Every time Brandon Spikes makes a play on Saturday against Auburn, his family will move one step closer to becoming whole again.
With each tackle he'll edge closer to improving his mother's life - a mother who toiled in a fiberglass plant for 12 hours a day to improve his.
Whenever Spikes breaks up a pass or makes a sack, his brother will inch nearer to a chance to vindicate himself and escape his prison cell in Scotland County, N.C.
And with each victory he'll feed his insatiable thirst for winning.
The pressure of playing middle linebacker for the Gators is more important than people could handle, but for Spikes it's the least of his worries.
If there is a single moment responsible for Spikes making the long trip from his hometown of Shelby, N.C., to Gainesville, it was the early morning of Nov. 17, 2001.
That?s when his older brother, Breyon Middlebrooks, was involved in an incident that led to a first-degree murder conviction and a sentence of life in prison.
Seeing his brother behind bars had a profound effect on Spikes and convinced him that he needed to get away from Shelby.
BAfter my brother went away it hurt me, and I know it hurt my mom, too,C he said. BI just didn?t want to follow in the same footsteps. The crime where I?m from was just bad, so I took football and ran with it. I knew that was my way out.C
His desire to escape his brother?s fate led him to UF, far away from the influences in his neighborhood.
BI think that gave him a real close-up look at how you make choices,C said Roy Kirby, who coached both Spikes and Middlebrooks at Shelby Crest High.
BIf you make a bad choice you can be behind bars for the rest of your life, or if you do what you?re supposed to you can go to Florida and play football.C
While a jury found Middlebrooks guilty, his family isn?t ready to give up on his innocence.
Middlebrooks? first trial, in April 2003, resulted in a hung jury with seven not guilty votes, four guilty of second-degree murder votes and one guilty of first-degree murder vote.
A few months later, Middlebrooks went on trial again and was convicted of first-degree murder. He was sentenced to life without parole for the murder of Billy Joe Shepherd, who was shot in the head during a drug deal.
The difference between the two trials was that the state presented additional scientific evidence in the second that revealed the victim?s blood on Middlebrooks? clothing and gunshot residue on his bandage.
Another difference in the second trial was the presence of an all-white jury, which prompted Middlebrooks' attorney Calvin Coleman to call for a mistrial, according to the Shelby Star.
Coleman did not return calls.
According to a North Carolina Court of Appeals document, the trial also featured ever-changing testimony from nearly all of the witnesses.
Shepard's friends, Jorge Davila and Carl Shultz, could not identify Middlebrooks in photo lineups, and they offered differing descriptions of the killer. However, Shultz was able to positively identify Middlebrooks as the shooter in court.
Also, Middlebrooks' friend, Raheem Roberts, who was also present at the shooting, admitted to lying to the authorities to protect his brother, Joey Roberts, who was also at the scene.
Middlebrooks claimed Joey - who is now serving a prison sentence for a felony drug conviction - was the shooter. His appeal was denied in 2005.
"My son still says he didn't do it, so I believe him," said Sherry Allen, Spikes' and Middlebrooks' mother. "I don't have any choice but to believe him because he's my son."
Spikes believes his brother, too, and is making it his mission to see Middlebrooks set free.
"That's the ultimate goal, to have enough money to get a lawyer and try to get a fair trial," he said. "The first one didn't go as well as we wanted. The whole trial was messed up. The police didn't want to do their job, and my brother was just caught up in it."
It may sound absurd, but Middlerbrooks' best chance at freedom may rest on Spikes' ability to play football.
"It's all about the money, and that's money I don't have right now to hire a good lawyer, so Brandon always says that his first priority is toget his brother out of prision," Allen said. "I truly think that if it's the Lord's will that Brandon make it one day, that's the first thing Brandon will do."
An NFL contract may or may not provide the means to release Middlebrooks from prison, but it would definitely achieve Spikes? goal of taking care of his mom.
Allen worked in a fiberglass plant for 26 years while raising her children.
She mostly raised Breyon and Brandon alone after she separated from their father, Donald Spikes, when Brandon was 9.
BWhen we were growing up, my mom couldn?t attend college because she had to raise me and my brother up fast,C Spikes said. BWe?ve been living paycheck to paycheck my whole life, so I just want to get that label off of her and take care of her and my brother.C
Allen was laid off from the fiberglass plant last December, and now works as a custodian and bus driver for a middle school.
BHe always tells me, 'Mom, you?ve worked all your life to provide for me and my brother, so I want to make it so I can give you the things that you never had.? I?m just so grateful to hear my son say that,C she said. BMy boys are momma?s boys. That?s the only way I know how to put it.C
While she is touched by her son?s desire to provide for her, she doesn?t want payment for her labor of love.
BIt makes me very proud to hear him say that, but like I told Brandon, that was my duty as a mother,C she said. BIt just hurts my heart, really, to know that he feels that way."
Occasionally, she?ll allow herself to dream of a life free of financial restraints.
BI would love to have a nice home, maybe a nice boat or something I could go out on and just get away,C she said. BI?ve never had a nice car. I?ve had one car that I bought brand new back in the 70s. A nice home, a nice car and maybe a boat - we all have dreams, and those would be my three.C
Because of the violent nature of football, Allen?s dream can end at any moment. Each time her son steps on the field, he runs the risk of a career-ending injury.
BEverybody here says, 'Your son is going to make it big and you won?t have to work any more.? True, but if he doesn?t, what will I do?C she said. BI can?t sit back and depend on him, but if he does I would love it. I might work still, but I wouldn?t have to work hard.C
JEKYLL AND HYDE
While he always has his mom and brother in mind, it?s hard to call Spikes a charity case on the football field.
