tampabay.com

The Dukes family

"Nobody knows what I went through," Elijah's mom says.

By ABBIE VANSICKLE
Published June 21, 2007


TAMPA - Phyllis Dukes heard her son's voice on the radio and felt she had to call to explain. "His father and his crack-head mother - it follows him," she says. "It brings out his temper. Ever since he was in high school, every little thing he did was in the paper. Nothing good." She likes it when people bother to learn a little more.

A few things to know.

The mother of Devil Rays outfielder Elijah Dukes got her high school diploma at 34, while raising six kids.

She has no criminal record. She admitted on the radio that for a while she dealt crack cocaine, but she says she never used it.

She wants her son to get help, and she's trying. Her latest attempt: gathering older male cousins to mentor him.

That's an unusual approach for her. In her life, the women have been the strong ones, the men haven't always been around.

"Nobody knows what I went through," she says. "It was a struggle, it wasn't easy."

She sees that her family doesn't come off well in sound bites. Sometimes, like Elijah, she opens herself to attack.

Last week, she angered total strangers by the way she talked about her son's girlfriends.

This week, mother and son tried to defend him against the claim that he threatened to kill his estranged wife and children. It didn't go well. The day ended with her son's "F--- you" to a reporter at a Phoenix ballpark.

She lives modestly. The only signs of her son's professional success are the athletic trophies lined along the front window.

Inside the home, which is federally subsidized, a big-screen television is turned to ESPN. Grandchildren run around, leaving half-empty juice glasses and toys in their wake. It smells of the black-eyed peas and rice simmering in her kitchen. There's a hectic, family feeling, no hint of the anger associated with her progeny.

On the door, black stickers spell out, "The Family."

Phyllis sits at the dining room table, a popular gathering place for card games and Scrabble. If Elijah joins them, they play until he wins.

With her sit two of his sisters, Katrina Evans, 26, and Mary Dukes, 19. Spread out on the table are dozens of pictures, including two fading family portraits, the only thing she saved from Andrew, the hurricane that drove the family out of Miami.

She points to a faded family portrait -- Elijah and his two brothers in white dress shirts, red suspenders and bow ties.

Phyllis opens a scrapbook of her son's career. It begins with a photo of him as a boy in a football jersey. She smiles, unabashedly proud. That's the heart of her story -- and his, too, really. She adores him.

Pulled from school

Raised just outside of Miami, she watched her own mom, Pearline Evans, struggle to make money and raise eight children. Dad, Willie D. Evans, worked in construction. Her parents split when she was a child.

By day, her mom picked tomatoes, beans and squash. By night, she cleaned motel rooms.

Annie Whipple, Phyllis' role model and grandmother, anchored the family.

"I wanted to be her," Phyllis says. "To watch her there, always cooking, washing, cleaning, making sure the kids are off to school."

Phyllis grew up on the ball field, and played a mean first base, said her sister, Bobbie J. Evans.

Phyllis made Bs and Cs, and hoped to be a teacher, but her father pulled her out of school so she could help raise her siblings. Even now, she gets frustrated about that. "I really wish my dad would have let me continue," she says.

She had her first child at 20, Elijah at 24. He's named after his father, Elijah Dukes Sr., who married Phyllis in the mid 1990s.

When Hurricane Andrew decimated the family's home, only three family items survived: two photographs and a radio. Then, someone stole the radio.

Phyllis brought her six children to Tampa. Elijah Dukes Sr. stayed in Miami. Mom and kids stayed with a relative until they moved into a West Tampa house.

Eventually, dad joined them. Elijah Sr. was a truck driver. Those were good days, filled with barbecues on Indian Rocks Beach.

Then, Phyllis starting buying crack cocaine, small amounts, just enough to "give" to a few friends, she says, and the kids never saw drugs in the house.

She said she never used it, that a heart murmur would have prevented her, even if she wanted it.

Questions about her honesty on that matter prompted a rash, early-morning phone call from Elijah to a local radio station, where he defended her.

