When Rayonta Whitfield escaped the burning house with his younger brother and two of his mom's foster children, there was an uneasiness in his soul.
He might be nervous before he steps in an unfamiliar boxing ring, in an unfamiliar city, against an unfamiliar opponent, , but he had never felt the type of fear he experienced the night of June 17.
When he faced off against Ryan Schmidt in the finals of the Golden Gloves Tournament of Champions six days later, he might have been downright scared. But it was nothing like the panic that filled his 106-pound body when he stood outside his Hephzibah home and watched his family's possessions go up in flames, forever changing their lives.
What happens next, he must have wondered as the house burned in the warm night.
Then, his pounding heart dropped.
His 11-year-old sister, Shaquana, who had been sleeping in the back of the house, screamed out his name in terror. Her cries were coming from inside the blaze.
ON WEDNESDAY, WHITFIELD, sitting in an air-conditioned room at Augusta Boxing Club, was calm.
The effects from the smoke inhalation he suffered for days after the family disaster had disappeared. He, by all accounts, was starting over.
"He's a unique athlete," said Tom Moraetes, Whitfield's coach. "He doesn't say much. He called me in the middle of the night to tell me his house had burned down. But he sounded so calm."
Maybe that's how a hero and a Golden Gloves champion rolled into one is supposed to act. Just put on the gloves - no matter the circumstances that face him - and start throwing punches.
Obviously Whitfield had no problem doing that last weekend in Denver, Colo. After finishing second in the 2001 Golden Gloves and taking runner-up spots in two other national competitions this year, Whitfield mowed his way through the field.
After getting by Alfredo Monatanez, of Pennsylvania, on Monday and Steven Johnson, of Kansas City, Mo., on Friday, Whitfield defeated Schmidt in a four-round decision to become the fourth Georgia boxer to win a Golden Gloves title. Jerry Dobbs in 1971, Evander Holyfield in '84 and Augusta's Brandon Mitchem in '96 were the others.
"When I got out to Denver, I started getting focused," Whitfield said. "My mom told me not to worry. She told me she'd take care of everything. That helped ease my mind."
HIS MIND WAS anything but at ease at midnight June 17.
Sabrina Morgan and her husband were working late shifts at St. Joseph's Hospital and President Baking Cookie Co., respectively. Meanwhile, Whitfield, 20, was asleep in his bedroom, 13-year-old Eric was snoozing in the den, and Shaquana was sleeping in Sabrina's room.
But the foster children weren't sleeping. Instead, they were playing with matches in Eric's room.
Soon, the mattress was ablaze and smoking. Within a few minutes, the house was burning.
Whitfield woke up, and when he saw the fire in Eric's room, he ran to the kitchen, got the extinguisher and tried to douse the flames.
"Something woke me up, and I went to go see what it was," Whitfield said. "I tried to put it out, but it got too big too fast."
So, Whitfield sprung into action, waking Eric and yelling at him to get everybody out of the house. And when the smoke and heat were too much for the world-class athlete, he stumbled to the front door and exited the house, clad only in boxer shorts.
It wasn't, however, the last time he'd be in the burning house.
"I hit the driveway, and I heard my sister scream my name," Whitfield said. "My adrenaline was already going. I was thinking 100 million different things. I knew I couldn't breathe when I left the house, so I knew she wasn't going to be able to breathe."
In Whitfield's mind, there was no question about what he must do: He pulled on the gloves and started throwing punches.
ONCE HE OPENED the front door, the smoke hit him first. But he jabbed back, heading to the hallway where the bedrooms were located.
Smoke poured from Eric's room , but what made passage to Morgan's room at the end of the hall especially difficult were the tricks the fire was playing.
It shot out of Eric's room, but retreated back inside. It shot out of the room again, and once again retreated.
Shaquana stood in her mother's doorway. Once she saw the deadly game the blaze was playing, she quickly slammed the door shut.
"I think," Whitfield said, "she was scared by the fire."
Ditto for Whitfield, but the solution to get by the unpredictable blaze was simple: Time it so he could run past Eric's room without getting singed.
The next sequence of events happened in the blink of an eye.
He ran past the fire, opened the door of his mom's room, grabbed Shaquana and put her under his arm like a football. He waited to see whether the fire from Eric's room would reappear; it didn't, and he raced out of the house.
His injuries: smoke inhalation. But in his mother's eyes, there's no doubt Whitfield emerged a winner.
"He knew he had to go in there and get his sister," Sabrina said. "But I didn't know how bad it was until I saw the house the next day. Then I understood where he was coming from. How he had to go through all that."
WHETHER WHITFIELD WOULD fly to Denver with Moraetes was in question. Both Morgan and Moraetes said Whitfield was leaning toward staying in Augusta.
To Morgan, though, that decision was unacceptable.
"He works so hard at what he does," she said of her son. "For him to have to miss that, I just told him to go out there and do what he has to do."
First, he had to get back in the gym.
After missing Tuesday's practice, the Cross Creek graduate shadow-boxed and ran a little Wednesday but didn't spar until Saturday, the day before he was to leave for Colorado.
"That's basically the death penalty," Moraetes said. "In boxing, you work out until the day you fight. You don't take a week or two off."
But once he got to Denver, nature took over.
Although he vomited after his fight with Monatanez - "The smoke inhalation had to have an effect on him," Moraetes said. - Whitfield, who is looking to compete in the 2004 Olympics, finally got his national crown.
And in eight weeks, he should have his house back. Although he lost just about everything in the fire - including all of his boxing trophies, numbering 80 to 90 - the family's insurance will pay the Morgan/Whitfield household back for everything the fire took away.
Meanwhile, Whitfield will box in the Georgia Games in Augusta as the reigning Golden Gloves champion.
"It's ironic, but the fire (in his home) might have actually helped ease his mind," Moraetes said. "He didn't have to be so focused on the tournament, which is good, because it's such a pressure-filled tournament. What it did was put everything in his life into perspective."
Said Whitfield: "I knew what to expect from the tournament. But I also knew it was going to be really tough. I just didn't want to go if I wasn't going to be focused. I just had to put everything behind me."
Easier said than done. Consider one of the first signs Whitfield and Moraetes saw when leaving Denver International Airport in an area of the country that's been ravaged by wildfires.
Beneath a hazy, smoky sky, the sign read: "Beyond this point, danger. Beware of fire."
For Whitfield, it was nothing new. Surrounded by fire, he pulled on the gloves, ready to fight another battle.
Reach Josh Katzowitz at (706) 823-3216 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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