In fact, you?d be hard pressed to find anyone who has lined up across from Spikes that could imagine him as a compassionate person.
By all accounts he is a gentle giant off the field, but his on-field demeanor is the polar opposite.
BHe was a great kid here,C Kirby said. BHe was never in trouble, not one time, and his teachers and the community loved him. It was sort of like he would step into the phone booth before he went on the field and changed.C
Spikes - who was 6-4, 235 pounds in high school - had a pregame ritual to soften up his competition.
BHe wore that shield on his helmet, and he would stalk the 50-yard line and look at the other team,C Kirby said. BI?d watch him do it and I?d see the other kids saying 'look at him.? He was already intimidating them before the game started. He?s the most intimidating player we ever had.C
Spikes backed up his threatening appearance on the field as well, leading Crest to back-to-back North Carolina 3AA State Championships in 2003 and 2004.
The Chargers were disqualified in the semifinals of Spikes? senior season for playing an ineligible player.
BWe would have won state that year, too,C Kirby said.
Kirby gave Spikes the assignment of stopping screen passes, a play the Chargers rarely allowed yardage on with him on the field.
BHe would just basically play the screen by himself,C Kirby said. BHe would either tackle it behind the line of scrimmage or intercept the pass. It was amazing how he did that.C
In his time at Crest, Spikes made plenty of tackles, but one stands out above the rest.
In a 2004 playoff game against Piedmont High, Spikes leveled the opposing quarterback on the sideline and knocked him out.
BI saw him swallowing his mouthpiece and I was amazed,C Spikes said. BHis eyes were rolling in the back of his head. I couldn?t do anything but tell them to bring the people out to come get him.C
The hit propelled Crest to a win and cemented Spikes? reputation as a big hitter.
BThey had to get some doctor to sign off on the kid being allowed to return,C Kirby said. BI was surprised that they did, because he was out.C
Not everyone enjoyed the hit, however.
At least one member of the Chargers faithful was unhappy - Spikes? mother.
BI was there for that one, and I said, 'Oh my God, he just hurt somebody?s child.? I told Brandon not to try to hurt people, and he said he wasn?t trying to hurt anybody, but that?s what football is about,C she said.
Spikes carried his knack for delivering punishment with him to UF, where he is widely regarded as one of the hardest hitters on the team.
Ask a Gators player who they?d least like to face, and one name always comes up - Spikes.
BI definitely don?t want to run into him on purpose,C tight end Cornelius Ingram said.
He hasn?t knocked anyone out yet, but Spikes has been very effective at linebacker in his short career in Gainesville.
He leads the team with 36 tackles, including 21 solo and 2.5 for loss.
BI?m really looking forward to putting somebody on 'Jacked Up? in college, but I haven?t really gotten the chance yet,C he said. BHopefully, it?ll come soon.C
He almost got his wish against Mississippi, when he found himself alone in the backfield with Rebels quarterback Seth Adams.
Spikes plowed through Adams, but was flagged for roughing the passer.
For Allen, plays like that are hard to watch.
BI don?t want to see anyone?s child get hurt because I don?t want mine to get hurt,C she said. BWhen he hit that quarterback in Mississippi, I said, 'You?re not supposed to do that.? I guess there was just a second where he wasn?t thinking.C
Spikes? reputation and appearance have earned him a nickname at UF - The Predator, after the 1987 film about an extraterrestrial warrior.
The linebacker?s visor and dreadlocks offer a resemblance to the creature, and the image coupled with his aggressive play prompted UF students to create a Facebook group titled BBrandon Spikes = The Predator.C
BSomebody said something to me about that on the team, but I haven?t seen it yet,C he said. BIs that the thing with the things coming out of his head? I think it?s cool to have a nickname like that."
STUDENT OF THE GAME
Part of the reason for Spikes? success is his desire to learn from past players.
Since high school, he has spent time observing current college and NFL linebackers, as well as studying greats like Dick Butkus and Ray Nitschke.
BI really just watch those guys and how they perform season after season. I try to learn from them and mold my game after them.C
His focus on the past is evident in everything from his technique to his jersey.
BVery few kids know who Dick Butkus is in high school,C Kirby said. BBrandon knew him, and he wanted to wear 51 because of Dick Butkus.C
Based on his knowledge of this position, Spikes seems like a born linebacker, but he almost wound up at a different spot.
When he arrived at Crest, Spikes was placed at defensive end, but was allowed to play middle linebacker on the practice squad against his team?s starting offense.
BHe would kill us everyday in practice,C Kirby said. BWe couldn?t even run our offense. Finally, I just said maybe it was time to realize he was a middle linebacker and let him play. I put him at middle linebacker and he never moved. I finally got away from being hardheaded and let him play linebacker, and the rest is history.C
Spikes was named to the Army All-American team as a senior, and was rated the No. 6 linebacker in the country by Scout.com.
He has carried his high expectations with him to UF, where he has aspirations of joining the greats he studies.
He began the 2007 season with a bang, racking up 11 tackles against Western Kentucky.
BI called him after the first game, and he was all pumped up,C Kirby said. BHe said, 'Coach, I missed some checks, but I?m going to win the Butkus Award before I leave this school.? He?s already got his goals, and he?s always been that way. So far he?s realized every goal he has ever set.C
On a Saturday in The Swamp, it would be easy for Spikes to only think of his football goals - winning a game, another championship, awards, or starting an NFL career.
But sometime before he steps on the field, his phone will ring and remind him of his off-the-field mission.
BI always call before ball games,C Allen said. BIf I can?t make it, I?ll always call and just say, 'Brandon, good luck on your game. I love you and be safe on the field.? I always do that if I don?t get to come.C
The call will offer reassurance and remind him of just how many people he plays for.