TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – After seeing all the wreckage and destruction, everything that a few days before had made up her family’s home, a bold thought came to Cherine Duncan’s mind.
She’d just waded through waterlogged furniture, clothes and photos, being careful to avoid the debris that seemed to be everywhere. She’d assessed the upright piano, the one that her mother bought years ago, and that her family had gathered around during holidays and special occasions, and realized it was damaged beyond repair.
And, as she moved from room to room, Duncan did it with the worst kind of new perspective. Several of the house’s walls no longer stood.
Hurricane Michael, the strongest storm to make landfall in the United States in more than 25 years, hit Panama City on October 10, 2018. It destroyed Duncan’s house, the same house that had been a home to her mother and grandmother, along with dozens in her neighborhood and the surrounding area.
And yet, despite the overwhelming destruction, the flood of emotions and the hint of temptation to relocate somewhere further inland, that bold thought wouldn’t go away.
“We will be back,” Duncan recalled thinking.
Not content just to think it, Duncan found a section of an old wooden fence and a can of spray paint and, along with her son, Janarius Robinson, and a handful of family members by her side, wrote in bold, red letters:
“WE WILL BE BACK. TO GOD BE THE GLORY.”
It was something of a rallying cry, an act of defiant faith in the face of disaster.
The family gathered around that sign and took a photo together, and, in the days and weeks since the storm – all of them spent without a place to call “home” – they have used it as a promise of better days to come.
It’s taken nearly a year, far longer than either expected, but, as Michael’s first anniversary approaches, those better days are now very much on the horizon.
And Duncan has another picture to prove it.
In this one, she’s again standing next to a sign in the vacant lot where her previous home once stood.
A sign that reads “D. Sheffield Construction, Inc. – Commercial and Residential Builder”
After 12 months spent bouncing between spare bedrooms, and 12 months in which Robinson, a fourth-year junior defensive end on the Florida State football team, had nowhere to go home to, construction is finally set to begin on Duncan’s and Robinson’s new house.
Same street. Same lot. Same address.
“It’s very exciting,” Robinson said. “It feels good to know that it’s in the works. It’s actually happening.”
“I don’t even think I can find the words to say,” Duncan added, “to explain the joy and happiness that I feel in my heart.
“I’m happy. I’m so excited and, most of all, I am grateful. I’m very thankful.”
Thankful, first and foremost, that no one in the family was harmed during the storm. As Michael approached, Robinson first headed home then headed north with his family. Duncan said she left Panama City with three changes of clothes and one pair of shoes.
And, even after she returned to learn that the rest of her wardrobe had been destroyed, Duncan soon found another reason to be thankful.
Because a few days after the storm hit, Florida State worked to create an NCAA-approved Gofundme campaign that would allow the FSU community and beyond to support the family’s recovery efforts.
The campaign raised nearly $50,000 in less than a day and soon climbed north of $100,000.
More than 2,000 people donated to the fund, many of them with ties to Florida State but several others with no connection to FSU at all.
No matter where it came from, Robinson and Duncan were blown away by all of the kindness, most of it from people they had never met.
“It helped to know that I had the support from the FSU family – the coaches, the players, the fans,” Robinson said. “Even people that didn’t have any ties to the school or were from other schools. Them showing me that they cared and that they wanted to help out, that just meant a lot to me.”
“It has been very helpful, just to see how people – even people that we didn’t even know – reached out and helped us,” Duncan added. “And that’s what you call a family.”
Speaking of family, Duncan spent much of the last year grateful that, when things were at their worst, her son could spend most of his time surrounded by his friends, teammates and coaches at Florida State.
Echoing a common sentiment inside the program, Duncan refers to Robinson and his teammates as “brothers.”
“I love those boys,” she said. “And I love the way a lot of them have rallied around Janarius during that time.”
Saturdays in Doak Campbell Stadium provided a reprieve in the wake of the storm. For Robinson, getting onto the football field allowed him to turn his mind away from everything happening back home – at least for a few hours.
And for Duncan, who never misses a home game, they provided a reason to get out of town, hug her son and watch him do something that he loves.
