Five days after 15-year-old Diallo Robbins-Brinson died from an allergic reaction, his soccer team played without him. The boys of Macon Arsenal aimed to win him a championship. They ended up doing more. They made his mother proud.
* * *
Storm clouds sailed the horizon on gusts that filled the nets at each end of the soccer field.
But the thunder never came, and the boys playing paid the heavens no mind.
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The players were a swirl of their city, one with the wind, practicing at a park on Macon’s west side.
There were 14 of them, teenagers -- black, white and more -- half with their shirts off, from schools public and private.
Larmia Robbins-Brinson had sent her son Diallo into that cyclone of shin guards to learn about respect, compassion and teamwork, to meet children from all walks.
She’d signed him up when he was 9.
She chose soccer because she knew nothing about it. That way, she figured, she wouldn’t be one of those parents who barked instructions and griped at the refs. All she could do was cheer.
But on this cloudy Thursday evening in the middle of May, Diallo was gone and his mom was at home.
After a tournament game near Atlanta five days earlier on May 12, Diallo collapsed. The team had been chowing down on a victory dinner at a Golden Corral in Henry County. Diallo, allergic to peanuts, may have eaten some cookies with peanuts in them by mistake.
Before long, he couldn’t breathe. He passed out. He turned blue.
Diallo died two days later.
He was 15.
The day after his allergic reaction, while Diallo was still on life support in an Atlanta children’s hospital, his team played without him and advanced to a rec-league state championship game.
Now here the team was without him, scrimmaging in the breeze, tuning up for the title match against a club from Cherokee County.
Halfway through practice, a player named Asfar Rehan took a breather.
On the bench, Rehan, a 10th-grader at Stratford Academy, recalled an exchange he’d had with Diallo on May 12, in the hours before Diallo fell ill.
They’d just won. They were on their way to the parking lot, talking about what a blast soccer was and how they’d just inched closer to a state crown.
The showdown in Fayetteville a week later was to be theirs and their squad’s final game together.
Now the team readied for that clash minus Diallo.
On the bench, Rehan sat for a moment.
“This championship,” he said, “is gonna be for Diallo.”
* * *
Diallo’s team, Macon Arsenal, had been together six years.
Boys had come and gone, but coach Matthew Odom stayed through seasons that included lopsided 12-0, 14-0 and 19-1 defeats, losses he still dredged up for motivation.
But in the past two seasons, the team had lost just twice. This year it was unbeaten, 15-0, entering the title match.
At Arsenal’s last practice May 17, Odom warned that they shouldn’t take the Cherokee County kids lightly just because Arsenal had beaten them 4-1 in an earlier meeting.
“If you’re not motivated this weekend, put your jersey down. Just turn in your stuff,” Odom said. “It’s about winning this thing for Diallo.”
Afterward, the players went to Diallo’s house. His mother, Larmia, whom many of them called Mia, wanted to give them a pep talk.
She wasn’t planning on attending the championship.
Mia had hung Diallo’s jerseys all over her living room -- from the little-boy size he wore when he was 9 all the way to the red No. 16 he’d worn the weekend before his death.
When the players arrived, still sweaty from practice, the house seemed like a locker room. Mia had never had so many guests at once.
One of Diallo’s teammates, Reginald Golphin, a Howard High student, took her aside.
He told her that as a tribute to her son he was changing his jersey number from 14 to 16.
“Forever,” he said.
Mia, 44, a psychologist, had been wondering about what she would say to the players that day to inspire them.
Then she thought about the things she used to tell Diallo while they were in the car on the way to his games. She figured she’d use some of that.
“You don’t know what the other team is coming with,” she told the boys of Arsenal, “but you better do your best. And be a gentleman. As long as you do your absolute best for the team, then it’s OK. ... Go out there and leave your heart on the field.”
* * *
The next afternoon, May 18, the day before the big game, there was a memorial service for Diallo at his school, Central High.
Diallo was a freshman on the Central soccer team.
At the service, his mom sat in the front row of the auditorium next to his 11-year-old brother, Sharif.
For more than half an hour, friends took turns sharing memories of Diallo.
There was talk of the green-and-silver gallon water jug he toted to soccer practice and let everyone else drink from.
Freshman class President Afeeni Cumberbatch said, “We loved him dearly. ... The class of 2015 salutes you.”
When Cumberbatch finished, Mia hugged her and whispered, “Stay in politics.”
Then one of Diallo’s youth league coaches, Christopher Hunter, went to the microphone and said Diallo stood up for other players when coaches or teammates fussed at them.
“He would put himself on the line for you,” Hunter said.
Then a girl, a Central student, said Diallo was “a sweetheart. He pulled out your chair for you.”
Another girl, a soccer player, remembered how Diallo puffed on his asthma inhaler while he chugged out laps at soccer practice. She said he inspired her.
At the end of the ceremony, the school’s drama teacher, Jason Levitt, asked everyone to give Diallo a standing ovation.
