KHALIF HERBIN'S story is remarkable. In large part because it almost never became a story at all.
You only have to be around him for a few minutes to know that Temple's slightly built wide receiver/kick returner with the engaging smile was obviously raised the right way.
By, as it turns out, someone who didn't have to take on such a responsibility.
"I just did the best I could," said his mother, Lynda Jones.
Even if she wasn't the woman who brought him into the world.
She was simply the one who made sure he had a life.
"For me, I feel like Mother's Day could be be any day," Herbin said. "It can be every day. It can't just be one day.
"It's not about the card."
In September 1994, Jones received a long-distance call from a cousin she'd never been close with, Denise Herbin (pronounced UR-bin). The voice sounded frantic, saying she was going to have an abortion. So Jones immediately drove from North Jersey to South Carolina. Then the two headed back to Montclair. Three weeks later, Herbin gave birth to twins. The girl died. The boy weighed 4 pounds. Herbin told Jones she didn't want him. Jones, who was 30, took the baby home with her.
"I think it was meant to be," she said.
Khalif isn't the only Herbin child whom Jones adopted. There's also Khadijah, 20, and Malik, 18. And she has a biological child, Eric, 27. When the children were young, Jones was involved in an abusive relationship. Ten years ago, a tendon disorder in her hands caused her to lose a job with the U.S. Postal Service. She's had more physical issues since. Now on retirement disability and married, Jones works part-time as a crossing guard.
"It wasn't as difficult as people think," she said. "It was just raising children as a single parent. That's all it was to me.
"I never saw them as not being my children."
On Khalif's birth certificate, there is no father's name. Nobody from the family has seen or heard from Denise in more than 15 years. There were times when Khalif admits he was "embarrassed" by his situation.
"I felt like it was used against me in a way," said the third-year sophomore, who redshirted last season. "I got over that. Tons of people don't have any parents at all, or parents that don't care. My mom put her life on hold so I could have a better future.
"I'm not supposed to be here. My mom was going to get an abortion. I've come to understand just how fragile life is, how important the small things are. Just being able to wake up. I know in the back of my mind, a lot of people didn't wake up today. Or they might not get to sleep tonight."
He has another brother in South Carolina. He knows he might have even more siblings somewhere. There are many questions he'll probably never have an answer for.
"It bothers me every day," said the 170-pound Herbin, who as a shifty, 5-7 quarterback was named New Jersey's Offensive Player of the Year in 2011 and just won the Owls' Outstanding Offensive Player award during spring practice. "Every time I'm doing something on the field I feel like part of me isn't there with me. [His biological mother] never got to see any of her children accomplish their goals.
"I used to ask God, 'What did I do to deserve this?' What happens is what happens. There's a lot of people who would trade places with me. It could have been so much worse. I know people who aren't going to make it.
"Mom was always honest with me. She wasn't afraid to tell me my story."
Maybe that's why he celebrates his biological mother's birthday every November.
"People wonder why I would do that for someone who didn't want me," Khalif explained. "My mom encouraged that when I was a kid. [She] could have got an abortion. She was smart enough to say, 'I'm going to give him to the right person.' "
Khalif and Denise Herbin have not been in touch in 15 years. Jones has been there for Khalif. They've shared their moments. Not all of them have been by Hallmark. But the most meaningful ones will always remain indelible.
"I can honestly say there were times when she went to bed without eating," Khalif said. "That was in high school. We had four in the house at the time. Or I would go over to her room and see how small her plate [of food] was compared to ours, and it just hurt me. I'd write notes to myself: 'Your mom is struggling, what are you going to do to make sure she doesn't have to struggle any more?'
"I remember walking into a sneaker store when I was like in fourth grade, and I cried because my mom didn't give [a pair] to me. But she sat me down and said, 'You do what you're supposed to on the field, go get your scholarship, and you won't have to tell your kids "no" like I'm telling you.' I'm 9 or 10 years old. I'll never forget that day."
Neither will Jones, who can still see the look on his face. She, by the way, calls him Sajr.
"It's a prayer that the Muslims use," she said. "I believe it's a morning prayer. Ironically, he's Christian. But when he was born, there was a Muslim doctor in there. I'm not sure if he delivered him. But when they were examining him, because they kept having to repeat a test to check his hearing, he walked in the room holding him and called him that. I'm the only one who calls him that. When I hear 'Khalif,' I'm like, 'Who?' Then it's, 'OK, they're talking about my child.'
"When I took these children, I had people tell me that I was kissing my dreams goodbye. We got left out of many family events, because they weren't in agreement with what I did. [Herbin's mother] had sisters who she was much closer with than me, living in the same state. I believe she thought I could give them the best chance. She just had no emotional attachment."
Jones and Khalif communicate constantly, by phone and text.
"I know he's like me," she said. "He carries everything on his shoulder. He even mimics me. I'll tell him to go eat and he'll say, 'No, I'm OK. Did Malik eat yet?' He wanted to make sure his brother ate first. Once I got him baseball cleats to play football, because I didn't know. But he wore them without complaining. He's always been like that. He's extremely sensitive. He likes to know that people are there for him. He cares. We went to the mall at Christmas and there was this very old man, like 80. And my son goes up him and says, 'Sir, are you OK? Do you need me to get you anything?' I'm going, 'Leave that man alone.' But that's who he is."
Nobody has to convince Temple coach Matt Rhule.
"Some kids, their past breaks them, holds them back," he said. "He uses everything that happened to him to his advantage. He's a guy with a real purpose. There's just so much to him. His work ethic obviously comes from his mom. She empowers him, but she's not going to enable him. She just works with him, always has his best interests at heart.
"She's an extremely strong woman."
Khalif says he's fortunate. His dream is to play in the NFL, even though he knows the odds are against him. But, as he points out, at one point so were the chances of him getting an FBS scholarship. If nothing else, he'll always have at least one encouraging voice behind him all the way.
"Most important, I want to be a great parent," said Khalif, a social work major who enjoys drawing and writing poetry. "I don't want to be that father who's not there. What you learn when you get to see things at a young age, that builds you up to be strong. Mentally I feel like I'm light-years ahead of everyone else. It made me passionate, it made me emotional. Who I am and what I am, that came from my mother. She knows what I'm going to do before I do it.
"I don't ever want her worrying about me. I'm always telling her I'm going to be successful. I don't want to disappoint her. I'm an extension of her. God has given me a gift. I'd be crazy to waste it. One of my biggest hopes is that I'll be able to walk into my old high school gym and church and talk about everything I've been through to motivate them . . .
"She's not looking for me to repay her. She's the most selfless person you'll ever meet. She doesn't like to cry in front of us, but she's cried a few times. That's what keeps me going, when I want to quit. I promise you that when I get older, she's going to get some stuff from me. I just want her to be happy."
It's hard to tell who's more proud of whom. But it doesn't matter. Together they've produced some story. That's enough.
"He's going to be a productive part of society," Lynda said. "His thing is to try to please me. I feel lucky to be called his mom. See, now you're going to make me cry."
Good tears, indeed.