Story saw was Ja’Won focus on the things he could control. Ja’Won’s God-mother, Janice Lancaster, and their church family at Living by Faith Worship Center in LaGrange, Ga., all played key roles in supporting Ja’Won and his mother during the recovery.
“He understood the severity of the situation and he knew his mom was going to be OK,” Story said.
Boyd saw it, too.
“He still came to school and did what he needed to do,” Boyd said. “It’s almost like, had I been informed of what was going on, I would have never known it. He never slacked off on his responsibilities; he never slacked off in the classroom and he never slacked off on the field.”
Ja’Won also started to break out as a football player.
He rushed for 868 yards as a running back and finished with 110 tackles on the defensive side.
His hard work, on and off the field, was recognized.
Lanett annually gives the Dan Washburn Award to a player for athletic ability, character and grades. It usually goes to a senior, but last year Ja’Won shared it with Story’s son, Tre, who is now playing at the University of Richmond.
“Ja’Won was the first junior to ever get it,” Story said. “There was no hesitation.”
There has never been a repeat winner of the Dan Washburn Award, which is given at the end of the school year and named for one of the school’s legendary coaches. Asked if Ja’Won would be the first, Story just smiles.
Waiting on the offer
Every day when football practice is over, Story offers simple but powerful advice to his players.
“I always tell them, ‘I love you. Don’t do anything to jeopardize your team, your family or this community,’” Story said. “That’s my only rule. If you cover those bases, you ain’t going to do nothing to get into trouble.”
Ja’Won followed the rule.
By the time his senior season started, Ja’Won was a 6-foot, 198-pound running back who could run around a defender and when he had to, plow right over one.
He still had the goal of playing college football, but his size was the drawback. A lot of schools sent letters and reached out, but they were all smaller schools like the University of West Alabama, Eastern Kentucky, Alabama State and Jacksonville State. Many of those schools divide scholarships between players to get the most bang for the buck.
All Ja’Won could do was play the way he practiced.
“He changed the culture of our running backs,” Story said. “Every time he would get the ball in a drill he would run the length of the field, running 100 yards he didn’t have to.”
It paid off for Lanett and Ja’Won.
He rushed for 1,087 yards and scored 14 touchdowns. On defense, he had 130 tackles. And, more important than the individual statistics, Lanett went 15-0 and won the 2A state championship.
Just like Ja’Won used to watch those who were older than him, Story said children in Lanett are watching and imitating Ja’Won.
“I have a 6-year-old nephew, he’ll put on his gloves, he’ll put his towel on and he will say, ‘I’m Ja’Won Howell,’” Story said. “He did that because that’s what Ja’Won does.”
With signing day approaching, schools showed some interest in Ja’Won, but the full-ride offers were not coming.
Last weekend, Story got a call from a North Alabama coach who said they were going to offer Ja’Won a full scholarship.
When the full scholarship offer came from the University of North Alabama over the weekend, Story was overwhelmed.
“My wife broke down in tears when I told her,” Story said.
If Ja’Won had been 2 inches taller and 20 pounds heavier, the recruiting process would have been vastly different, Story said.
“UNA is a great school, they have a lot of tradition and are about to move to Division I,” Story said. “But we would have the Floridas, Alabamas, Auburns all over this place if he had been a little bigger.”
From the day Yolanda registered Ja’Won at Lanett High School, the principal saw the success that will come on National Signing Day.
“I have seen it all along,” Boyd said. “I knew all along he would do well. Him signing and him being successful and if you hang in there and push your way through adversity and keep you mind set on your goal, you can do it.”
Story sees a man where there was once a boy. Then he offers his All-State linebacker the highest praise that a coach can bestow on one of his players.
“If I had a daughter his age, he would be somebody I would want to marry my daughter,” Story said. “He’s just that kind of kid. When you sit down and talk to him, you can see the humbleness, you can see the appreciation, you can see it all over him. He appreciates everything that we have done and are doing for him. He is just one of those kids who will be successful.”
Yolanda uses a walker and moves slowly today as a result of the accident. But she will be there Wednesday when signs. She can tell you what it means in one word, “Everything.”