Macon teen who died from peanut allergy always pulled for underdog

jkovac@macon.comMay 16, 2012 

Diallo Robbins-Brinson had dark eyes, a full face, an unassuming look, one that radiated the easy confidence of a young man on his way.

He was, you might say, the humble kind of handsome -- the bright, shy type, who at age 15 had yet to land a girlfriend. He seemed the sort the girls might not notice until, say, college, when his charm and wit and smoldering gaze might well sweep them off their feet.

Diallo had been home-schooled mostly, but at Central High last fall, his first semester at a public school, he ran for freshman class president and lost by a respectable 42 votes.

He’d grown up sheltered, his mother says, with asthma and a peanut allergy to boot. He’d attended a couple of Montessori schools and a tiny Christian school.

“He never rode the bus to school. He didn’t know about drugs. He never had a fistfight,” his mother Larmia Robbins-Brinson says.

Diallo was into PlayStation3. He took guitar lessons, played keyboard and a little cello. On the way to school in the mornings, he and his mother sometimes listened to audio books or tuned in to National Public Radio.

Diallo was a reserve striker and midfielder on the Macon Arsenal, a local rec-league soccer squad. Last Saturday they edged closer to this weekend’s state finals after winning a pair of matches in a 15-and-under league tournament in Lovejoy, just south of Atlanta.

Saturday night, when he fell ill with the apparent nut allergy that would on Monday claim his life, he’d been celebrating, eating a victory dinner with teammates.

Diallo had played a role in three plays that led to Arsenal goals that afternoon.

“His asthma was somewhat limiting in soccer, but he would always go out and give 100 percent. ... He was a hard worker,” his coach, Matthew Odom, says.

Odom had known him more than six years as a soccer coach and mentor. He’d seen Diallo blossom.

Friday night, while Diallo’s teammates were eating pizza and playing video games at the team’s motel, a Marriott Courtyard in McDonough, Odom took Diallo aside and told him how much he thought of him.

“That I loved him and that I was proud of him for becoming the young man that he is,” Odom recalls. “I told him that he was gonna be a model young man for other people to follow.”

Diallo just smiled.

* * *

Twenty-four hours or so later, the boy was on the brink of death.

He and the other players had been at the Golden Corral in McDonough. Their parents and coaches were at another table. The boys were chowing down on dessert.

Diallo had a couple of white chocolate chip cookies with Macadamia nuts, his favorites.

“So he thought he was safe,” his mother says.

But Diallo broke out in a rash that spread up his arm and around his neck. Soon he was having trouble breathing, in distress.

Teammates who’d known him for years asked if he’d eaten peanuts. They told him to go to his mom. When Diallo reached his mother’s table, he was sweating. His eyes were red.

All his mom could figure was that the cookies he’d eaten had peanut oil in them or that maybe they had come in contact with peanut-laden cookies.

Diallo’s mother wondered if Benadryl might help. But she didn’t have any, and Diallo hadn’t carried around EpiPens -- injector sticks that thwart anaphylactic shock -- since he was 8. He’d learned to avoid peanuts.

Then Diallo stopped breathing. Robbins-Brinson called 911.

Soon, Diallo was unconscious, his pulse fading. His skin turned purple, then blue.

His mother screamed for anyone who might have an EpiPen. Someone in the restaurant had one for small children, but the dosage wasn’t enough. Still, Odom, the coach, stuck it in Diallo’s thigh while Diallo’s mom did chest compressions to keep her son’s blood pumping.

But by the time an ambulance arrived, Robbins-Brinson says, “I just knew his brain and his body had gone too long without oxygen. At that point, I started to lose my mind.”

* * *

Diallo means “bold.” His middle name, Osei, means “noble.”

He was born in Ohio, where his mother, raised in California, was getting her doctorate in psychology at Kent State University.

Diallo’s grandma, Patricia Taft, was a city councilwoman in Plains for a while.

His great-grandma was one of the first female cabbies in Baltimore. She and her husband once owned a restaurant in California called the Barrel of Barbecue. When they moved to Plains, they opened another eatery and named it the Barrel of Barbecue II.

Diallo and his mom moved to Macon when he was 4. He took up soccer at age 9.

“Everything that he did, he wanted to do his best and make people proud. He didn’t want to cause problems,” Robbins-Brinson, 44, says.

“He always rooted for the underdog. If there was a teammate or a player that the other kids didn’t like or felt like didn’t need to be on the team, Diallo would say, ‘No, he’s trying.’ Or if there was a kid with a behavior problem, Diallo would say, ‘He might be having a tough time at home right now.’ He’d be a shield for them.”

When Diallo helped coach his 11-year-old brother Sharif’s soccer team, Diallo took the less-athletic kids under his wing.

“He was more concerned about camaraderie than he was about winning,” his mother says.

Diallo had talked of becoming a physician, of someday working on a cure for asthma.

“But I think he probably would have gone on to some kind of a computer engineering,” Robbins-Brinson says, “because the video games, he was passionate about them.”

The motto at their house was, “We’re winners, but we also give back.”

Robbins-Brinson says, “I always told Diallo, ‘We’re Americans, and Americans love winners. Go out there and leave your heart on the field. Give it your all.’ He embraced it. ... He did the best with what he had. He played soccer even though it was difficult for him.”

* * *

Diallo had been wanting a girlfriend.

There was this girl at school he’d told his mama about.

“We were very close and he would share,” his mother says. “He had a crush on one girl, but she was always interested in some other guys. I tried to explain to him that at this point girls aren’t really interested in the good guys.”

And Diallo wasn’t, as the kids say, smooth.

“It would take a lot for him to try to step out and approach a young woman,” his mom says. “He had never had a real kiss, you know, and he was looking forward to that. ... He was so handsome.”

But Robbins-Brinson knew there was more to life than looks.

“I told him, ‘You need to grow up to be a good man, not just a pretty face.’”

* * *

Before daybreak Sunday, after doctors put Diallo on life support, they summoned his mother.

They told her it’d be OK for her to go in and see him, to talk to him even though he was unconscious.

“I told him, ‘You can’t go, you can’t leave us. We need you here.’”

As the hours wore on, after Diallo was transferred to an Atlanta children’s hospital, a doctor told her it was time to “pray for a miracle.”

But Diallo never came around.

He was pronounced dead a few minutes past noon on Monday.

His mother signed forms to donate his liver and kidneys.

Diallo’s heart went to someone in Arkansas.

A 15-year-old boy.

“That just lifts me up,” Diallo’s mom says, “that his heart is helping another child. He’s still helping the underdog.”

To contact writer Joe Kovac Jr., call 744-4397.

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