Miami football player finds support after father’s role in Cincinnati murder-suicide

Dawnnita Rucker quietly recalled the heart-wrenching text she got from her 20-year-old son the other day:

“Mom, it’s one of those emotional days, so just pray for me.”

She said when she gets messages like that, she immediately sends a text to his Miami RedHawks football coaches asking them to “do an extra check-in” with him:

“As a mom, I want to protect all my kids from being hurt, but in this case I realize I can’t. I don’t know the answer. He said as the days have gone by he thought it would get easier, but it seems to be getting harder.”

Her son is Ja’don Rucker-Furlow, the colorful, charming and athletically-blessed junior defensive back out of Belmont High School, who is vying for a starting job as Miami prepares to open its COVID-19 delayed season on Nov. 4 against Ball State.

Around the RedHawks program, Ja’don is known for his long, two-tone locks that have been red, purple or blue at times, but now are half blonde and half black.

He first made his name as a freshman when, along with forcing a fumble in the Northern Illinois game, he intercepted a Huskies' pass and returned it 28 yards for the winning touchdown.

Last year, he rallied his RedHawks' teammates and coaches and brought them back to the Dayton area to help people cleanup after several Memorial Day tornadoes devastated the area.

But over the past 10 weeks, as he’s worked hard to win a starting cornerback job, he’s also been dealing with an inconceivable loss that has shaken him to the core.

His dad, Shadon Furlow – once a star basketball player at Springfield South High School and Sinclair Community College – died Aug. 7 in what Cincinnati police determined was a murder-suicide.

Furlow shot and killed 37-year-old TaShaunna Hammond at a Maryland Avenue home in the East Price Hill section of Cincinnati, police said.

A lab technician at University of Cincinnati Health and the mother of four, Hammond had graduated from Springfield North. Her funeral services were held in Springfield and she was buried in Urbana. A GoFundMe page was set up to help some of her younger children who live in Springfield.

After he shot Hammond, the 41-year-old Furlow then shot himself and died later at the hospital, according to police.

Although Dawnnita raised her oldest son on her own in the West Carrollton area and then in East Dayton, Shadon – who had dealt with emotional issues much of his life – was in and out of the picture, Ja’don said.

Just as his 6-foot-5 dad had been a celebrated athlete here – “a freak of nature” Ja’don said – his mom had been a prep standout, as well. Dawnnita played basketball and softball, ran track and was a cheerleader at Jefferson.

“I heard there were nights she dropped 30,” Ja’don said of his mom’s hoops heroics.

“But I always wanted my parents to see that I could do crazier things in sports than they did. They set the bar for me, but I think I went over it.”

But while Ja’don got a Division I scholarship, there was something else he missed out on.

“I wanted my dad to be proud of me,” he said. “I wanted him to come see me play.”

That rarely happened said Dawnnita, who married Torance Hicks II two years ago and has two younger sons, Romeo, a junior, multi-sports athlete at Wayne High, and 10-year-old London.

“When Ja’don was a junior in high school, that should have been a standout year for him in every sport and it was not,” Dawnnita said. “He had a terrible year. He was missing his dad then. His dad would tell him he was coming to games and he’d never show up. It took a mental toll on Ja’don.”

Shadon, who had been living in Cincinnati for several years, did make one Miami game, but this season was supposed to be different, Ja’don said in soft voice suddenly washed by emotion:

“He bought a season ticket and said he was going to be at all the games.”

When Miami coaches got word of the deadly incident in Cincinnati they called Dawnnita “almost immediately” she said:

"You know how, when something bad happens, people always yell you they’ll be there? They say if you need something to let them know, but usually they’re just saying that to be kind.

“But that wasn’t the case with the Miami coaches. They were all in.”

She was especially appreciative of head coach Chuck Martin and John Hauser, the co-defensive coordinator and cornerbacks coach, who was an All-American player at Wittenberg and then a coach there.

“Coach Hauser went to pick Ja’don up and brought him to his home and had him spend the day,” she said. "He even gave him to the code to his garage door so Ja’don can get in any time he needs to get away.

"And when Ja’don had to go to Cincinnati and view the body and take care of business, both coaches showed up to be with him.

