POWDER SPRINGS, Ga. — Rain drops pelted the covered picnic pavilion at Ben Hill Strickland Sr. Memorial Park unrelentingly, a steady rain quickly becoming a downpour.
It was the kind of wet afternoon only a duck could love, but that didn't deter Rajaan Bennett's former teammates, classmates, friends and family members. One by one, they trickled into the park to share stories and pay tribute to their fallen friend, who would have been 25 this fall.
Bennett, a Vanderbilt football signee and honors student at McEachern High School in suburban Atlanta, was shot and killed in a murder-suicide on Feb. 18, 2010, while trying to protect his family. The gunman, Clifton Steger, was the estranged boyfriend of Bennett's mother, Narjaketha Bennett, and had broken into the home and taken the family hostage in the wee hours of the morning before shooting Rajaan and then turning the gun on himself.
As short as Rajaan's life was, it was profoundly impactful, and those who knew him best have gone to painstaking efforts to keep his memory alive. So when Narjaketha reached out to Rajaan's friends to inform them of this story, nobody blinked when the day selected for everyone to gather happened to coincide with a monsoon.
By the time Narjaketha showed up at the park with her son, Desyvon, and daughter, Narcharlette, as many as 10 people were already there waiting, and that number grew as others got off of work and fought through traffic all the way from downtown Atlanta.
Ruth Ohanu, a biology major attending Georgia State, was there. She rode to school in the mornings with Rajaan along with another friend, Marissa Dean, and they used to entertain each other by talking about everything they were going to do with their lives.
"Rajaan was so competitive and would rub it in your face if he got a better grade in a class than you, but he was never condescending," Ohanu recalled. "That's just who he was, always pushing you to do better, and the thing I remember most about those conversations is that his hopes and dreams always began and ended with helping his family."
Cousins Jaquesh Hunter and Taeron Brown were also there along with a cluster of former teammates, including Treston Moore, Robert Smith and Brandon Cleveland. Moore said he will forever be indebted to Rajaan for helping him woo his girlfriend.
"If it weren't for Rajaan, I wouldn't have my son [Brayden]," Moore said.
Marcquis Roberts, who will be a senior linebacker at Kansas this season, was home that week and also swung by. Roberts started his career at South Carolina before transferring to Kansas and wears No. 5 in honor of Rajaan, who was a year ahead of Roberts at McEachern.
Demarius Matthews, one of Rajaan's closest friends, was a captain with Rajaan at McEachern and went on to play collegiately at Georgia State. He showed up a little bit late after picking up his three kids after work and brought them along. His oldest son, Jhakari, is named after Rajaan, whose middle name was Jhakari.
Janine Laura, who had several classes with Rajaan, hustled over from her job at a physical therapy clinic.
"He showed us how to live, and that's why we are sitting out here six years later in the rain and talking about him," Laura said.
Roberts, gazing into the distance as the rain continued to pour, nodded his head slowly.
"He's one of the reasons I keep pushing," Roberts said. "He had a drive to succeed that's in every one of us. School gets tough. Football gets tough, and I just think about him. I've been through three surgeries in college, an ACL and both shoulders, but I know he wouldn't quit.
"He was at his best when things were the toughest."
That morning is still a blur for everybody who suffered through it. Narjaketha had recently broken up for good with Steger after trying to end it several other times. He didn't take the split well and continued sending harassing text messages and begging for her to take him back. Steger had been living with the family before Narjaketha told him he had to find someplace else to live and was even with the family at the school two weeks earlier to celebrate Rajaan signing with Vanderbilt.
"I changed my cell number four times, and he kept getting my new number," Narjaketha said. "He was never abusive, but was asking me to write checks for him, money I didn't have, and I knew it was time for him to go."
Rajaan had been the man of the house since he was 10, when his father, Charles, was killed in a head-on car collision soon after moving the family from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to the Atlanta area. Wise beyond his years, Rajaan gladly took on the dual role of big brother and surrogate father to Desyvon and Narcharlette. Desyvon, who is non-verbal and developmentally delayed, requires special care, and Rajaan was always right there to give him baths and cook meals for both his brother and sister, especially with his mother working long hours in Georgia Tech's parking and transportation department.