“Diallo loved being on stage,” Levitt said, “even when he wasn’t.”
* * *
The next morning in Fayetteville, coach Odom huddled with his team before the championship.
On each player’s right sleeve was a black patch with Diallo’s name on it.
“This is it,” Odom said. “This is your last game together, fellows. ... Go out on top. As far as I’m concerned, y’all are still at the top of my heart.”
One player had penned “Diallo” on the front of his right sock.
Another player had inked “R.I.P.” on the back of his jersey.
The remembrances were a show of the brotherhood that one of their assistant coaches, David Smith, had spoken of at practice two days earlier.
“Y’all are great soccer players,” he’d said. “You’re better young men. Y’all are there for each other.”
* * *
Twelve minutes into the title game, Diallo’s mother showed up at the field.
She hadn’t planned on making the trip from Macon. The last thing she wanted was to be a distraction. But the players had asked her to be there. So she came.
As Mia passed behind the Arsenal bench, Odom left the sideline and hugged her.
She asked who was winning.
“Nobody’s scored yet,” reserve Duncan Hall told her.
“Well, you need to get something soon,” she said.
With about five minutes left in the half, Arsenal goalkeeper Ashton Wall kept the game scoreless with a diving save on a point-blank shot.
A couple of minutes later, Iniko Owens, a wisp of a player for Arsenal, bolted downfield. Beneath his jersey, he had on a white T-shirt with “This one is 4 Diallo” on it.
In front of the other team’s net, dribbling with his back to the goal, Owens spun and rifled a shot from 15 yards out.
It floated high. The half ended scoreless.
* * *
In his halftime speech, Odom said, “This is the last half that we have as a team. ... It’s about players that want to be men right now. This is last call. It’s about warriors. I need people that want to get the punch card, go to the machine, clock in, get your hard hat and go to work.”
It had been an emotional week for the team and Odom as well. He hadn’t slept much.
At the park that morning, people he didn’t know told him how sorry they were about Diallo.
Odom works for the state Division of Child Support Services. He says the job, mostly dealing with delinquent fathers, is “more eye-opening than it is depressing.”
Odom grew up on Grosso Avenue in Macon’s Unionville neighborhood, not far from Henderson Stadium. His mother died of a heart attack when he was 10. His grandmother raised him after that.
By the time he graduated from Westside High in 2000, he was a soccer co-captain. Later, as a midfielder, he made the practice squad for a pro team in Atlanta.
Six years ago, Diallo was on the first Macon Soccer Club team Odom coached.
Now that team had grown up.
* * *
As the second half kicked off, Diallo’s mother stood with her sister and chatted with other parents.
“We’re doing the best we can,” Mia said.
Another mom walked up and said, “I don’t know what to say.”
Mia told her Diallo had a good life, that he hadn’t been waiting until he was an adult to start living.
While Mia’s sister, Tina, was on the phone with a funeral home back in Macon, helping with Diallo’s obituary, the Cherokee team went on top 1-0.
“He would be really upset if they didn’t win,” Mia said.
Five minutes later, Arsenal’s Owens, a Westside High student and one of Diallo’s best friends on the team, poked a shot past the Cherokee goalie to tie it.
“It has been a long road to get these boys to be champions. A lot of Gatorade, a lot of water, a lot of dirty socks,” Mia said.
About eight minutes later, Cherokee went up 2-1 on a penalty kick.
Then with about 20 minutes remaining, the ball bounded over the Arsenal goalie and went in to give Cherokee a 3-1 cushion.
“They can come back,” Mia said to herself. “Let’s go, Arsenal!”
But before long it was 4-1.
* * *
With about 10 minutes to go, Arsenal’s Chandler Cundiff, a student at FPD, hooked in a left-footed shot from about 30 feet to trim the deficit to 4-2.
“We’ve got some momentum,” Mia said.
The whole game she’d been gripping a poster bearing the Arsenal crest, holding it at her waist like a shield.
Diallo kept the poster, an emblem of the English professional team, tacked to his bedroom wall. There’s a gold cannon on it.
Decades ago, the Arsenal logo included the Latin inscription “victory comes from harmony.”
As the final minutes ticked away, it was clear that Diallo’s team would not triumph.
Still, Mia rooted them on.
“Come on, that’s OK!” she hollered when an Arsenal header missed high. “Do it again, but get it in!”
A few minutes later, she mentioned how cheers beat boos, that jeers are the last thing a kid needs to hear.
“Encourage,” she said, “don’t discourage.”
Before she could finish the sentence, the referee’s whistle signaled the game’s end.
At midfield, Diallo’s buddy Owens was in tears, lying on the turf.
Mia thought about going out to console him.
She worried that her being there might only compound his grief.
Then some players from the other team noticed Owens sobbing and went over to him.
Owens was face down in the grass.
Mia stared, for a minute maybe, watching her son’s friend cry.
“It’s heart,” she said. “I know he played hard. ... They’re champions.”
To contact writer Joe Kovac Jr., call 744-4397