DeVarius Cortner will make sure his “little sister” makes it to her elementary school bus stop Wednesday morning.
That’s typically the first stop in a routine day for the East Nashville Magnet School senior. Working a part-time job, training with a personal trainer and more than seven hours in school are also components of his typical day. Throw in homework and maybe six hours of sleep, and there’s not time for much else in Cortner’s life.
But Wednesday won’t be a routine day for the 17-year-old.
It’s national signing day. Cortner will be one of dozens of Middle Tennessee seniors who sign letters of intent to play college football. He committed to Western Carolina University on Monday after a weekend visit to the Cullowhee, N.C., school.
How did he get to this point? A lot of that credit goes to Vanessa Cortner.
Seven years ago, Vanessa Cortner was a 23-year-old single mother of a 2-year-old daughter. That’s when her cousin — and Devarius’ mother — Sherika Cortner died of cancer.
“Two weeks before she died, she asked if I would take them (10-year-old DeVarius and 12-year-old Doncoria) in,” said Vanessa Cortner. “I was delighted to do so. She was really helpful with me from the time I was 14. She really helped me through my high school years. We had already been close. I had seen them almost every day since they were young.”
“It was tough,” DeVarius said. “But, I was close to (Vanessa) already, so that made (moving in) easier. I had to get used to it.”
Although she never hesitated in taking in the two preteens, Vanessa’s life endured a major jolt.
“I had to go from being a cousin to a parent,” she said. “I had to switch roles. I had to do things like discipline them. You go from being a cousin to a mother.”
Helping the children cope with the death of their mother was also a big responsibility.
“When (DeVarius) was young, he didn’t voice anything much,” Vanessa said. “He’s still that way. You have to look at him and see he still hurts. You really have to know him to know he’s bothered.”
Those who know DeVarius Cortner will agree he is a better person today because of Vanessa’s efforts during the past seven years.
“She took him in at such a young age and she’s been very supportive of him — his football and his academics,” said East Nashville football coach Brian Waite. “I think she has everything to do with (what DeVarius has become). Given the circumstances, he could have gone down the wrong path. He had every excuse in the world to do that, but he didn’t. It takes a strong person to make sure he didn’t go down the wrong path.”
The path DeVarius selected has been full of honors and achievements.
Eyes on the prize
DeVarius has always been a good student, Vanessa said. That goes along with his work ethic, which more than one person labeled as “100 percent.”
“He always does his job, and most of the time he actually does more than he’s supposed to do,” said Aaron Batey, assistant manager at Lids, a hat retailer at Rivergate Mall, where DeVarius works 15 to 20 hours a week.
At East Nashville, DeVarius has a 3.8 grade-point average. It’s another testament to his work ethic.
And on the football field, he exhibits it daily.
“He’s 100 percent committed to being successful … he always has been,” Waite said. “He’s ‘Mr. Reliable.’ If you need something done, you can always count on him.
“I’ve known him since he was in seventh grade, and from the time I first met him, he’s always prepared himself for this (national signing day). He’s outstanding in the classroom and has outstanding character. It’s not a shock that he’s in this position.”
The hard work and long days can take a toll, but it’s routine for DeVarius.
“I got used to it,” said DeVarius. “I try to get (school) work done during school, but if not, I do it at home. Early on it was tiring. It really wore me down.”
“I think (his past) gave him the drive to work harder,” Batey said.
He also helps a lot at home with his “little sister,” who is actually third cousin Nakia Hayes.
“That’s her big brother,” said Vanessa, pointing out the bond between her daughter, 9-year old Nakia, and DeVarius. “She didn’t even know he wasn’t her real brother until about a year ago. She was so young when he moved in.”
The help is needed, with Vanessa putting in long days as a financial assistant for a company that works with adults with intellectual disabilities to support the family.
“He knows that I have to work a lot of hours to survive,” Vanessa said. “Even though he’s tired, he knows I’m tired too.”
Cortner finished his senior season with 1,251 yards passing and 11 touchdowns while rushing for 185 yards. College coaches, however, covet his play on defense. At free safety, the 6-foot, 180-pounder had 40 tackles, four interceptions and five passes broken up.
After the season he was presented with the Hume Award, an honor given to the best Metro Nashville football player, based on scholarship, sportsmanship, individual performance and value to his team.
“He won the Eagle Award’ (given to the best student) as an eighth-grader,” Waite said. “You knew, even then, that he was going to be something special.”
Reach Cecil Joyce at email@example.com.
NATIONAL SIGNING DAY
Go to Tennessean.com/sports on Wednesday for updates on dozens of Middle Tennessee high school seniors’ decisions on national signing day, as well as the signings for Vanderbilt, Tennessee, Middle Tennessee State, Tennessee State, Tennessee Tech and Austin Peay.
Position, school: Defensive back, East Nashville
2015 stats: 40 tackles, 4 interceptions, 5 pass break-ups.
Committed: Western Carolina
Other offers: Navy (decommitted in January), Tennessee Tech