Devonte Jerrell Newbill woke up in his on-campus apartment on Sept. 15, 2012, well before his alarm sounded — he could sense something wasn’t right.
He looked down at his phone to see back-to-back missed calls from his uncle and cousin and his thoughts began to swirl.
“D.J.,” as the Penn State men’s basketball player goes by, was expecting to return to his Philadelphia home after the team’s Saturday practice so he could visit his mother — who had been diagnosed with cancer just three weeks prior. But after an emotional phone call with his grandmother, he quickly realized his mother would not be welcoming him upon his arrival.
Tawanda Roach, Newbill’s single mother whom he described as his “everything,” died early that morning.
“I said, ‘Is it true?’ and then she told me,” Newbill said, as he slowly recalled the vivid details of the conversation with his grandmother. “And I just snapped out after that. I was throwing stuff around my room and I just broke down…I don’t think it can get any worse than that.”
For the redshirt sophomore, the death of his mother was only the most recent of several traumatic events to occur over the past few years.
From a difficult upbringing, to the loss of his father figure, to his dream college unexpectedly retracting its scholarship offer, Newbill has dealt with his share of adversity along the way.
However, the Nittany Lions’ leading scorer has managed to overcome these obstacles with the help of his mentors, current team members and the game of basketball itself — becoming stronger every step of the way.
“As I’m growing as a man,” Newbill said, “I think [these obstacles] help shape me into the man that I’m going to eventually become.”
Philly legend serves as father figure
The third of four children, Newbill grew up without his father in the picture, leaving Roach to raise them alone in their north Philadelphia home.
The soft-spoken Newbill said this meant his mother had to take care of multiple roles, even handling conversations most fathers handle with their sons, like “the uncomfortable ones.”
“She was like my mother, my father, my best friend,” Newbill said.
A slight grin crawled across his face as he recalled the details of their relationship.
The 6-foot-4, 205-pound journeyman spoke with a sense of maturity and experience most 20-year-olds have yet to possess. He sat up in his chair in the Bryce Jordan Center media room on Jan. 9, proudly donning his Penn State muscle shirt and sweatpants.
Tattoos highlighted both his arms, most noticeably on his left side where the phrase, “BORN READY,” is written in graffiti-style next to a sketched player leaping for a dunk.
He continued to elaborate on his mother’s impact, which he said helped him choose the right path.
“Everything I did, I always included her into it, no matter what it was,” Newbill said. “Every decision I made in life.”
Newbill’s athletic career began in the boxing ring of his local gym at age 10.
He stopped boxing a few years later to devote more time to basketball, but one of his childhood mentors, Chuck Ellis, said Newbill’s fighting days never truly ended.
“He didn’t have everything, so he had to fight to get through life because D.J. had a rough upbringing,” Ellis said. “Starting out young and going through all those things got D.J. prepared for adversity growing up.”
Newbill followed his older brother to the neighborhood courts and went on to start playing basketball formally in middle school.
Ellis, who worked under legendary Philadelphia basketball guru John Hardnett, received word of Newbill’s situation and introduced the two to each other when Newbill was in seventh grade.
Hardnett had mentored some of the most notable basketball players to come out of Philly in the past few decades, including Aaron McKie, Mardy Collins, Dionte Christmas and Doug Overton.
Newbill said Hardnett assumed a father-figure role in taking him under his wing.
“Being introduced to John, I started meeting guys like Mardy Collins that actually made it,” Newbill said. “Going to workouts growing up and you’re seeing guys like Nate Robinson, John Salmons and guys out of Philly that actually made it out…it kind of lets you see, ‘All right, this can happen. This can come true if you keep working.’ ”
Newbill began to stand out as one of the best players in the city as he grew older, training with Hardnett and Ellis several times a week while in-season and almost every day during the summer.
The milestones he reached while at Strawberry Mansion High School are extensive. In his senior season, the guard averaged 24.2 points and nine rebounds per game — scoring 64 points in a single game once — was named Public League Player-of-the-Year, a McDonald’s All-American candidate and led his team to a PIAA Class AA state championship in 2010 at the Bryce Jordan Center.
Newbill said Hardnett was a common denominator for his success, as he helped him understand basketball wasn’t just a game and could be beneficial to his life as a whole.
“[John taught me] basketball can take you places you would never imagine and it could help you with things you probably would have never done before,” Newbill said.
