DUNLAP, Tenn. — The top two drawers of John Higgins' bedroom dresser are filled, not with clothes, but with letters. Inside the first drawer, neatly stacked, are recruiting pitches from colleges. Some appeal to his strong academic standing, and others court him for his ability on the football field.
Inside the second drawer, also neatly stacked, are dozens of letters, poems and drawings from his mother, who has battled drug addiction, abusive relationships and is now serving the final months of a near-three-year jail sentence for parole violation related to previous drug-related charges.
Although he's only 17, the symbolism of the two drawers is not lost on Higgins. Inside the first drawer awaits a future that for much of his life the Sequatchie County High School senior doubted could ever be so promising. Inside the other are reminders of a past he wishes he could forget.
"I never really had a very good home life," Higgins said matter-of-factly. "All I really wanted, more than anything else, was to get to have a family and feel normal. I've seen some things and been through some things that were pretty tough. It wasn't easy."
The single-wide trailer home sat on family property along the mountain ridge overlooking Dunlap. Few happy memories came from within the thin walls of the beige and white structure with the faux wood trim. It's where Higgins and his two half-sisters saw their mother physically abused by an ex-husband, one altercation escalating to the point that the man shot the family's television with a pistol.
It's also where Higgins twice walked in to find his mother lying unconscious from overdoses.
"The first time I called the paramedics and watched them do CPR on her and then fly her by Life Force to the hospital," he said. "That's something you never forget seeing. The next time, she had tried to commit suicide and taken a bunch of pills. I was just a little kid and didn't know what to do. I couldn't get her to respond, so I just called my uncle, who's a cop, and they had to pump her stomach and bring her back.
"That's a day, to be honest, that I just try to block out of my memory."
For as far back as he can remember, Higgins' father was never involved in his life. His mother, Elizabeth, had been the valedictorian of her high school class, with academic scholarships beckoning, before teenage dabbling in drugs led to an addiction that would rob her of that potential and eventually led Higgins and his younger sister to move in with their maternal grandmother, Coyellette Simmons.
Their grandmother, who is remembered around town for her quick wit and for playing the piano in her church choir, provided the children with the stability and security they had craved. But when Higgins was 12, Simmons died after a four-year battle with colon cancer, and once again the children faced the uncertainty that came with living in their mom's unkempt trailer.
That included many nights when he and his younger sister went to bed hungry, because there simply was no food in the house and no real means to buy any.
"I'm not proud of it, but sometimes I would call Johnny Farrow, one of my friends who lived nearby, and ask if he could bring us food," Higgins said. "Sometimes it would be days before my mom would come home, and I would lay there and wonder where she was, or if she was even alive.
"There were all types of people who would just randomly come by that house. Scary types. I was afraid that somebody might come there looking for her and wind up doing something to me or my sister. It stressed me out so much that even now I can't stand to be alone."
'A HOME AND A FAMILY'
The second youngest of four brothers, Kyle Cates was taught both discipline and compassion by his father, Tony, who had served in the military and is now a Baptist pastor, and his mother, Lisa, who worked for seven years in the Tennessee Department of Children's Services. So even in junior high, Kyle recognized his friend John needed help.
"Kyle would come home and tell us that he had a friend who was a good kid but had a tough life and he wanted us to help," Lisa Cates said. "We had no idea how bad things were for him after his grandmother passed away.
"It started out with him just staying with us for a few days and then going back to stay with his mom. But whenever his mom would be gone, he would call and ask us to come get him. I just remember driving up and seeing him with all of his things packed in a big camouflage bag, waiting on us in front of his house. We knew we had to do more."
While his younger sister had moved in with her father, Higgins had no other options. And so the cycle continued for several months — him staying at the Cates' home, soaking in the family atmosphere, then being told by his mother that he had to come back to stay with her.
"She didn't really like me living with another family, but I knew that eventually she would disappear again and I would be alone," Higgins said. "I didn't want her to think I was turning my back on her, but I knew staying with her wasn't a good place to be."