Her sister, Bobbie J., said the rumors of Phyllis' drug use are false. "My sister maintains and takes care of her house and her children," she said. "If she was on that stuff, believe me ..." Her voice trailed off. "She has a family that cares."

Phyllis calls selling drugs her biggest mistake, and finds it hard to believe people won't forgive a bad choice.

One night, a man tried to sell her fake cocaine. Her husband, a man with a clean criminal record, opened fire, killing him. Police arrested Elijah Sr., accused him of murder.

In court, young Elijah listened to his dad's sentence. His sisters sat nearby. As guards led their father away in shackles, Katrina Dukes remembers how her brother reached out, tried to touch his dad.

"We made a bad choice," Phyllis says. "My kids was really hurt when their father went to prison. I was not going to lose my kids out in the streets."

Finances were tough.

"Sometimes we'd get home, and the lights would be off," Katrina says. "We could hear her crying. That's when Elijah said, 'I'm growing up to be a professional player.' "

Phyllis wanted her kids to graduate. She led by example, getting her diploma in 1995. "I needed that, to let them know: If I could, you could," she says.

A line of diplomas sits on a table in her house. Elijah's is one.

"I know you got it, and we're going to show the world you got it," she told him.

His family thought he would marry his high school sweetheart. Phyllis wanted him to be a "family man." It didn't happen that way.

His mom thinks women wanted to be with him for his potential for money and fame. Elijah now makes the major-league minimum of $380, 000 in base salary.

He had a chance for a football scholarship, but turned it down. His mom encouraged this, but wonders now if she was right.

His brother, Tyrone Evans, 21, is a rising senior and business management major at Albany State University in Georgia.

She beams when she talks of it.

Elijah took a different route. He played minor league ball in Alabama and North Carolina before he came to the Devil Rays this year. Along the way, he fathered at least four children with four different women.

After fathering three children, he decided to get married.

"You got three baby mamas," she told him. "Why not marry one of your baby mamas?"

He did. He and NiShea Gilbert, a Hillsborough schoolteacher, married Feb. 27, 2006.

Breaking into tears

From her home on Ninth Avenue, Phyllis watches the maudlin drama unfold. Her life is mostly quiet. Three days a week, she works 12-hour shifts as an apartment complex security guard.

The allegations against her son caught her by surprise, she says.

"I was throwing up a lot," she remembers. "It just got my stomach boiling over."

In quiet moments alone, she sometimes breaks down in tears.

She held back on talking about her son until she heard him call in a sports radio show to defend her against allegations of drug use. She called in, too.

Her sister heard the interview. Bobbie J. said her sister means well, but she's not sure how Phyllis is being perceived.

"She doesn't know how to go about things in a calm manner sometimes," Bobbie J. said.

Phyllis isn't sure what happens next. She hopes Elijah changes his life -- and soon.

For now, she spends her time surrounded by her grandchildren. On a recent afternoon, she relaxed at her dining room table. One of Elijah's exes, Shantell Mitchell, 23, sat on the couch.

The only noise was the giggling of Lil' Elijah, the 3-year-old son of Elijah and Mitchell.

The toddler smiles whenever he hears his dad's name.

"He's a great dad," Mitchell said. "We're not in a relationship, but he calls me every day to talk to my child."

Lil' Elijah knows when the Devil Rays are on television, and he watches, staring at his dad. Elijah has a room for his son at his apartment and takes him shopping for designer outfits.

Lil' Elijah stood in his grandma's living room, a baseball glove slipped over his tiny hand. He raised his gloved hand in the air and looked up at the ceiling. Unprompted, he started to back up, still staring. He squinted. He paused, then snapped the glove shut and grinned, an imaginary baseball snug inside it.

His grandma clapped her hands. "Got me another sportsman, baby," she said.

Times researcher John Martin and staff writer Ed Encina contributed to this report. Abbie VanSickle can be reached at vansickle@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3373.