It seemed like just yesterday that Shawnee’s cheering from the stands were frantic shouts as she searched for her children amid a fiery blaze.
Her voice grows emotional as she recalls the day 14 years ago that forever changed her family’s life: March 22, 2005.
She can still feel the heat. She can smell the smoke and picture the snowy front yard. And she can still hear TQ’s screams.
Things had previously been looking up for Shawnee and her four children. After persevering through difficult circumstances, she had settled her family into a Minneapolis home where they enjoyed safety, security and the luxury of a television and computer. But at 3 a.m. that morning, Shawnee woke up to suffocating smoke filling the house.
TQ, who was 4 at the time, and his sister, Shawneece, were upstairs in a bedroom. Their siblings, Richard and Ulani, slept on a living room couch on the main level.
Shawnee got TQ and Shawneece out of the house before running back in to save her other two children. What she did not realize, however, is that TQ and Shawneece followed her back inside.
“I remember my baby screaming,” says Shawnee, who found TQ in a burning room.
Moving quickly, she brought him back out to the street, broke a window in her truck and put the three siblings inside before turning to go search for her daughter.
“My oldest son was looking at me like, ‘Mom, look at Taquarius.’
“He had soot from the top of his head [to his toes],” Shawnee recalls. “I remember removing my hand from him, and his skin kind of peeled off.”
In a panic, she ran back to the house and through the kitchen, where she met a wall of heat so intense that she felt and smelled her hair melting.
“It was just so angry,” she says. “And it was spreading so fast.
“I remember the ambulance coming, and [the paramedics] were saying, ‘He has to go. He has to go.’ Using words like ‘stat’ and stuff,” Shawnee recalls.
That’s the last thing she remembers before waking up in the hospital.
She calls the rest of the experience a blur. She first realized that Shawneece had died in the fire; then, she was told that TQ might never wake up.
‘But Taquarius fought’
TQ, who had been shirtless, suffered third-degree burns that covered more than 55 percent of his body. His chance of survival, doctors said, was 20 percent. The 4-year-old spent one month in a coma. He endured countless surgeries and procedures, including skin grafts and reconstruction. One hand was unsalvageable, his fingers reduced to stumps.
“But Taquarius fought. He fought, and he’s still fighting,” Shawnee proudly says. “He’s never going to give up.”
TQ wanted to play football at the age of 5 but still faced too many physical challenges, including the requirement of a trach tube to help him breathe. But when his mother allowed him to try the sport two years later, she recognized his true passion.
Through the years, TQ’s burns and scars have presented unique and painful challenges. He’s had to endure additional surgeries to remove built-up scar tissue and improve the range of motion in his arms. He is accustomed to being extra careful in the sun due to the sensitive nature of his skin.
It would have been easy for TQ to quit at any time throughout this journey, Shawnee points out.
“But he chooses to care. He makes a choice every day to care, to love himself, to try a little harder than he did the day before,” Shawnee says. “He wants to take care of us; I know he does. But that’s not why he’s doing it – he’s doing it because that’s what he wants to do.
“He loves sports,” she adds with a smile. “And it’s any sports – football, baseball, even hockey. Put a ball in his hand, and he’s gonna act a fool with it.”
Shawnee calls football an “outlet” for her son.
“It’s a way for him to release it, to leave it all on the field. And he does,” she says. “Whether he’s moving those chains all the way across the field, or if he’s intercepting [a pass]. Because he does it all. I’ve seen him do it all, since he was 7.
“It’s been amazing to watch him on the field – the energy he gives off is undeniable,” she adds. “When he gets the ball, he knows what to do with it.”
Shawnee is so grateful to Head Coach Charles Adams, who gave TQ a chance to play varsity football at Minneapolis North High School. The program’s means may be modest – games are scheduled earlier because their field has no lights – but the team’s talent and heart make up for a lack of resources.
During his time with the Polars, TQ never missed a workout or a practice. As a senior, he started every game and played on both sides of the ball. He finished the season with 50 tackles and five touchdowns.