The week before the murder, Steger would sit outside Bennett's house in his car, calling and texting Narjaketha, who had already discussed with officers at her work what she needed to do to keep Steger away from her and her kids. They advised her to go see police in Powder Springs, which she was planning to do on her next off day.
"I just remember one of the last things [Steger] said to me was, 'Those things that make you smile will make you cry,'" said Narjaketha, who can't get those chilling words out of her head.
That next morning, she awoke at 2 a.m. with Steger standing over her and holding a 22-caliber pistol to her head. He initially ordered her, the three kids and Narjaketha's brother, Taiwan Hunter, into a bathroom. Taiwan was staying with the Bennett family at the time and was sleeping on the couch. Later, Steger changed his mind and allowed Desyvon to remain in one of the bedrooms, where he was watching television. Steger instructed Narjaketha to collect all of the cell phones.
Julie Collins, Powder Springs PD lieutenant
"It was dark, and Rajaan just kept trying to reassure me and would say, 'It's going to be OK, mom,'" Narjaketha recalled. "What [Steger] first told me was that he wanted me to kill him with his gun, and then he made me tape everybody up and put them in the bathroom."
Thinking quickly, Narjaketha told Steger she had recently lost her phone, but in truth had hidden it under her pillow. She managed to sneak it to Rajaan, and when Steger left the bathroom briefly, Rajaan called 911 and whispered to police what was happening.
Julie Collins, a lieutenant in the Powder Springs Police Department, was one of the first officers on the scene. She said Rajaan saved lives by having the presence of mind and courage to call 911.
"In my honest opinion, after doing this for 20 years, my belief is that [Steger] would have ended up taking all of their lives had Rajaan not made that call," Collins said. "He was very brave. Most of the time, when guns come out, people run. But this kid protected his sister until the very end and did everything he could to protect his family. He would have gone to any length to protect them."
When the police showed up at the house, Steger pulled Narjaketha out of the bathroom and instructed her to go tell them everything was OK. When she got to the front door, she was hysterical.
"All we heard then were footsteps," Taiwan said. "He was out of his mind, love-struck and crazy, and coming back for us."
Taiwan met Steger at the bathroom door, wrestled with him and did his best to get the gun. In doing so, Taiwan was shot in the abdomen and managed to stagger out the front door of the house and was quickly grabbed by officers.
"I'm from the streets. I knew what was about to happen," said Taiwan, who underwent surgery for a punctured lung. "He was going to kill us all, and I tried to grab the gun. All I heard were two shots, and then I look down and see blood, and my ears start ringing. It was like it was forever between those two shots. I knew I might die, but at least my nephew and niece would live."
After tussling with Taiwan, an enraged Steger turned his attention back to the bathroom, where Rajaan had managed to undo his tape by then. Steger barreled in and started shooting indiscriminately. All Narcharlette remembers is Rajaan grabbing her and covering her up in the bathtub.
"Rajaan was on top of me, and everything just went silent," Narcharlette said. "I heard the gun fall and could see [Steger] lying there on the floor."
Her only concern was her big brother.
"I kept telling Rajaan to get up, to get up off of me, that it was over, that [Steger] had shot himself," Narcharlette said, her voice trailing off and her eyes moist. "It happened so fast. … I had blood on my hands when I crawled out from under Rajaan and even poured water on his face to try and wake him up. He wasn't moving."
Rajaan had been shot through the heart. His last two acts before dying were shielding his sister from a spray of bullets that would have almost certainly killed her and then calling out to his mother, who by that time was out of the house. But Rajaan had no way of knowing if she were dead or alive at that point.
"He was yelling for Mom. That's the last thing I heard him say," Narcharlette said.
It's the kind of unspeakable tragedy that resonates. It resonates in the Powder Springs community, where Rajaan was revered. It resonates across the Vanderbilt campus, where even three head coaches later, Derek Mason speaks with conviction about Rajaan's place in the Commodore family. And most of all, it resonates in the hearts and minds of Rajaan's classmates, teammates and coaches at McEachern, not to mention those teammates at Vanderbilt he never got a chance to play with.
"I never met Rajaan until the recruiting process, but it didn't take me long to realize what we were getting, just the entirety of the man he was," said former Vanderbilt defensive end Kyle Woestmann, who was a part of the same 2010 signing class as Rajaan.
