#FlyHighDai — Player motivated by loss of a loved one

Published 5:34 am Thursday, March 3, 2016

By Halle Parker

The Rotunda

It was a summer evening. Shaquille Johnson, a senior on the Longwood men’s basketball team, laid in bed, fast asleep in his Georgia home. There was no alarm set for morning lifting or late-night practice, so a full night of sleep awaited him when his phone rang without warning, waking him.

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He answered to hear the distraught voice of a friend.

“Please tell me this isn’t true.”

“What are you talking about?” Johnson asked repeatedly. A link appeared in his messages.

A tap on his screen led him to the news of Dai-Jon Parker’s death. Parker was more than a friend to Johnson, he was like his older brother.

And his older brother had drowned in a lake in Indiana after a tubing accident.

“Sometimes I still feel like it’s not real,” said Johnson.

Parker’s life ended early at age 22 on May 28, 2015, shocking Johnson. He had known the former Vanderbilt basketball player since the eighth grade. Having played for the same basketball club, he said he looked up to Parker from a younger age group. His admiration only grew when his mother moved them an hour and a half across Georgia to a nicer high school for his last two years – the same high school as Parker.

At that point, their friendship truly exploded.

“When I (went) through stuff, he was an outlet that I could call and just talk to. I wouldn’t be judged and knew that he just always had good advice. He was always encouraging,” said Johnson.

Parker was a grade above Johnson, giving them a year as teammates at Milton High School before he graduated and headed to Tennessee, where he made his name as a guard at Vanderbilt University for three seasons. Johnson’s commitment to Auburn his junior year was decided in part because both universities belonged to the same conference.

“I committed in the eleventh grade to an ACC (Atlantic Coast Conference) school, just so I could play against him,” said Johnson.

When the time came for them to face each other in college, Johnson wasn’t let down, even though Vanderbilt bested Auburn in both meetings.

“We got to guard each other and that was fun; we were just making jokes the whole game,” he said.

When Johnson’s time at Auburn came to an end after his marijuana-related arrest, it was Parker who stayed with him and convinced him to look for another school. He encouraged Johnson to reach out and call another coach and earn another scholarship, resulting in his transfer to Longwood.

“Once I got in trouble there, you really see who your real friends are when you’re not at your best because a lot of people just leave or leave you behind or just be like, ‘oh, forget about him,’ but Dai-Jon, he didn’t at all,” said Johnson. “I feel like I owe him for a lot of stuff.”

When Parker passed, the loss of someone so important hit Johnson hard. He leaned less on his Longwood family for support and more on his teammates from Milton and his two mothers – his own and Parker’s. “His mom (was) my mom, my mom (was) his mom,” explained Johnson.

Eric Riley, another former Milton High basketball player, had a brotherly relationship with both Parker and Johnson, as well. He was the oldest of the three. Riley had known Parker since the first grade and knew Johnson for the same period of time Parker did.

Riley understood why Johnson looked to the people he grew up with versus those in college.

“When somebody that is really close to you passes, you want to be around the people who actually know him and what type of person he was, and you want to just keep separate from everybody. People that wouldn’t know Dai-Jon as the person he was, besides the sport he plays,” said Riley.

The difficulty of dealing with Parker’s death grew when Johnson returned to Longwood. Though several players on the Longwood men’s basketball team can relate to losing loved ones at a young age, Johnson didn’t try to open up to them.

The closest one to his situation at Longwood is men’s basketball head coach Jayson Gee, who met Parker once, the same summer he recruited Johnson. “I talk to him (Gee) sometimes when I need to, but I’m a guy who really holds it in unless it really needs to come up,” said Johnson.

“I try to develop a love relationship with all of our players, and obviously, from where he’s come from, the strides he’s made, he and I have really gotten a whole lot closer, and I’m thankful that he holds me in such high esteem,” said Gee.

Since Parker’s death, Johnson looks at pictures of him every day for motivation in his life and his sport. Also, he looks to Parker’s mother for guidance and support.

“I want to do good things for her because she always tells me how I remind her of Dai-Jon,” he said.

Gee noticed how Parker’s memory pushes Johnson in times of everyday adversity faced by student-athletes.

“Dai-Jon’s memory has been inspiring. When he’s (Johnson) having difficult in classes, Dai-Jon’s mom will call him off the cuff and just encourage him and remind him that she’s now living her dream through him and that we need him to keep going,” said Gee.

Since his return to the team, Johnson leads the team in assists, averaging 4.1, is second in rebounds with 7.2 per game and is one of the Lancers’ top scorers with 11.1 per game; all “for a bigger purpose” and “in loving memory of Dai-Jon,” he said.

“When he drowned, I was calm because I knew God was doing something for a reason; I just hate that it had to be him that was taken. But there’s nothing I can do. I can’t cry about it. I mean, I can, but I just go hard for him because that’s what I know he would have wanted.”