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Sensitive subject

Dewon Brazelton is looking for support, but he is struggling to make friends with teammates.

By MARC TOPKIN, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times
published March 2, 2003


photo
[Times photo: Toni L. Sandys]
Dewon Brazelton is having trouble dealing with the labels that come with being a first-round pick.
ST. PETERSBURG -- The way Dewon Brazelton tells it, they couldn't have been closer. He figures he has the talent he has -- and the fame, fortune and fantastic future that have come with it -- because of what his twin brother, Fewon, gave him. That some way, and this would certainly be one of God's more mysterious ways, Dewon got what Fewon, who was born with cerebral palsy and could never walk or talk, couldn't use.

"I just feel like in the womb we were talking or something and he realized he was going to be handicapped and he was like, 'I want you to have my talent, so you have that, too,' " Dewon says. "Maybe if he were not handicapped, I'd get 50 percent of the talent, he'd get 50 percent, and we're both average. He sacrificed for me, and I get to be good and I get to reach this far."

Brazelton made it to the majors in September, a head start on a pitching career that is expected to take off this season as the 22-year-old right-hander takes a spot in the Devil Rays rotation for the next 10 years.

But the rest of the journey will be different.

And difficult.

Fewon died in December, finally succumbing to the pneumonia that seemed to ravage his 90-pound body every winter, and a part of Dewon went with him.

Dewon says he is thankful for the time Fewon had, that the doctors first gave him only four months, and then four years, to live; that Fewon went peacefully, dying in his sleep at the nursing home near their Tullahoma, Tenn., hometown; and that it was a blessing Dewon was back home and not in Florida when it happened.

But that hasn't made any of it any easier.

Dewon has preferred to shield his brother's privacy, and his death has been as difficult for Dewon to talk about as his life. At the suggestion last week that he might dedicate his season to Fewon, Brazelton burst into tears in the middle of the clubhouse, saying he has done that every year and not understanding why someone would think it would be different now.

"Our relationship was not the same relationship like everyone else had, because he didn't walk or talk or whatever, but he's still my brother. He still means the world to me," Brazelton says.

"He was a part of me. We had a bond better than anyone could know. He's always in my heart, regardless of whether he's here or not."

Fewon's death is the latest development in what has been a lifetime of sorrow and success for Brazelton. His story is a remarkable one, the child who escaped a troubled home and was literally raised by the proverbial village, going on to lead a madly successful life, an inspirational story that is sure to make its way to Hollywood.

"We call him Tullahoma's kid," says Diane Darlington, one of a half-dozen "moms" who took Brazelton in at some point of his adolescence.

Dewon tells vivid stories of growing up in the projects of Tullahoma, a small town in south central Tennessee, of dodging drug dealers and hustlers. His natural mother, Monalisa, two weeks out of high school when she had the twins, raised them as a single mom, but often wasn't there. First because she was working at a factory during the day and a Krystal fast-food joint at night, later when she drifted into drugs, something he never saw but heard about from his middle school classmates who would see her buying from dealers.

"I love her and she's not a bad lady," Brazelton says, "but at one point her head wasn't right."

Dewon would look after Fewon, who eventually received full-time care, and himself. It was not easy. "I was an adult at 13 years old," Brazelton says. "I drove myself to Little League practice when I was 12. If I had to pick up my brother, I'd go pick him up. I had to do a lot of things a lot of kids couldn't handle. They couldn't. People can sit around and say whatever they want, but they couldn't handle the things I had to. And that was my life every day. Not twice a week, but every day."

Eventually, he found a way out. He was a star athlete, and a coach invited him along to Grace Baptist Church. Families took notice and started to take him in. He'd spend an afternoon with one, a night with another, a weekend with a third. Most of them had younger children, and most of them were white, but there was no limit to what they would do for Dewon.

Eventually, the Darlingtons gave him a key and a permanent address for his college applications. "We told him it was his home if he wanted it to be," Diane Darlington says. "He just fits in with your family so well."

That he was so openly welcomed, Dewon says, is a testament to his proper values and good behavior. He has so much "family" that when he became an official Big Brother last week to a 10-year-old St. Petersburg boy, he laughed when the group counselor made suggestions on what to do. "I'm like, I've been doing this for years," he says. "I have more brothers and sisters than anyone in this place."

Dewon calls Monalisa, who he says has been clean and sober since 1999, his mom. And he calls Dianne Darlington, who is visiting him this weekend, his mom. And he calls Debbie Barnett, the matriarch of another Tullahoma family he lived with, his mom.

He calls them all a big part of his life, and he calls them often, several times a day each, because he needs their support.

For all that Brazelton has going for him, the $4.2-million bonus from the 2001 draft, the diamonds the size of marbles in his ears, the toys -- Lexus, Escalade, Hummer H2 -- in the driveway, there are some major issues in his life.

The adjustment to professional baseball has been hard, more difficult than he likes to let on. In self analysis, his heart is too big and his skin too thin for a major-league clubhouse.

He feels ostracized by teammates, so much that he has thought of quitting and wonders why people who are supposed to be on his side can be so mean to someone they should welcome.

"Being a first-rounder is a curse," Brazelton says. "It's a curse. It really takes somebody with a lot thicker skin than me. I care too much about people, period. Like when somebody says something, it doesn't make me mad and want to fight, it hurts my feelings. 'Why did you say that, man? That ain't right.? My skin ain't thick enough to be a first-rounder around here.

"I wear a lot of things being the high draft pick, the bonus baby or whatever. You can't shake that. You've just got to wear them. No matter how mean somebody is being to me, no matter how mean, well, if I say anything then I'm a jerk. And I don't want the reputation of being a jerk because I'm not a jerk. I'm a nice guy, a very nice guy, probably the nicest guy in here."

He has been teased about what he wears, how he looks, what he drives, how he carries himself, where he lives, how he walks, even how much he talks on his cell phone. There have also been whispers that he's soft, which is almost sacrilegious in the macho pro sports world. He doesn't understand the point of any of it, why people always are picking on him. For someone who has always made friends easily, he doesn't seem have to have many -- if any -- on the team, and there doesn't appear to be a lot of sympathy for his concerns.

"There's been points in time when I wanted to give it all up," Brazelton says. "I'd rather be a teacher, like I was going to be, than be treated the way I'm treated sometimes."

Dick Bosman, one of the old pros who works as a Rays minor-league pitching coach and is as close to Brazelton as anyone in the organization, sees a gifted young man who hasn't had the chance to develop as much emotionally as he has physically.

"I don't think he really knows who he is yet," Bosman says. "He'll find his niche. He'll find peace with himself because he'll understand it's okay to be his own man."

Brazelton says he is getting there, hoping that people see him for who he is, not where he is or how much money he makes or what they expect him to be.

"I can't be anybody else," he says. "I can't be."


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