"I'll never forget him texting me one night and saying, 'Hey, bro, I'm going to Vandy.' I couldn't have been happier. We were pulling together one of the best classes in Vanderbilt history. We already had Andre Hal and Jordan Matthews, and Rajaan was going to be the cherry on top. To this day, I still pray about it, pray for his family and pray for him.
"It's amazing how many lives that kid touched in just 18 years."
The tears shed for Rajaan would have filled up any football stadium. His friends and family still miss him dearly. They still love to tell stories about him, from how he loved making nachos for friends, to his penchant for playing pranks, to the way he punished would-be tacklers on the football field.
But more than anything, they want to make sure Rajaan's legacy endures.
"I really think he was an angel. There's no way one person could bring that many people together," Cleveland said.
Marcus Gamble, one of Rajaan's closest friends, was talking on the phone with Rajaan the night before Rajaan was killed.
"You're never supposed to question God. But of all people, why did that have to happen to Rajaan?" said Gamble, whose parents, Willie and Priscilla, were also a big part of Rajaan's life. "It's like I said at his funeral. If I could go up there for him to heaven and let him come back down here and be with his family, knowing everything he meant to them, I would do it. Unfortunately, it doesn't work like that."
Taiwan admits the ordeal shook his faith as well.
"Even if Rajaan never played a down in the NFL, he was going to be a millionaire. He was that special," Taiwan said. "He was his mama's savior and became a man when everybody else his age was just a boy. He had to because his daddy died so young. He called me, 'Unc,' and would always look at me and say, 'Unc, I've got big plans for this family.' "
Desyvon was only 17 when Rajaan was killed, and Narcharlette was 14. Desyvon knows his brother is gone, but is unable to express himself. Still, he's rarely without a smile or his trusty Vanderbilt cap and glowingly points to Rajaan's picture in the family's living room. Narcharlette took Rajaan's murder the hardest.
She wrote a gripping essay as a freshman in high school detailing the last minutes of Rajaan's life. It was titled "The Little Sister's Story," and in it she refers to her brother as a "super hero."
"I'd dream sometimes that he was back, and then you'd wake up," Narcharlette said. "It just didn't seem real. None of it did, and I didn't want to believe he was really gone. He'd always been right there, always such a big part of our lives. If he was cooking, he'd make me do the dishes, and maybe we'd split the laundry, but he took care of us."
The ultimate team player in football, Rajaan never had any problem prioritizing what was most important. There were times he had to leave practice early to pick up his brother and get him home safely.
"He's a kid who never missed practice," McEachern football coach Kyle Hockman said. "But he'd let you know if he had to leave at a certain time to go take care of his brother. That's who he was to the core."
On the football field, Bennett blossomed into a coveted running back prospect and rushed for more than 1,800 yards and 28 touchdowns his senior season. He helped lead McEachern to an unbeaten regular season in 2009 and was the heartbeat of that team. Even now, the McEachern team will watch some of his pregame speeches that were captured on video.
"He was big and thick and ran hard, but his greatest attribute was his ability to raise everybody else's game," said McEachern athletic director and former head football coach Jimmy Dorsey, who coached Rajaan his first two years in high school.
Several SEC schools offered Rajaan, but he chose Vanderbilt to the delight of then-Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson, now a member of the College Football Playoff selection committee. Johnson knew what Rajaan could do for his program and, just as importantly, knew what Vanderbilt could do for him. Rajaan planned to major in architecture and planned to become the first person in his family to graduate from college.
"You never imagine anything like that happening," Johnson said. "As football coaches, you learn early on to deal with adversity, but something like that isn't a part of football. That's something that sticks with you. He was doing the right things, the right way. He was building a better life, and it was paying off. He had the talent and the will to do anything he wanted, and that's why he wanted to come to Vanderbilt.
"And then, just like that, he's gone."
As fate would have it, Johnson never coached another game. He resigned five months later, just weeks before the start of preseason practice, after nine years as Vanderbilt's coach. At the time, Johnson said football "was not life … but that it consumes your life" and mused, "You only have so many years to live."
Johnson insisted at the time there wasn't a singular factor that led to his decision. But as he looks back now, he concedes seeing such a promising kid struck down so tragically took an irreparable toll.
