Nights were the cruelest.
Samajie Grant would lay his head down on his bed and struggle.
“When I was in high school, I used to try to go to sleep, but when I closed my eyes, I would just see my mom laying on the floor,” said Grant, a UA freshman wide receiver from Compton, Calif. “So I’d go outside and I’d just walk around and cry, and then I’d come back in the room and I’d just go to sleep.
“That was like every night.”
Every night Grant’s mind would take him back to that early April morning in 2011 when his life was turned upside down. The night his mother died.
Sadness and hardships had already crept into Grant’s life, but nothing like this. Nothing like losing the woman he loved most in the world.
Grant will take the field Saturday for arguably the biggest game of his life: a showdown with in-state rival Arizona State at Sun Devil Stadium. It will be, depending on how you look at it, either the culmination of a long, hard road or the start of something special.
Regardless, Grant will have his mom on his mind. He always does.
Grant’s mom, Litasha, loved to give her son a hard time.
When he played Pop Warner football for the L.A. Demos and would get tackled to the ground, Grant would hear Litasha yelling from the stands.
“You better get up, Samajie!”
That ribbing never stopped.
When he began his promising football career at Ontario’s Colony High School as a freshman, the playful taunting continued.
“If I did something or if I got hit and didn’t get up, she’d be going, ‘You better get up, Samajie, you better quit acting like a little girl; if you don’t want to play football, get off the field right now,’” Grant recalled with a small smile. “She was crazy. She was always so tough on me and my brothers. That lady was crazy.”
When Grant received a hand-written letter from UCLA during his sophomore season, Litasha told everyone her son had received a scholarship from the Bruins — even though that wasn’t the case.
Football is often what brought the two together. Litasha rarely missed one of Grant’s games. She watched as he became a breakout star for Colony during his sophomore season.
Unlike a lot of the talented players that came through his high school, Grant excelled off the field as much as he did on it.
“When I first met Samajie, I was pleasantly surprised,” said Matt Bechtel, Grant’s high school coach. “At Colony High, we had some good athletes, but most struggled in the classroom. He didn’t. He was a very good athlete, who did well in the class room, and that’s what made him different and made him stick out.”
Grant said that was his mom’s doing. Coming home with a bad grade wasn’t acceptable. He couldn’t stand to face her if he underachieved, and it simply wasn’t an option.
Litasha wanted her son to succeed and also knew playing in college wasn’t an option with bad grades.
Litasha and Samajie lived in a small house in Compton with three of Grant’s 12 siblings.
Even though Grant had his own room in the house, he always decided to sleep in his mom’s bed.
“It was just because I was a classic Mama’s boy,” Grant said.
The night before Litasha died, she made her son laugh so hard he couldn’t stop. The two traded verbal jabs back and forth, and soon one of Grant’s friends got in on the fun. Litasha and Samajie’s friend traded barbs back and forth.
Sticking up for his buddy, Grant told his mom he was sleeping in his own bed and his friend was going to sleep over on the couch.
The next morning, Samajie’s little sister Melissa woke up in a panic. Litasha wasn’t waking up. She was lying on the floor next to her bed.
Samajie rushed in and saw it for himself.
It was an image he would see in his head over and over again for the next few years. The details aren’t important: Samajie says he still doesn’t know the cause of his mom’s death and hasn’t asked.
In fact, he doesn’t want to know.
“That day, I wasn’t even sad; it was just anger,” Grant said. “I went inside her room, and she was just laying there, and I just started thinking about my little sister who just found my mom dead and had found her dad dead a couple years earlier on Christmas Day. She’s only 11 or 12 now.
“Really, all I was thinking about was my little sister.”
Hours after Grant’s mom died, Bechtel and Miguel Reveles, Grant’s position coach at Colony and now an intern at the UA, drove to the player’s house. The two coaches were there for emotional support and to make sure Grant was holding up OK.
It was a meeting that nearly never happened.
Grant’s oldest brother, Sean, left the house shortly after Litasha's death and told his younger brother to come with him. For the first time in his life, Grant was ready to stop playing football and go with his brother.
Instead, he waited for Bechtel and Reveles.
“I was going to leave with my brother. He’s a gangbanger, and I was just going to leave with him,” Grant said. “But Coach Bechtel just started talking to me and said, ‘Don’t let this stop you from playing football.’ My mom had told me, ‘If anything ever happens to me, go with who you trust the most.’ So I went with Coach Bechtel, because that’s who I trusted the most out of anybody.
“I don’t really trust a lot of people, but I trusted him because he was always looking out for me.”
Grant spent the next two years of his high school career with Bechtel as his mentor.
“Coach Bechtel put thousands of dollars into me,” Grant said. “From clothes to gear for football that I needed, he got it for me. I had to work for it, but it meant a lot to me. At the beginning of my junior year, I was all upset from the stuff that had happened with my mom and everything and I just kinda said, ‘I don’t care about this stuff anymore.’ But he made sure I was studying and still keeping up and telling me everything I always wanted like playing college ball, I could still get.”
Grant refocused himself during his junior year; he released his anger on the football field. When he wasn’t playing football or studying, he was in the gym, determined to get better and hell-bent on getting a Division I scholarship.
“He has an amazing work ethic,” Bechtel said. “Once he gets his mind to something, he’s going to do it. We’d finish practice and he’d get the speed sled out and run 40-yard sprints. He always wanted to work. We’d go to 24-Hour Fitness and I’d be done with my workout after an hour or so, and he’d want to keep going and going.”
Grant played offense and defense for Colony during his junior year. He committed to the UA the summer before his senior season, then became one of his team’s best players. Grant passed for 305 yards, rushed for 1,495 and had 248 receiving yards.
Life has been good since Grant moved to Tucson last summer.
Just a freshman, he leads Arizona with 44 catches and has 353 receiving yards and a touchdown. His first — and so far only — career score came in the Cats’ nonconference win against UTSA.
Ka’Deem Carey and B.J. Denker receive most of the team’s accolades, but it’s Grant who may have be the biggest surprise. The Wildcats (7-4) will face ASU with a chance to both spoil the Sun Devils’ plans to host the Pac-12 championship game and secure a better bowl berth for themselves.
“He’s gone through things in his life that most people just don’t have to deal with,” Reveles said. “When he scored that first touchdown, I was on the sideline, and it was hard not to get emotional. I was just so happy for him. He comes over to me before every game and gives me knuckles, and that just means a lot to me. He’s worked so hard to get to where he is, and I couldn’t be happier for him.”
Grant has found a best friend in fellow freshman receiver Nate Phillips. Receivers coach Tony Dews calls them the “mighty midgets.” Find Grant after practice, on campus or at home, and there Phillips is usually with him.
Grant stays in touch with his family, too. Sean, who is in a California prison and is expected to be released in 2015, was able to watch Arizona’s game against Washington on TV.
“That was really crazy,” Grant said. “He wrote me a letter and told me about it and was asking all about Nate. (Sean) means a lot to me, and I can’t wait until he gets out.”
Family means everything to Grant. Before every game, Grant takes a moment of silence.
The reason: to honor his mother and focus himself.
“Before the game, I kinda put my head down, I close my eyes and I just think about my mom,” Grant said.
“It makes me kinda sad, but I want to think about her before the game, so during the game, I can just go out and play. She’d be getting a big kick out of me playing here against grown men. I know she’d always be telling me to be tough and make her proud.”