PINETOPS, N.C. – It was in the dark where the premonition came.
In the dark, under the pale light of the full moon in the wee hours of the morning of Aug. 30.
An uneasy hesitation set in Lashell Norwood as her 17-year-old son Quontellas, a football star at Southwest Edgecombe High in Pinetops, N.C., was about to back her Chrysler 300 out of the driveway, after dropping her, her daughter and her granddaughter off, and take his friend Antonio Dickens home.
“Hurry back,” she said. “Be careful.”
He said he would. She knew he would. Quontellas was always careful.
But on this night in Rocky Mount, N.C., the neighboring city where he lives, careful wouldn’t be enough to stop the evil that lurked on Leggett Road.
Minutes later, after dropping Dickens off, a car darted from behind Quontellas, sped beside him and unloaded five shots from a high-powered rifle into his car, police say. One bullet ripped through the driver’s side door and tore into his neck fracturing his jaw and knocking the nerve out of his left ear in the process. Another struck him in the left hand. His car crashed after the shooting.
“I shouldn’t be here,” Quontellas concedes now. “It’s a miracle. There’s really no other word that you can use.”
Almost equally astounding is that just 36 days later, Quontellas, a tight end/linebacker, is here on Southwest Edgecombe’s swampy practice field decked out in full practice garb prepping to start for the Cougars (6-0) in their game against North Pitt on Friday. Quontellas was the team’s defensive MVP last season and had recorded nine tackles in the two games this season before the shooting.
Quontellas has limited mobility in his left hand, partial loss of hearing in his left ear and nearly no control over his facial muscles, but his presence matters to the team. The players have been wearing his initials on their helmets since the shooting.
His ability to return so quickly gives new meaning to “Quon Strong,” a phrase coined by his teammates after the local news station released surveillance footage from the house that Quontellas willed himself to after being shot.
In the video, Quontellas, in a blood-drenched shirt, darts up the front stairs and pounds on the door for help before passing out on the porch.
“I don’t know anyone that would’ve been strong enough to do that,” says Cougars quarterback Tucker Pridgen. “But that’s Quontellas! None of us could believe what happened.”
“He’s a guy you can’t not like,” adds running back Marcus Williams Jr. “The last guy in the world you’d think someone would do something like that to.”
Pondering the why
Quontellas pondered the “why” frequently during his two-week stay at Vidant Medical Center in Greenville, N.C., following the shooting.
The narrative is quite mystifying: Quontellas is the 6-foot-3 captain of the football team, who recites “Yes sir/ma’m” more than a seasoned Boy Scout, who also excels in basketball and baseball, who holds down a B average, who is loved and respected by students and faculty and who is a self-proclaimed “homebody” who Lashell has to practically beg to go out and have fun. That guy doesn’t get gunned down on a back road.
Mistaken identity? Random act of violence? Gang initiation?
“I just kept thinking, ‘Why did they shoot me?” Quontellas says. “I never had an answer. I don’t bother anyone. I get along with everyone. I just don’t know; I don’t know.”
No arrests have been made, but Lashell says local police have informed her that they have strong leads.
“I just had to choose to let it go,” Quontellas says. “I’m not even mad anymore. I’m not the kind of guy who’s gonna go find the guys or anything like that. I’m not a thug; that’s not me. I just told myself instead of worrying about who it was and why I was gonna focus on the fact that I’m here. I’m alive. I’m gonna just keep on being me.”
Back on the field
Midway through Monday’s practice just after a water break as the linemen playfully splash through puddles on their jog to the upper field, Quontellas hangs back to check on Kevin Parker, an offensive guard who’s been sidelined for the last week with an ankle injury.
“You all good man? When are you coming back?” Quontellas asks.
“Soon,” Parker says. “They said my ankle should be good for Friday. I’m just resting it now.”
“Good,” Quontellas says. “We need you. Come on, let’s jog the rest of the way. You got it!”
Quontellas’ quick re-ascension into his role as the team’s emotional leader isn’t surprising to coach J.C. Cobb.
“He’s the one that all the kids listen to,” Cobb says. “He’s a strong leader, a natural leader. Just an awesome kid. He’s the guy that makes sure everyone’s staying on track with things. That’s why this is so ironic.”
Lashell doesn’t like to dwell on the irony, but, try as she may, she can’t shake the eeriness of the back and forth she had with Quontellas on his way to drop her and the two girls off that night.
“When he came to get me from my daughter’s house he wanted us to just ride with him to drop his friend off,” Lashell recalls. “I wanted to get my grandbaby back home and washed up for bed. He said that was a waste of gas, but I pushed him to take me home. I would’ve been in the car with him.”
A grim reality, because Quontellas said the police later told him that anyone in the passenger seat would’ve likely been killed because of where the bullets hit.
The proverbial “what ifs” abound.
‘Get back to normal’
True to homebody form, Quontellas had been hanging out at home all night kicking butt and taking names in NBA 2K16 with a group of friends until Lashell called to be picked up. Tirell Battle, who Quontellas considers a brother, was too tired to make the drop-off rounds and decided he’d walk home.
“He’s always with me, too,” Quontellas says. “But this particular night, he was tired and wanted to take it on in so he went home. That could mess your head up thinking of things that could’ve happened, but I look at it as a blessing. The doctor told me if the bullets that hit me wouldn’t have passed through the car I wouldn’t be here. I can’t waste time being mad or thinking ‘what if.’ I just want to get back to normal.”
His teammates certainly had him covered there.
During the team offense segment of practice, Quontellas lines up at tight end and darts off the line for a quick out route, but, just as he plants to cut, his feet slide from under him and he splashes down on his back into the pooled grass.
No one is concerned, no one is codling him or calling the trainer; quite contrarily the entire team bursts into laughter.
Quontellas follows suit.
“Man!” he says while still grinning. “And I was open, too! That was six!”
“Welcome back, Quon!” senior running back Keanan Williams says.
Still, don’t let the laughter fool you. While the normalcy is therapeutic, Quontellas has a very real, very long process ahead.
The scars from his bullet wounds and the two surgeries he underwent to survive will heal, but the mental scars tend to have the propensity to reopen, but not just for Quontellas.
Since the shooting, Lashell has sought medical help for uncontrollable shaking as a result of her anxiety. Quontellas says he’s apprehensive whenever a car passes him when he’s driving. Lashell plans to get him counseling to help him sort through his feelings.
“It’s affected our whole family,” Lashell says. “When you don’t know who, what or why and they’re still out there it’s hard. I’m constantly thinking that someone’s gonna do something, especially at night.”
It’s to be expected. It was, after all, in the dark where the premonition came.
Quontellas isn’t unrealistic about what lies ahead; he’s not your average millennial. He’s polished and mature; far from oblivious about the magnitude of what happened.
“I wouldn’t say that I forgive whoever did this,” Quontellas says. “But this whole thing showed me that I’m here for a reason so I don’t hold a grudge against them. I focus on the fact that I’m with my teammates again, I’m playing the game I love again, I’m closer to God now… I know everything’s gonna be good; just got that feeling. Even now, it’s raining, but it’s daytime. I’m here.”
It was in the dark where the premonition came. The light, however, revealed the revelation.
Follow Jason Jordan on Twitter: @JayJayUSATODAY