"I can't say that was the reason. I'm not going to say that," Johnson said. "A lot of factors go into a decision like that, but Rajaan's death was certainly a factor. You hurt for a kid like that, hurt for his family, and the fact that you don't get an opportunity to coach a guy you knew was the perfect fit for your school and your program hurts, too."
Johnson endured a similar tragedy in 2004 when Vanderbilt running back Kwane Doster was shot and killed in Tampa, Florida, while sitting in the backseat of a friend's car.
"You never forget those things as long as you live," Johnson said. "I remember both phone calls like it was yesterday. It's hard to get it out of your head. Both were great kids, and I mean great kids. You see other kids mess up and go on, and here are two kids who wanted to get ahead, who wanted to help their families, and then somebody cuts them down.
To this day, nobody in the Bennett family has gone back to that house on Woodcrest Drive where the murder occurred. Narcharlette said her stomach knots up if she's anywhere in the area. In fact, Taiwan said the family as a whole has never really discussed that horrific morning.
"We just left it there," Taiwan said. "It was too painful to talk about."
Narjaketha refuses to speak Steger's name, and until ESPN.com approached her, she had not spoken publicly about the details of her son's murder. She chooses her words carefully, smiling softly any time somebody offers a remembrance of Rajaan. She wears his class ring on her right index finger and has his signature tattooed on her left wrist.
She and Narcharlette also wear blue-and-gold bands on their wrists with the words from Rajaan's last Facebook post: Don't be scared. On their living room wall hangs a framed No. 5 Vanderbilt jersey, which was presented to the family when Vanderbilt honored Rajaan prior to a 2010 game.
Only in the past few months has Narjaketha brought herself to open a huge box of letters written by students at McEachern following Rajaan's death. They ranged from his closest friends to those who barely knew him but admired what he stood for on and off the field.
"I just felt like it's time to talk about it, time to make sure everyone knows how much Rajaan meant to all of us, to make sure we keep his memory alive, and maybe our story will help somebody else out there," Narjaketha said.
At McEachern, there are heartfelt reminders of Rajaan everywhere. His old locker is now a shrine. It was moved to the front of the Indians' locker room, and everything in it was left as is, including a pair of his cleats and old newspaper clippings.
A tradition at McEachern home football games is for fans to hold up five fingers just before the opening kickoff. It's their way of remembering Rajaan, whose face is emblazoned on a plaque adjacent to the field. The McEachern players pass the memorial as they make their way to the field.
"It's our way of 'Keeping 5 Alive,' " Hockman said. "It's that strength and faith, what he stood for as a person, and we want to keep that legacy going in our program as a core value, but then also keep his spirit and what he meant to us.
"A lot of the kids playing for us now probably didn't know him, and some of them may not remember seeing him play, but they know what Rajaan Bennett embodied — and that's never going away."
Nobody at McEachern has worn No. 5 since Rajaan was killed, and "they never will as long as I'm here," Hockman said.
Narcharlette is living, breathing proof of how Rajaan lived his life. His selflessness, which even before his heroism on the morning he died, was a big part of what endeared so many people to him.
"He gave up his life to save mine," Narcharlette whispers softly.
Now 20, Narcharette cherishes her brother's memory and is using it as motivation to join the Air Force. She knows it's what Rajaan would have wanted for her and admits she went into a shell after he was murdered.
"But I always felt him there with me. We all did, and we've done our best to draw from his strength," Narcharlette said.
They're buoyed, though, by Rajaan's ultimate sacrifice. Eight days before he was killed, Rajaan wrote an essay for his multi-cultural literature class titled "Strength." In one of the excerpts, he talked about strength being "a blanket to protect you from this cold world" and vowed later in the essay that "every obstacle has a way around it."It has been a struggle financially for the Bennett family. They've moved a couple of times. Narjaketha's father died of cancer two months after Rajaan was killed, and she lost her job at Georgia Tech after having to spend more time taking care of her mother, who died of congestive heart failure in October.
The only thing that stopped Rajaan on that bitterly cold and sorrow-filled morning six years ago was a bullet. And even then, he was busy saving others until his last breath.
"Everything I do, I try to build Rajaan into it," said Matthews, softly rubbing the head of his 4-year-old son, who serves as a constant reminder of his dear friend. "My oldest son is named after Rajaan, and even with all that, I guess I still haven't dealt with it like I'm supposed to. But you just keep moving, keep believing and keep loving.
"He taught us that."