Hardnett was never able to see his latest prodigy make it to the next level, however, as the long-time mentor died in May of 2010.
Newbill was shaken by the unexpected death of the 56-year-old. Yet, Ellis said the values instilled in Newbill by Hardnett — along with his former apprentices, themselves — helped the transitioning player through the tough time.
“D.J. took it hard, but at the time, his mom was in his corner,” Ellis said. “I was in his corner. Guys like Aaron McKie would talk to D.J., [along with] Doug Overton, Mardy Collins, Mark Tyndale. So he had the older guys to kind of help him through.”
The going-away party that never was
Heading into his senior year of high school, Newbill received minimal scholarship offers, all from mid-major schools.
So when he was watching Marquette, a consistent tournament team from the Big East, display its gritty style of play on TV with his friend, he decided to set a goal for himself.
“I was like, ‘Man, I’ll go there,’ ” Newbill said. “And my friend was just looking at me like, ‘Man, you got to be real to be on that level. That’s high-level basketball.’ ”
Yet, the Strawberry Mansion standout’s impressive final season seemingly helped him prove his friend wrong.
Toward the end of the season, the Golden Eagles’ staff, led by coach Buzz Williams, offered him a scholarship and Newbill said he did not hesitate to accept it from his top school.
Newbill’s excitement gradually rose as the months turned to weeks before he planned to arrive on Marquette’s campus.
“My mom was planning a big trunk party for me. She had a sign saying ‘D.J. Newbill, Marquette’ and everything,” Newbill said.
“It was probably a couple days before my going-away party that they took the scholarship away.”
Suddenly, Newbill’s excitement was replaced with frustration, his anticipation superseded by devastation.
There would no longer be a going-away party.
Newbill learned the crushing news in late June from his high school coach, Stan Laws, who told him the Eagles’ staff called to say the program wanted to “go in another direction.”
The exact reasons for Marquette’s decision to rescind Newbill’s scholarship were never publicized by the university.
Laws said at first the staff told him the reason for the release had to do with a problem with the application. But after reading between the lines, the high school coach said he felt the Eagles’ assistant coach, Scott Monarch, was not being completely up front with him.
“He kind of danced around the subject of why this and that,” Laws said. “I basically asked him, ‘What is it that you’re trying to say?’ And he just said, ‘I think Buzz feels like it would be best if we just part ways and D.J. find another situation.’ ”
Laws said the excuse of an application not being on file was invalid because the staff told Newbill to take his time with its completion just a week earlier.
Instead, he saw the release as a loophole to make room for Oregon transfer player Jamil Wilson, who the Eagles welcomed in his place.
“When that opportunity came for the Oregon kid to come in, they did it at any cost and at the expense of hurting a kid’s feelings,” Laws said.
Marquette Associate Athletic Director Scott Kuykendall declined to comment on Laws’ recollection of the release of Newbill’s scholarship.
“We wouldn’t have any comment on anything that [Laws is] saying like that,” Kuykendall said. “…There wouldn’t be anything from our end on it.”
Meanwhile, Newbill acknowledged that there were a lot of stories floating around, but said he ultimately tried to use the controversy surrounding Marquette — whose staff he said never spoke to him directly — as motivation moving forward.
“I was frustrated. I was devastated,” Newbill said. “I was a little confused. I was hurt. [My mom] was hurt. But, I guess things happen for a reason. The next day, I was getting calls from a lot of schools.”
Although most Division I programs had all of their scholarship slots filled at this point, Newbill ultimately received a late offer from Southern Mississippi three weeks later and he accepted it with open arms.
Newbill was finally able to display his talent at the collegiate level and took full advantage of the opportunity. In one season at Southern Miss, he averaged 9.2 points and 6.2 rebounds per game and was named to the Conference USA All-Freshman Team.
However, despite the promising rookie season, Newbill opted to transfer to a school closer to home for one main reason.
“My mom played a big role while I was growing up and that was really the person I always looked upon and always was there for me,” Newbill said. “She could only make one game in my first year at college so I wasn’t too happy about that.”
Newbill got in touch with Penn State’s coaching staff, led by first-year head coach and fellow Philly native, Patrick Chambers. And as soon as he and his mother stepped foot on campus, they knew Happy Valley was the right destination.