She said she would start preparing on Wednesdays to leave for Tallahassee on Fridays, and that she made sure to be outside Gate K to greet Robinson and his teammates during their “Legacy Walk” into the stadium before each game.
“I just love it,” she said. “I try to make sure I’m there for them. Even the coaches, I give them a hug.”
More than anything, though, Duncan and Robinson were thankful to have each other.
Both admitted that there were times over the last year when things got too tough. Whether it was the magnitude of the family’s loss, the daunting prospect of moving forward or, in Robinson’s case, something related to the classroom or the football field.
But whenever they were beset by feelings of despair, both mother and son looked to each other for strength.
“I don’t think there’s anything my mama can’t get through,” Robinson said. “I have no choice. I see my mom do it and I have to do it.”
Duncan feels the same.
“To see how he fights through, I say, if my child can do that, surely I can push through this,” she said.
All the while, Robinson sought ways to be a positive influence in his hometown. Over the holidays, he rounded up some clothes that he’d grown out of and donated them to Panama City-area kids.
Then, a few months later, Robinson fulfilled a childhood dream by gathering a handful of his FSU teammates and traveling the 90 miles west to Panama City’s Tommy Oliver Stadium, where they held the first “Win Within Football Camp.”
The camp, free to all, attracted more than 200 attendees who received lunch, a t-shirt, and plenty of on-field instruction time with Robinson and his fellow Seminoles.
Florida State’s Hamsah Nasirildeen, Joshua Kaindoh, Tre’ McKitty, Amari Gainer, Jaleel McRae, Leonard Warner III, Derrick McLendon II, Chaz Neal and Deonté Sheffield all participated, as did former Seminoles and current NFL standouts Chris Thompson and Brian Burns.
“A lot of those kids lost everything like I did,” Robinson said. “It was just a day that they could come out there and get their mind off things and do something that they love.
“I come out here and I love playing football, and it’s something that I do to get my mind off of things. I just wanted to give back to the community in some sort of way that I can.”
No surprise, Robinson said that his giving spirit comes from his mother.
“I call him my hero,” Duncan said. “Even though we lost, he’s still giving and giving back. And that’s where your blessings come from.”
The biggest blessing, the one that will arrive when Robinson and Duncan walk through their new front door for the first time, is still a little while away.
Duncan said that the builders estimate it will be six months before everything is completed, which means another six months unsettled.
By now, though, Duncan doesn’t mind. She’s resolute in her belief that a higher power is at work. And the name on that construction sign certainly hasn’t done anything to sway that belief.
The contractor who owns the company is also the father of an FSU teammate.
“You know what? God knows what he’s doing,” Duncan said. “It’s being done in his timing.”
Until then, both Robinson and Duncan will press on and remain patient. Duncan still comes to every game and Robinson is in the midst of a career year – already with 17 tackles and more tackles for loss (3.5) and sacks (1.5) than in all of last season.
Robinson’s production, as well as the maturity gained over the last year, have made him a key figure inside the Florida State locker room.
“‘J-Rob’ is a great young man that always wants to help someone else,” FSU coach Willie Taggart said. “We talk about our football team handling adversity, then you think about what he and his family went through.
“I always tell them the things we go through on this football field are nothing compared to what some people are going through. I think that relates to him and helps him get through a lot of tough situations.”
Robinson and Duncan are in near-constant communication. She sends him an encouraging text message every morning, and Robinson calls often to make sure his mom is OK and to get an update on where things stand.
Lately, the conversation has centered around one topic.
“She says, ‘I can’t wait for our house to be rebuilt,’” Robinson said.
Can’t wait for sisters and nieces and nephews to come visit, can’t wait for the holidays to feel like holidays again, and, most of all, can’t wait to feel that same feeling shared by Robinson, Duncan and the generations that came before them:
“This is home,” Duncan said.
They’ve waited nearly a year and must still wait a while longer. But the sign in the yard says that, finally, their wait is almost over.
“It’s going to be an exciting moment,” Robinson said. “It will feel good for her to have something of her own once again, that we can all go back home to and celebrate.”