- Andrea Adelson, ESPN Staff Writer
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Virginia cornerback Demetrious Nicholson has played in one game since Oct. 5, 2013. A long and sometimes torturous 22 months since have been filled with stops, starts, rest, surgery and rehab over a toe injury.
He had never been hurt before, making the last two years tough. But not the toughest. No, the toughest years came before he arrived at Virginia, when his young mother struggled to raise him.
Elizabeth Nicholson got pregnant at 12, even if she had no idea she was carrying a baby.
Months passed. She started to feel sick. Elizabeth, who lived with her grandmother, went to the doctor. They suspected a hernia, so she had an ultrasound.
"That's when I saw the baby on the screen," Elizabeth said in a recent phone interview. "I was 5 months, 11 days."
Elizabeth knew she had to do right by her baby. So did her grandmother, Nita Superales, who took the lead in raising Demetrious. Elizabeth had three responsibilities -- make formula, wash bottles, go to school.
A few years later, Elizabeth took a job at an assisted living facility. Once she finished high school, she started nursing school while she continued to work. There were many sleepless nights of going to school, then working. Her grandmother started to fall ill, so the roles reversed. Nicholson took care of her son and grandmother, along with her younger sister.
Her one paycheck was not enough to cover all the bills. Her water got cut off. So did the lights.
"We were eating vegetables for breakfast, lunch and dinner," she said. "I had to make choices. I thank God my son never turned to the streets to help me."
Elizabeth signed Demetrious up for flag football at age 4. He won his first trophy and took it straight to his great-grandmother.
"I was so happy to bring her that trophy," he said.
When he was 6, he told his coach he wanted to play cornerback. That helped set him on the path that led him to become one of the best players in Virginia.
"Football was the outlet I realized I had at an early age," said Demetrious, who goes by Tra'. "When I faced any type of adversity, I just kept going and didn't feel like anything could stop me. I think back to my mom having to raise me when she was 12 and then my great-grandmother getting sick. I have this anger type of fire inside me that motivates me and drives me in any situation I'm in, particularly on the football field."
But before he emerged as a football star, more tragedy hit. When he was 8, his 4-month-old sister, Shaquanda, died of sudden infant death syndrome. His great-grandmother, suffering from lupus and several heart ailments, was in a nursing home.
Elizabeth was 20.
"I don't know how I dealt with it, to be honest," Elizabeth said. "I kept looking at Tra' and I knew I had to keep pushing for him."
Though she lived in a nursing home, Superales continued to watch over Tra.' In 2009, he received his first scholarship offer, from North Carolina. Shortly after, Superales passed away.
"She was everything to me," Tra' said of his great-grandmother.
Tra' decided to go to Virginia so he could play closer to home. He started every game as a true freshman and sophomore, and the first five in 2013. He got hurt against Ball State. Tra' was diagnosed with turf toe, and sat out the rest of the season.
He re-aggravated the injury in spring 2014 and underwent surgery. Doctors found a cyst on the ball of his foot and shaved off some bone. After months of rehab, he tried to play last season and started against Kent State. But his foot was in bad shape.
The decision was made to apply for a medical redshirt. Tra' returned to practice this past spring, rusty but healthy. This fall, he has continued to improve and is set to play next week at UCLA.
"Tra' is as polite, well-mannered, focused, team-oriented guy as I've ever seen," coach Mike London said. "It killed him to not finish playing last year. Now he's put himself back in a position where he's going to go out on top -- on his terms. If anybody on the team ever deserved anything like that, it's Tra'."
Even more gratifying, Tra' already has graduated with his bachelor's degree and was honored with the Longevity of Excellence Athletic Award at the Donning of the Kente before Virginia's graduation ceremony in May. He's also the school's nominee for the Allstate AFCA Good Works Team, thanks to his community work at the UVa hospital, local elementary schools and Boys & Girls Clubs of America.
Looking back, Elizabeth Nicholson says she never envisioned their lives playing out quite this way.
"Having a child at 12 years old, you wonder a lot," she said. "I didn't know if I was going to be a good parent. It was a difficult situation. We struggled together and we came out on top together."
359dDavid M. Hale