OXFORD — She was talking about matters of the heart.
Not the heart attack she had suffered the day before — the one that now had her in Duke University Hospital — but about the little boy who stole her heart 18 years ago and tonight will start at safety for the Miami RedHawks when they play the Miami Hurricanes at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida.
Michelle Hunt was in the cardiac unit Wednesday night, a day after being rushed by ambulance from the Durham, N.C., grocery store where she works.
As she spoke on the phone, you heard the beeps of the machines that monitored her vitals and you caught some of the conversation she had with a nurse who adjusted a pillow behind her.
“Aaah…yes…that feels better,” she said a bit wearily.
But what made her feel best — what seemed to add some verve to her voice — was when her focus returned to her favorite topic:
Jacquez Warren, Quez to his friends, the 21-year-old junior defensive standout for Miami.
She’s been the legal guardian since he was 3 and has raised him as her own, as has Jacquez’s great aunt, Lekendra Warren.
He calls both women his “second moms” and the other day said: “I consider them my parents.”
Lekendra said Jacquez’s birth mom was “just 14 or 15″ when she had him and was just a kid herself:
“They lived in the projects in Hertford (a small North Carolina town, three hours east of Durham) and she had some struggles then.”
Some of those struggles persist to this day.
And Jacquez said he doesn’t know his dad.
“It takes a lot to raise a kid,” he said. “It takes more than just giving birth to call yourself a mom.” He said a dad “needs to be there for you.”
He said his aunt took him in and “her best friend,” Michelle, became his guardian.
He said they took care of him, taught him right from wrong, nurtured him and provided for him.
“I loved him from the moment I saw him,” Michelle said. “I loved him like he was my very own. No sir, no one can tell he’s not mine. I raised him up, took him to the doctor, made sure he went to school. I took on those tasks.”
She grew quiet and when she did, you again heard the steady beeps of the hospital machines she was hooked to.
She hadn’t yet told Jacquez what had happened and had instructed everyone else not to tell him.
“I didn’t want to distract him from the game,” she said.
But she knows he’ll sense something is up when he doesn’t see her before the game. She was supposed to make the trip to Florida, but the heart issue — which she said “came out of nowhere,”— scuttled that.
“I was at the grocery store, sitting down at my desk doing the schedule, and I just started feeling bad,” she said. “I thought I might be having a panic attack.
“My brother happens to be a firefighter and I called him first for advice. I told him I thought it might just be from stress.”
Along with the grocery store job, she said she works at a local preschool, too:
“I’ve had a lot going on the past week and thought it might just be panic. But as my brother talking to me, he sensed something wasn’t right. And as he was headed to me, he called 9-1-1.
“When they got me to the hospital, they discovered I’d had a little heart attack. My blood pressure is running ridiculously high, but they said I didn’t have any blood clots or anything like that, thank God.
“They’re hoping, with the right medication and some lifestyle changes with my eating habits, I’ll be OK.”
Michelle said she’ll definitely watch tonight’s game on television:
“My eyes will be locked and loaded, trust and believe me! If Jacquez is playing, I’m watching.
“Ain’t nothing gonna keep me from that. I could have been lying in the operating room here, but I’d have told ‘em, ‘You better have that game going on in my ear!
“‘That’s my baby out there!’”
“I got him into football,” said Michelle. “I took him to a little peewee team tryout and the coach said, ‘Let’s give it (the ball) to him and see what happens.’
“Well, pretty soon, the coach comes back to me and says, ‘Oh yeah, that’s Little Highlight!’
“The coach started calling him Highlight right from that first practice. Quez went out there and oh boy did he shine! He was just a natural. He had natural raw talent.”
Warren grinned as he remembered those times when we spoke at Yager Stadium the other day: “Yeah, when I was a little boy and didn’t get the ball, I cried.”
By the time he got to South Durham High School — where he played both receiver and on defense — it was the other teams he brought to tears.
He was a three-year letterman, the team captain and a guy who made a name for himself as a hard hitter,
Michelle and Lekendra talked about his knack to “flip a switch’ and go from a soft-spoken guy off the field to “a beast” (Lekendra’s words) in the games.
Miami coach Chuck Martin mentioned that, too:
“He’s just a wonderful young man. Super quiet. Super reserved, almost shy. It’s really weird to see him off the field and then on it he’ll knock your head off. He’s not very big, but he’s flying around, hitting everybody.”
When he came out of high school Warren said he had no solid Division I offers except from Miami.
His aunt said the University of North Carolina and Virginia Tech offered partial scholarships. Other schools barely gave him the time of day.
But Bill Brechin, Miami’s secondary coach at the time — and now the defensive coordinator — watched him play and liked what he saw.
“Coach Brechin thought he was our type of player,” Martin said. “He loved his competitiveness. He thought he’ fit into our program … and he was right.”
Although Miami gave him his best college offer, Warren admits he knew nothing about the school when the RedHawks first made contact:
“When I was younger, I always wanted to play for the Miami Hurricanes, but when (the RedHawks) reached out, I was like, ‘Wait, this isn’t Florida!’”
But then it all started to fall in place, he said:
“I was a Pittsburgh Steelers fan and then I found out Big Ben (Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger) went to Miami. And the more I looked into it, the more I realized all the football history Miami has.
“I know the Hurricanes might think they are the real Miami, but history says otherwise.
“And when I saw the campus, it was beautiful. The best thing was the way everybody treated me. Coach Brechin and Coach Martin, I liked the honesty they showed me from the start. It wasn’t like they were fakin’ it. With them, it was, ‘We like what we see of you on film and we like you as a person.’
“That was important to me. Some stuff is bigger than football.”
On the field, he’s had some huge moments, as well.
He intercepted a North Texas pass in the endzone of the RedHawks’ 2021 bowl game — the Frisco Football Classic in Texas — to help preserve Miami’s 27-14 victory. Afterward, he was named the game’s Most Outstanding Defensive Player.
Last season he intercepted a pass against Akron and returned it 62 yards for a touchdown.
“He’s a great person in the locker room and a great leader on the field,” said Miami quarterback Brett Gabbert. “I’m glad he’s on my team and I don’t have to play against him.”
‘The sky’s the limit’
Michelle was released from the hospital Thursday and now has been told she needs several days of bed rest at home.
Lekendra was scheduled to fly to Miami this morning. Her 14-year-old son Elijah is going with her, but her husband, Roy, was staying back in North Carolina as he recovers from an auto accident.
The group goes to several games in Oxford each year and that gives Warren a cheering section that includes his girlfriend, Miami student Kiera Fennell, as well.
“Miami has been a great fit for him,” Michelle said. “He’s always been a respectful, mannerable kid. That goes a long way and he’s really shown it in college.
“Look how he’s turned out. I’m just so proud of him and not just for his football, but for what he’s doing with his schoolbooks. He’s going to get a degree (in psychology) and after that, whatever he chooses, I think the sky’s the limit for him.”
Lekendra has similar thoughts:
“He’s made all of us proud. He’s doing something positive, that’s what is important. He could be bagging groceries at Winn Dixie and, because of who he is, I’d be super proud of him.
“And we all love watching him on the football field.”
That’s why Michelle will have a TV next to her bed tonight.
“Yeah, I’m supposed to rest, but I know I’ll be excited,” she said. “I know I’ll be hollerin’ and cheerin’. That’s my baby!”
She started to laugh:
“I guess I better keep the heart medicine right next to me.”