“She loved the place. She loved the campus, everything,” Newbill said. “She was amazed with how big the gym was…We were like, ‘This just feels right.’ ”
An uplifted spirit
Even after Newbill transferred to Penn State, one game was all Roach would ever see her son play in a collegiate uniform.
Per NCAA transfer rules, the guard redshirted in the 2011-12 season and therefore could not play in any games.
Leading up to his second academic year in Happy Valley, anticipation once again rose not only for Newbill, but also his mother, who had fallen in love with the Penn State community immediately.
And yet, once again, Newbill’s anticipation was replaced by disappointment, this time to an extreme extent this past September.
Shortly after learning of his mother’s death, Newbill said Chambers was the first one he thought to call.
Chambers spoke from experience when he said this dilemma surpassed the boundaries of the basketball court and required the entire team to come together.
“I lost my mom,” Chambers said. “Death is never easy…we don’t have that figured out yet.
“You feel for D.J. and you want to be there for him because you knew how close he was with his mom. We wanted to be there for him every step of the way to let him know that he’s not alone and we’re going to be here to support him through good times and bad.”
Six days later, the entire team and coaching staff arrived at Tawanda Roach’s funeral in Philadelphia.
Newbill, who was unaware his teammates were all going to join him for the emotional day, said seeing them gave him a much-needed raise in spirit.
“I’m crying. I’m sobbing and everything,” Newbill said of himself at the funeral. “So when I saw all of them come in, that just uplifted me to know that all of them were still riding for me and they all had my back. It just made me feel a little better.”
Through tragedy comes triumph
Devonte Jerrell Newbill has made great strides in the healing process in the four months since his mother’s funeral.
He said Chambers, his teammates and the sport of basketball have helped him immensely along the way, as they have often served as a way for him to get his mind off the past.
Yet, there have been days, especially leading up to this season, when the feeling of grief continued to strike Newbill. The court can also act as a reminder of his mother, whom Newbill said was last photographed in Penn State gear.
“At times, basketball would relieve it,” Newbill said. “But, also other times, that feeling would just overwhelm anything that I’m doing. You just can’t get your mind off of it. To me, this whole season meant a whole lot to my mom.”
It wasn’t easy for Newbill to take the court for his first collegiate game following his mother’s death. He knows she would have been there for the season-opener in early November and at every home game thereafter.
And it certainly won’t be easy for him to take the court this Saturday for the Lions’ annual Coaches versus Cancer game against Ohio State.
“I’m sure it’s going to touch D.J. in some sort of ways that he hasn’t maybe felt in a couple months or couple weeks, but it’s a special day,” Chambers said of tomorrow’s event, for which the team will be wearing special uniforms to raise awareness for cancer.
However, Newbill said taking pride in everything he does — both on and off the court — has helped him through this recovery period.
“She definitely would be proud of me,” Newbill said. “She’s proud of me for anything that I do, just me being in college. Just me being a young adult and being responsible and honest and being a good person. She just admired me and I admire her too.”
Newbill’s latest challenge — leading a Tim Frazier-less Penn State team from a point guard position he had never played before this season — has at least made his coach proud.
Chambers said Newbill, who he named a team captain prior to the season despite his sophomore eligibility, has managed to use his tumultuous past as motivation and the coach has been amazed with the results. The guard leads the team in scoring in Frazier’s absence, averaging 15.5 points per game.
“[The court] is the greatest place to be. It’s his sacred ground,” Chambers said. “That’s where he goes and he just concentrates on basketball and tries to improve every day. I’m really impressed with his maturity that that hasn’t made him think too much and really hurt his game at all.”
This isn’t to say Newbill has forgotten his past — whether it’s a long-time mentor who gave him direction, a school that turned its back on him or a woman who meant the world.
Rather, he feels these obstacles have helped him come to possess a feeling of acceptance that accompanies the knowledge of how to overcome tragedy.
“It makes me stronger,” Newbill said confidently, “being able to take challenges in life and adversity and still strike back and not let the challenges of life hold me back from what I want to do with my life.”
Last year, the Coaches versus Cancer event raised $22,801, with the help of a season-high crowd of more than 13,000.
Tawanda Roach will not be among those on hand at the BJC for this year’s event.
But, Newbill knows that doesn’t mean he’ll be alone — she’ll still be right there with him.
“I know she’s still smiling down at me,” Newbill said. “She’s with me every walk of the moment.”