Then Brenda Phillips, Ladarious’ grandmother, emerged from the back of the one-story, maroon-and-pink-brick home near the corner of Gilham Road and Pine Valley Drive and motioned in unexpected guests.
She led two reporters into a family room and shared her favorite memories of the grandson.
“He had a smile. Every time you’d see him, he was smiling,” she said. “He would come in there and hug me and kiss on me. A lot of time, he’d let me come in there and kiss on him.
“Cooking him breakfast, and he’d tell me thank you for the breakfast. He was just like a big baby.”
Then Brenda laid her head in her right hand, closed her eyes and shook her head slightly.
“He gone,” she said softly, followed by a pause. “Oh Lord.”
Ladarious Phillips was one of three people killed in a shocking, late-Saturday shooting in Auburn. Three others were wounded.
Most of the state knew him as a reserve fullback for Auburn University’s football team, and Jacksonville State University fans recently beamed over news that he planned to transfer there.
Area high school football watchers knew him as the big, fast wrecking ball from Handley. He created heaps of helmets and shoulder pads when he crashed into the line of scrimmage as a ball carrier and defensive lineman.
Those who knew him best knew him by his nickname, and “Day-Day” was on lots of minds in his East Alabama hometown on this dreary, somber Sunday.
Semaj Nunn, 18, was missing his big brother.
“He wasn’t no bad person,” he said as he leaned forward on the family-room couch, a few feet from a table topped with pictures of Ladarious --- one in his cap and gown and another from his National Signing Day ceremony. “He never messed with nobody. He’s just a good person.
“He always gave me heads-up on stuff, like, in life. Like, one day I’d have to take care of my parents or something.”
Semaj said he spoke to Ladarious by phone at about 10 p.m. Saturday, as Semaj was returning home from his AAU basketball game. When Semaj learned that Ladarious was at a party in Auburn, Semaj wanted to come.
It was to be another Semaj-and-Ladarious outing, like so many others.
“Just playing around, football and just going out with each other, having one-on-one time and stuff,” Semaj said. “We’d go fishing and stuff like that, or we’d go out to eat or something.”
Semaj was on the road to Auburn when a terrible call came to his cell phone. His brother had been shot.
“I didn’t believe it, for real,” he said. “I didn’t believe it could be true.”
There was more than enough disbelief to go around Roanoke on Sunday.
“Young men don’t go to parties perfectly healthy and end up dead,” Handley coach Mike Battles said. “What is going on?”
Battles and Brenda said that, by all accounts they heard, Ladarious was an innocent bystander when the shooting started at Auburn’s University Heights apartment complex. Brenda said she had heard one account that painted her grandson as a peacemaker, before an argument that reportedly started over a woman took such a horrible turn.
If Ladarious, indeed, tried to defuse the situation, then it would fall well within character for a grandson she described as “very easy-going.”
“He was just a normal boy,” she said. “Most kids liked him, young kids. He was a good guy. He didn’t bother nobody, unless they had to just push him, you know. He wasn’t the one starting it.”
Battles said Ladarious was almost universally liked, and not just because he was a rare, “total-package” football talent in a small town.
“He was outgoing, popular among all the students and teachers,” he said. “I think everybody was so happy when he signed at Auburn. It was like we all signed at Auburn.”
Ladarious wanted more playing time and had returned home to Roanoke . He was awaiting a transcript before enrolling at JSU, Brenda said.
He was just visiting in Auburn on Saturday, in part to attend a pool party with several friends.
The terrible calls and text messages started trickling in about 11 p.m.
Brenda and her daughter, Jemecia (Ladarious’ mother) got into the family truck with Semaj and started south on U.S. 431. Once at the hospital, all they could do was wait.
“When I got there, they weren’t talking. They weren’t telling me nothing,” Brenda said. “We just stood around until they called us back there.
“Then the doctor came in and said he didn’t make it.”
Semaj got the news when his grandmother emerged from the hospital.
“I knew it was something bad,” he said.
The family returned to Roanoke to a swarm of family and friends.
Battles got the news around 7 a.m., when Auburn head coach Gene Chizik called. Battles immediately drove to the family home, where he spoke to Jemecia.
“She had been up all night and all, and she was upset beyond even talking,” Battles said. “I just told her that, if there’s anything we could do, the Handley family, anything that Handley and Roanoke can do, we’d do it.
“Coach Chizik asked me to express those feelings for Auburn people and Auburn family.”
When reporters came by the family home Sunday afternoon, Brenda emerged to speak for the family. How was Jemecia holding up?
“She ain’t doing too good,” Brenda said. “She’s in and out of crying.”
Folks in Roanoke knew better than anyone the young man they had just lost.
“This guy could have really been full of himself, but, lucky for us, he didn’t have to be,” Battles said. “Everybody else was proud for him, and he did well.
“And he wore his character pretty good.”
Joe Medley is The Star’s sports columnist. He can be reached at 256-235-3576 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @jmedley_star.