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Mother gone, high schooler plays on

R.J. Cobb works to live up to the expectations of his mother, who died in July. He plays football for Citrus High.

By KEITH NIEBUHR, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 22, 2002


INVERNESS -- The pain in her sides was awful, Sarah Lee told her son that July afternoon.

After picking him up from work about 3:45 p.m. on July 16, she stopped at Eckerd on the way home to buy medication. R.J. Cobb, 16, thought little of his mother's discomfort because she had a history of health problems and appeared to be no worse than normal. This bout, he figured, was something minor.

"She thought it was just gas," R.J. said "So I was okay, and I thought maybe that's what it was."

A few hours later, Lee dropped off R.J. at Citrus High. He jumped out of her car and joined his football teammates as they headed to Pasco County to compete in a summer passing league.

Only later did R.J. realize what he had forgotten.

"I meant to tell her I loved her," R.J. said.

On the way back to Citrus County that night, a frantic R.J. tried to find a cell phone to call his mother. He doesn't know why he felt the urge to speak to her, but remembers his gut telling him something was wrong.

R.J. learned when he arrived in Inverness that his mother had been taken to Citrus Memorial Hospital by his older sister, Lashika Cobb. He stopped at the hospital to pick up a house key and went home, partly because he needed to shower and partly because he never liked sitting in hospitals.

R.J. planned to go to bed, but after cleaning himself up, something told him to go back to the hospital. A crowd of family members had gathered in the waiting room and he could tell by their looks they knew something he did not. R.J.'s sister pulled him aside and broke the news: Lee, 42, had died at 10:45 p.m. after a massive heart attack.

"He just dropped to his knees and started crying," Lashika Cobb said.

* * *

From the time he was little, R.J. distinguished himself on the football field. And his mother distinguished herself as his biggest fan. Once, when he returned a kickoff for a touchdown during a youth game, Lee ran the entire length of the field.

"She beat me down there," Cobb said. "I remember everybody telling me, "Man, your mom's fast."'

Although Lee did not coin the phrase, "That's my boy," R.J. said his mother perfected it. She couldn't sit still during games. When R.J. had the ball, she fidgeted and hollered. And when he did something exciting, she sometimes ran up and down the stands to celebrate.

"She loved going to the games," R.J. said. "She didn't want to miss any of them. I think she only missed like one or two of my games. Other than that, she was always there. She drove to Orlando. And she drove all the way to Hawthorne to watch me play."

Lee was not particularly athletic. Lashika Cobb said R.J.'s athleticism comes from their father, 61-year-old Rudolph Cobb, retired and living in Brooksville. Still, R.J. became, according to his sister, "a mama's boy."

Lee supported the family by working at Sonny's Real Pit Bar-B-Q in Inverness, and often took extra jobs. Religion played a large role in her life, and Lee expected her children to be polite at all times. Her mother had taught school, so she stressed academics, too.

"That's where R.J. got his brains," Lashika said.

* * *

Lashika Cobb had been to the hospital before with her mother, who previously suffered from blood problems and severe headaches, but never stomach and chest pains.

Lashika, 20, said that while she sat alone in the lobby that night, a voice came to her that said, "When your mom goes to sleep, she's not going to wake up."

At 11 p.m., a nurse said a doctor wanted to see her. Lashika said she knew what was coming.

"I started screaming and punching the wall," she said.

After a few minutes, she relaxed a bit, knowing she needed to compose herself before telling R.J. of their mother's death.

"I was trying so hard to be calm," she said.

While speaking with R.J., Lashika suggested they go to their mother's hospital room, where they sat, held hands and prayed as Lee lay motionless. Lashika told R.J. everything would be fine. She said Lee raised them to be strong enough to handle anything, as long as they believed in each other and in God.

R.J. continued to cry.

"Suddenly a calm came over us," he said. "It was like everything was going to be okay. I just stopped crying. When I was holding my mom's hand, I remember saying, "I promise, I promise.' I had always told her that if she gave me a few years, all the struggles, all the money problems would be over. I promised her I'd get to college and make something of myself and she wouldn't have to work anymore. That's one promise I won't go back on."

* * *

The Cobbs have a collection of videotapes from each of R.J.'s games. In one, his mother is caught on camera walking up the steps at a stadium.

"I saw R.J. watching that one recently," Lashika said. "He kept rewinding that one spot back and forth, over and over. It's really been hard on him."

Family, football, God, school and work have been his saving grace.

On the field, R.J., a sophomore, has become one of the area's top players.

In his first junior varsity game in 2001, he returned the opening kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown. That was a prelude of things to come.

This fall, R.J. has added spark to a Citrus offense. He ran for 180 yards in Friday's 17-0 victory over Lecanto.

In the Hurricanes' 35-21 win over Hernando Sept. 13, he rushed for 129 yards and scored on an electrifying 61-yard run.

"Mom would have loved that one," R.J. said.

Lee probably would be pleased with R.J.'s academic progress too. He carries a 3.67 GPA and plans on improving that.

"I was taking a midterm recently and I kept thinking that if I got anything lower than a B, mom would kill me," R.J. said.

"I can hear her sometimes when I'm taking a test, saying, "If you fail this test, you know what's going to happen.' I always strive for perfection because of her."

Emotional support comes from family and friends.

R.J.'s father drives from Brooksville every morning to make sure his kids are doing okay.

On Friday nights, the family gets together to watch Citrus play.

"I think he's handling himself well," said teammate and best friend Mike Brown.

Lashika is a secretary. After practice, R.J. works as a cook at a sports bar.

They live together with Lashika's 6-month-old girl, Tynia, in a modest house in Inverness. Lashika said they aren't doing well financially, but insists they will get by.

The house sometimes feels empty.

R.J. and Lashika regularly spend time in their mother's room, which remains unchanged. When the phone rings, they often rush to answer it, thinking their mother might be on the line.

"Sometimes after something good happens at school, I'll start thinking about how I can't wait to get home and tell mom about it," R.J. said. "It still doesn't feel real."

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