And then came the day in the fall of 2011, when Higgins' uncle called to inform him that his mother had been arrested. When he asked what that meant for him, Higgins was told he would likely be placed in foster care.
"We called our attorney right then and got the paperwork filed to become his legal guardians," Tony Cates said. "It was a critical time in his life. He could've gone down a really bad road because he was struggling. No child should have been exposed to the things he lived through.
"Your heart sinks when you see that, and we just wanted to be supportive and show him that we cared. He's a big ol' guy, but he's a lot more of a touchy-feely fella than the rest of us. He'll put his arm around us and is just a real loving, affectionate kid."
As an official member of the Cates family, Higgins had all the comforts other kids his age could take for granted — his own room, new clothes, an iPod, his first trip to the beach, and even a new bow to hunt with. But no gift could measure up to the feeling of having a void he had felt for so long finally filled.
"All that other stuff was nice, but what I'll never forget was just that feeling of looking up from the football field and seeing Tony and Lisa there watching," he said. "Getting to ride back with them after practice and talk about our day and knowing there was food to eat and that I wouldn't be in the house alone. It was a great feeling, just to know I had a home and a family."
In Adam Caine's first season as Sequatchie County's football coach, he guided the team to seven wins, the most in five years. He knew for the Indians to build off the momentum of last season and advance further in the playoffs, they would do so on the strength of their line, and Higgins was the heart and soul of that group.
The 5-foot-10, 245-pounder was the strongest player in the weight room and a four-year starter on both the offensive and defensive lines.
"Everybody else looks to him to be our leader and the guy who sets the tone when it comes to being physical and tough," Caine said. "When we need the tough yards, we're running behind John. We wouldn't be nearly the same team without him."
Midway through spring practice earlier this year, Higgins took a crushing hit to his right knee from a teammate's helmet. The impact broke his tibia and dislocated his kneecap so severely that ligaments were torn. He had surgery to place two pins in his tibia and a button to hold the ligaments in place, but his doctor and a physical therapist told him it was doubtful he would be able to play this season.
"I was preparing myself for what we would do if we had to play the season without him and just hoping we might get him back by midseason," Caine said. "When I went to check on him, he was still dopey from the medication, but he looked right at me and said 'I'll be back for the season opener.' I never believed it was possible."
Higgins doubled the amount of rehab work he was given and even rode a stationery bike 4 miles three times a week to speed his recovery. He was walking without crutches in less than a month and, true to his word, was cleared to start in the season opener, helping the Indians set the tone for the season with a hard-fought win over perennial power South Pittsburg.
Sequatchie County used that win to boost its confidence and now stands at 5-0 this season, rising to the state's No. 2-ranking in Class 3A, the highest ever for the program.
"He's the toughest kid and the most positive person I've ever been around," Caine added. "John's an inspiration to me and a lot of others who know him. I'm just amazed by him."
Higgins goes — sometimes twice a week — to the Sequatchie County Jail to visit his mother. Typically she will give him an envelope with new letters, poems or drawings she has made, each expressing her regret for the pain her addiction caused him. In one poem, written in pencil with a rose and heart sketched next to the words, his mother tells him that he is her "ray of light through the rain and my moment of peace through the pain."
Less often, but just as importantly, Higgins will receive a new letter in the mail from college recruiters — The University of the South, Berry College, Tennessee Tech, Middle Tennessee State, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, even the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy and Coast Guard Academy — recruiting him for his academics, his athletic ability or even for his leadership qualities.
"I've forgiven my mother," said Higgins, who carries a 3.97 grade-point average and plans to pursue a degree in electrical engineering. "I used to be angry at God and ask why I had to go through some things, but I learned from it, and I don't really question things now.
"I'll look at my mom's letters sometimes, just because they mean a lot to me to see how she feels. I also look through the letters in the other drawer, too, because it reminds me that I have so many opportunities."
Contact Stephen Hargis at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6293. Follow him on Twitter @StephenHargis.