A SON DIES AND A MOTHER STRUGGLES ON

Second in a series on challenges for Michigan athletes and their families. Read the first at www.freep.com/index/albom.htm

The new math of the inner city works like this: take the odds of being killed, divide it by the people you know, and hold your breath. Dorothy Hall, a single mother and insurance worker on Detroit’s east side, figured her debt was paid with a bullet. The first bullet. The one that hit her brother, James, a bookstore clerk, who was shot and killed in a robbery eight years ago.

“At the time, we thought, ‘That’s it, that’s our statistic,’ ” Hall says.

Still, she worried about her youngest son, Brandon. She went to his school. She worked concessions at his football games. She kept an eye on him always and she set the rules. The rules were “stay at home.” No parties. No hanging in the streets.

Brandon Hall obeyed. In time, he grew into a manly 6-feet-5, 270 pounds, a star lineman at Finney High, but he remained “his mama’s baby” from sunup to sundown. He would hug her and tell her he loved her. He’d say, “Mama, I’m never gonna leave you,” and she would laugh at how much he ate and say, “Oh, please, please leave me!” But she never meant it.

On New Year’s eves — when, as Dorothy says, “the streets are always trouble”
— they would stay inside the small frame house and eat salmon dip and deviled eggs and wear hats and watch TV. They did this 10 years ago and five years ago and three years ago and last year, and they planned to do it again this year, too, when Brandon brought his new girlfriend home from college.

Then came the second bullet.

The statistics lied.

The fateful call

It happened on a Saturday night, just hours after his first game for the Minnesota Gophers. Brandon, a 19-year-old redshirt freshman, whose mother had happily sent him away to college thinking “he would be safer there,” had made a solo tackle on his very first snap. The Gophers won big, 42-0. He called home from the locker room and screamed, “We won, Mama! We won! It’s all happening!”

Dorothy Hall took a bath and went to bed, with a prayer of thanks and a feeling of relief.

Then the phone rang. It was 3:30 a.m.

Tiffany, Brandon’s girlfriend, was on the line.

“Mama Hall,” she said, “Brandon’s been shot.”

Dorothy hung up the phone. She put on a housecoat. She wandered outside in a slow, mournful daze. Her neighbors’ lights were on. She knocked on their door. She said, “My baby has been shot.”

“What?” they said. “How?”

At that point, she didn’t even know. She didn’t know that Brandon had been safe in his college dorm, enjoying the afterglow of victory, when a teammate named Damian called from downtown Minneapolis. He had been in a fight. Somebody had stolen a gold chain. He needed help, backup, maybe even some revenge.

The smart thing to say was “come home, avoid trouble.” But young men on sports teams, away from their mothers’ arms, do not always say this. They bloat with camaraderie. They swell with misplaced anger. They think they are indestructible.

“I’m gonna get Damian,” Brandon said.

An hour later, Damian was safe.

And Brandon was dead.

The touching memorials

Dorothy Hall, sitting on a couch, looks at Brandon’s photo now, a strapping young man in football pads, and begins to cry. “You know, I made a promise when he was born. I said if anything ever happened to him, they wouldn’t find me in some nightclub or some drug house. If the police had to come, I’d be right here at home.”

She was at home when Brandon drove downtown. She was at home when he jumped from the car, smiled, and told his friends, “I’ll be back with Damian.” She was at home when he waded into the crowd of people running the opposite direction, because the guy had a gun. Brandon, thinking he could talk things out, reportedly yelled to the shooter, “I’m not with them!”

The man fired anyhow.

She was at home when the city morgue called. They had a body. They asked for birthmarks. All she could think of was a black thumbnail from a childhood accident.

“It’s him,” the voice said.

And this is what was lost: A kid who made peace, a kid who was always smiling, a kid who once, when he was 9 years old, called a taxi cab company and asked it to take him to football practice.

A kid who beat academic peril and who beat the Detroit streets and who won a college scholarship and who once wrote a paper for a conflict management course that contained this sentence: “At any given point, you can be confronted with conflict; it is up to you how you handle it.” His memorial in Minneapolis drew 1,000 people. His funeral in Detroit saw the entire Gophers team charter in. Pamphlets were distributed — Brandon’s photo, over the words: “Greater love hath no man than this; that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

And now, on Saturdays, Dorothy Hall avoids the TV because she can’t watch football anymore. And instead of two weeks off for Christmas, she went back to work Dec. 26 because what’s the point? On New Year’s Eve the house will be quiet and on his birthday the house will be quiet and on school vacations the house will be quiet, always quiet, forever quiet, and what kind of world do we live in when being a good mother means you’ll be home when the police come?

It is no way to live. It was no way to die. Two bullets, two funerals, divided by one family. The new math. You wish Brandon Hall had called a cab that would take him even farther, beyond football practice, beyond the city, beyond guns and macho, to someplace truly safe. But more and more, you wonder where that is.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR.

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