On the night before his son was born, Kansas running back De’Andre Mann sat on a hotel bed in Norman, Okla., and scanned the screen of his cell phone. He had already missed a call from his wife, and the text messages were pouring in, the worrisome updates coming in little pixelized bits of information.
Back at home, Olivia Mann was dealing with the ill-effects of preeclampsia, an often severe pregnancy disorder that risks the health of the baby and mother. And in about 12 hours, Mann’s KU team was set to take the field against Oklahoma, one of the final games of a chaotic 2014 season. The doctors had told him to go, that his wife would be fine for the weekend, that the baby wouldn’t be coming just yet.
As he sat in that hotel room, the clock pushing toward midnight, it appeared the doctors were wrong.
“She couldn’t make it,” Mann said. “The baby had to come out.”
The next 24 hours were something of a blur, Mann said, sitting inside Kansas’ Anderson Family Football Complex in August. Mann was just a few weeks away from beginning his final college football season, a year that will conclude on Saturday, when Kansas, 0-11, enters Memorial Stadium to face K-State, 5-6, at 3 p.m.
As the season approached, Mann desired an outlet, an opportunity to document his biggest inspiration. Alijah De’Andre Mann was born 10 weeks premature on Nov. 22, 2014. His father made it home in time, hopping in a car with a graduate assistant and racing back to Stormont-Vail Healthcare in Topeka to be by Olivia’s side. Alijah weighed just 2 pounds at birth, and as Mann puts it, that’s when the real fight began. It took weeks for De’Andre and Olivia to feel at ease, to know that Alijah would be OK. But when they finally took him home for the hospital, well, that was a good day.
“Now he’s a big, playful baby,” Mann says. “He’s doing really good.”
The presence of Alijah, Mann says, altered his outlook entering his final college season. A former junior-college transfer, Mann grew up in Richmond Heights, Fla., a neighborhood near Miami that was originally settled as a landing spot for black veterans returning from World War II. Mann’s grandfather was one of those men, and his grandmother, Mozella Pittman, helped raise a household that sometimes included as many as 16 people.
Mann first left Miami for Hartnell Community College in Salinas, Calif. That’s where he met Olivia. When Mann signed with Kansas, Olivia knew she would be coming too. In his first season at Kansas, Mann suffered a spate of concussions, which limited his productivity. For a time, he says, he wondered if he would have to give up school and football and return home.
“I didn’t know if I was going to be able to stay,” Mann says. “Because I thought stuff was going to be tough for us financially and stuff.”
Mann stayed, of course, and somehow, he and Olivia have found a way to make it work. During the summer months, Mann was often up at 5 a.m., tending to Alijah before heading to a football workout. The routine has continued into the season. Mann has rushed for 346 yards in 71 carries, a steady veteran in a rebuilding program.
But this year, Mann says, has taught him less about football and more about life and the future. Saturday is Senior Day, and next month he’ll earn a degree from Kansas. Mann says he always dreamed about playing in the NFL, and after that, he thought about getting into coaching. But that’s changed a little, too. Mann has thought about pursuing a job on a college staff, but he’s seen the hours that coaches put in. Instead, he says, maybe the high school ranks would be a better fit.
“It’s so demanding,” he says. “I still want to spend a lot of time with my family.”