Donald Brinkley and Brandon King lived a lifetime in five years at St. Augustine’s. They buried two teammates and played for three coaches. Their football careers were filled with heartbreak, tragedy, turmoil and not as many wins as they would have liked, but Brinkley and King this weekend will make it to the end, stronger than they ever could have imagined, bonded for life.
Saturday is their final game, at home in the newly renamed Raleigh Classic against archrival Shaw. For the last time, Brinkley and King will anchor the right side of the Falcons’ offensive line, Brinkley at tackle, King at guard. They will block for their teammates and they will protect each other, as they have for their entire time at St. Augustine’s, inspired and strengthened by the hardship they have endured together.
“It just shows me that I can get through anything,” King said. “We lost coaches, players, two brothers, in four years. If you can get through that, I don’t know – there’s not too much in life that can knock you down once you go through something like that.”
In the spring of 2014, freshman offensive lineman Ronald Cunningham collapsed on campus and died of an apparent heart attack. The player who spoke on behalf of the offensive line at the funeral was Matthew “M.J.” Mangram, a 20-year-old junior, one of the team’s unquestioned leaders. That September, Mangram went home to Georgia to visit his ailing grandmother and was killed in a car crash.
In the space of two months, Brinkley and King suffered two unfathomable losses. They were just kids, redshirt sophomores, Brinkley from Greenville, King from Florence, S.C. They grew up fast. They had no choice.
“Those two close friends, Donald and Brandon, they had to pick up the pace,” said St. Augustine’s coach Tim Chavous, who arrived on campus as an assistant coach in 2012. “They had to do it for M.J.”
Meanwhile, if all of that wasn’t enough to process, the program was in turmoil on the field as well. After going 4-6 in 2013, longtime coach Michael Costa was fired after the first game of the 2014 season amid a dispute over funding with the university’s president. His replacement, Michael Morand, was suspended for undisclosed reasons two games into the 2015 season and later fired. (Morand died in April.)
Chavous finished out the season as interim coach and was given the permanent title in February, but the Falcons went from four wins in Brinkley and King’s redshirt freshman year to 3-7 as sophomores and 1-9 as juniors. This season, the first full season under Chavous, St. Aug’s is 2-7. The Falcons have won two straight against Shaw, which is 1-8 this season.
There were so many times Brinkley or King could have walked away. Each time, one talked the other out of it, always reminding themselves that they played because Cunningham and Mangram could not, that they owed it to them to finish what they had started.
“Any other kid probably wouldn’t have finished, wouldn’t have had a strong enough heart to finish,” Chavous said. “I think those are two unique players. Everybody can’t experience everything like that and deal with it the rest of their career. It’s just unheard of.”
Brinkley is on track to graduate in December, King in the spring. Brinkley, at 6-6, 310, has a chance to keep playing. He has been invited to play for scouts in the FCS Bowl in Daytona Beach, Fla., next month. If football doesn’t work out, he plans to attend a police academy. King, 6-2, 330, wants to be an entrepreneur. Chavous would not discount the chances of either doing just about anything they set their mind to try.
Saturday, for that last game against Shaw, Brinkley will have Cunningham and Mangram’s names and jersey numbers written on his cleats, as he always does. King will wear a memorial T-shirt under his pads and write their names on the tape on his wrists.
“I’m not out here just playing for myself anymore,” Brinkley said. “I’m not just out here to do it for me. I’m doing it for them, because they’re not here, they can’t do this. I know them watching over me and seeing me succeed and doing what I’m doing is going to make them happy.”
One last time, they’ll honor their departed teammates on the field. They made it to the end, carrying the memories of Cunningham and Mangram with them to the finish, along with the lessons they learned forever.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, email@example.com, @LukeDeCock
Shaw at St. Augustine’s
What: Raleigh Classic
When: 1 p.m. Saturday
Where: George Williams Athletic Complex, Raleigh