Football's challenges are nothing for Eastern Michigan's Javon Reese
Melanie Maxwell | AnnArbor.com
Javon Reese still isn't sure how they did it.
Seventeen children, one four-bedroom house, one bathroom and never once did Charlie or Janet Reese miss a game.
"They made it to every game, and every one of us played sports," said Javon, now a senior defensive end at Eastern Michigan. "My mom and dad both believed that sports could help us get a better education, and also, that they could make you a more well-rounded person and a more disciplined person.
"And they helped you stay positive."
Sports have taught Javon Reese plenty.
But the lessons learned on the playing field are nothing compared to the ones he learned inside that crowded Fort Wayne, Ind., house from his late parents — who forever live on through their 17 children, as well as the neighborhood they influenced for decades.
More than just athletes
To the average eye, growing up in the Reese house on the south end of Fort Wayne seemed like a difficult experience.
Melanie Maxwell | AnnArbor.com
Clothes had to be shared, the older children gave up free time to watch the younger ones, meals were a littler smaller and, to this day, Javon says he has no idea how his seven sisters survived with that one bathroom.
The complaints were rare, though. Because, as he puts it, the Reese kids were too busy enjoying themselves.
"Oh, it was amazing," he said with a smile. "You always had somebody to chill with, hang out with or talk to. There was always someone to play cards with or whatever. It was a great time.
"Just a lot of fun all around."
The Reese house wasn’t ordinary, not even close. But it was, however, extremely athletic.
Including Javon, eight of the 17 children became college athletes.
One brother (Terry) runs track at Wisconsin, two sisters played college basketball (Vnemina at Michigan State, Jana at Vincennes) and four other brothers spent time in college football programs (Elgin at Butler, Walter at Tennessee State, Julian at Iowa State, Donlaray at St. Francis). And that doesn’t include brother Quinton — whom Javon calls the best athlete of the bunch.
“Family reunions are really competitive,” he said, laughing.
There’s more to the Reese children than speed and power, though. As a senior at Southside High School in Fort Wayne, Javon was a member of the Academic Honor Roll and also ranked in the top 50 of his graduating class.
During his time at Eastern Michigan, he’s maintained a 3.5 grade-point average as a biology major, and twice been named an honorable mention on the All-Mid-American Conference Academic Team.
He’s not sure what path he’ll take once football ends —he says he’s considering the doctor route — but he does know he’ll be ready. And he also knows why.
"My mom was strict," he said. "She made us achieve our potential. She would see our potential, and push us to get there. For me, I was an A-B student — so if I got a C, either I got that grade up, or I wasn't playing sports.
"We were students first, and athletes second."
An amazing duo
Mike Cheviron remembers meeting Janet and Charlie Reese.
After leaving a suburban school coaching job and arriving as the head football coach at Southside High School in 2006, he says the Reese family was hard to miss.
In part because they were everywhere, and also because Janet — affectionately known as “Mama Reese” in the neighborhood— carried a larger-than-life presence.
“I’d known the family because I felt like I’d coached against all those kids forever,” said Cheviron, now the head football coach at Goshen High School in Indiana. “They lived about four blocks from the school, and mom was like a mother to the entire community.
“Their cousins were like their own kids, they lived with them, too and they all called themselves a Reese. It was great.”
Cheviron says he remembers seeing Janet in the stands at football games, not only keeping an eye on her own brood, but also making sure everyone else walked the straight and narrow as well — referees not excluded.
He also remembers the passion that Charlie showed, and the pride he took in the athletic accomplishments of every one of his children.
“He’d yell at you so much that you’d have to just say, ‘Charlie, calm down, get out of my face,’ “ Cheviron said. “But there was no doubt he cared about every one of those kids.”
But Cheviron’s most unforgettable memory of the Reese family came when Janet passed away unexpectedly in 2006. Following her death, the Southside football team canceled practice, and Cheviron found himself among hundreds of mourners at the funeral a week later.
It was a service he says he’ll never forget, and one that epitomized what Janet Reese meant to that Fort Wayne neighborhood.
"I remember a young man getting up and speaking, he was probably in his late 20s, and he said, 'Stand up if she touched your lives,' " Cheviron recalled. "There was probably five or six hundred people in that service, and at least 100 stood up.
"There wasn't a dry eye in the house. And my wife cries even now just thinking about it. They asked, 'How many of you would call yourself one of Mama's kids?' And at least 100 people stood up, ranging from early 30s all the way down to 10 or 11 years old. It was an amazing legacy."
So amazing that to this day, a stretch of road near Southside High School is named Janet E “Mama” Reese Memorial Parkway.
Charlie would eventually follow Janet, passing away due to failing health this past summer. And though he’s lost both his parents in a six-year span, Javon says that his large immediate family — and even bigger extended family (the Eastern Michigan football team) — have helped ease the pain.
“Mom knew all our personalities, all our weaknesses and strengths and always was able to bring out our strengths,” Reese said. “Dad, he was tough love all the time. But everything he did really prepared you for life.
“And when my dad passed this year, I had to leave during the summer — and when I came back, everyone on the team welcomed me with open arms. (The team) is like another family — and now, I really have a huge family."
Through two games, Javon is off to a solid start.
He’s collected three tackles and a sack in helping Eastern Michigan off to its first 2-0 start since 1989. On Saturday, he’ll look to add those totals against Denard Robinson, when the Eagles make the six-mile drive west to Ann Arbor to battle Michigan at noon (BTN).
Reese says he’s finally gotten his weight up to the level he feels he can be competitive at (he’s 250 pounds), and coach Ron English expects him to be one of the squad’s top pass-rushers.
But football is only a portion of who Reese is.
He still stays in close contact with all of his siblings, adding that he tries to speak with at least one of them each day — and probably talks with every one of them once a month.
His grades have never slipped. English calls him a model student-athlete and no matter what happens on the football field this season, Reese’s future looks bright.
"Are you kidding me? That guy's going to be successful no matter what — you know it and I know it,” English said. "He's dedicated. He's a great student, and you can tell by just talking to him he's a great person. He's certainly terrific to have on our team, and it's just a tribute to the way he was raised.”
Javon still isn’t sure how mom and dad showed up to all those games, he’s not sure how everyone survived with just one bathroom and he knows his life is anything but ordinary.
But that’s fine. The Reese family wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Surprisingly, we didn’t care,” Javon said. “We shared everything, but none of it mattered. It was a really positive environment — and it really was amazing.”