“I can’t say enough about those two and really everybody at Miami. They’ve been fabulous.”

While he leans on the coaches and some of his teammates, Ja’don said it’s still been difficult:

“I go to grief counseling and talk to a doctor and I talk to my mom. I’m trying to stay positive, especially around my team. If I’m down, people will feed off that energy and that’s not good for anyone. But that’s not always easy to do.”

Dad’s family cycle

Back in December of 1998 – when he was starting his college career at Sinclair – I interviewed Shadon and his mother, Michelle, who died not long after that. She told me of her own overwhelming struggles and how it affected her kids, who ended up in rooming houses, shelters and foster homes all across the United States.

“I remember (Shadon) spent his sixth birthday on the Greyhound bus to California and he just kept cryin' and cryin',” Michelle said. "He and his little brother had just got adjusted to another place and here I was snatching them up again. Back then, I was going on nothing but a wing and a prayer.

"I didn’t know nothin' 'bout California. We ended up in downtown Los Angeles. Ended up in a run-down hotel on Skid Row. People living on the street outside, violence everywhere. That was no place to be, so we spent time in the Salvation Army shelter, then an apartment in Long Beach, then East Compton, then another shelter in Venice Beach.

“Shadon was just a little boy and he was confused and scared. Even that young, a kid senses when a parent has problems. I had had him when I was just 16 and pretty soon after that I just had problems on top of problems. Pretty soon I was just running from town to town.”

By the time he was 10, Shadon had lived in Dayton, Louisville, Cincinnati, back in Dayton, Cincinnati again, then Los Angeles, Long Beach and San Bernadino, and finally Dayton, Columbus, and Dayton again.

“I had emotional troubles and then a breakdown and that’s when my kids really needed help,” Michelle said.

Shadon ended up in the custody of Children Services and for the next seven years, he was shuttled from foster homes to group homes, mostly in the Springfield area.

The one place he shined was on the basketball court. As a Springfield South senior, he averaged 17.5 rebounds and 17.4 points a game and was named the Western Ohio League Player of the Year.

His academic record scuttled his D-I chances, so he went to Sinclair, where he felt a connection coach Paul Bryant, who also ran a group home for troubled teens in West Dayton.

After starring at Jefferson, Dawnnita came to Sinclair and said she soon asked Bryant to mentor her so she could become “the first girl to coach a men’s team.”

As it would turn out, she’d later be hired to coach the freshman basketball team at Belmont and she was a volunteer assistant with the varsity football team there, too.

It was while she was assisting at Sinclair that she met Shadon and eventually she became pregnant.

I remember Michelle telling me how her mother had had emotional problems too, but she hoped Shadon – especially with his success at Sinclair – would finally be the one to break the family cycle.

“But then his mom died and he had to take care of all his brothers and sisters and I think that started it all again,” Dawnnita said.

Although she’s happily remarried now, is raising her two youngest sons and has begun a business -- 3 Kings Catering – Dawnnita said Shadon’s suicide and the murder that preceded it have been "a major blow that continues to hurt.

“I’ve cried and felt so down, wishing I could have done things differently so this didn’t happen. But at the same time I know you can’t change some people to make them want to be more than they are.”

‘My mom did everything for me’

She’s done a good job raising Ja’don and his two brothers.

“Man, my mom did everything for me,” Ja’don said. "She made sure I got to practices when there wasn’t a way to get there. She made sure we ate. We had some tough times, but she kept a smile on her face so we didn’t know anything was wrong.

“She showed me life skills and made sure I knew I had to take care of my brothers. She helped me become a successful young man.”

Some of his biggest successes came at Belmont playing basketball and football, where he won All State honors as a senior.

Recruited by several schools, especially Toledo and Cincinnati, he chose Miami because of a “family feel.”

Just an hour from Dayton, it has enabled his mom to be at every game at Yager Stadium,

In turn, Ja’don has not forgotten is hometown.

After he graduates he said he’d like to open a youth center in Dayton to "mentor kids who don’t have a father. I know what that feels like.

“I figure the best thing you can offer somebody is a helping hand. When you reach out, it brings some hope, some joy back into that life. When people are hurting, it’s important for them to know someone is there for them.”

He was talking about others.

He was talking about himself.

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