- Jared Shanker, ESPN Staff Writer
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This is part of a series on the nation's top uncommitted recruits leading up to signing day. Click here for the full series.
FORESTVILLE, Md. -- The D & S General Store is the type of place you would expect to find Willie Prince. There was a charm in the worn-out shingles and the chicken-and-waffles special, a reprieve from the big, corporate gas stations throughout the rest of the Beltway. There are just two tightly packed gas pumps and payment is only accepted inside, a homage to the human touch of the local general store of Prince’s upbringing.
Nobody there called him Willie Prince, though. Nobody around town did, for that matter. He was Mr. Prince or Pops, Sgt. Prince or Dad.
“That was probably a daily routine for him, to stop at the gas station,” Damian Prince said.
He grins. “Playing numbers,” he said.
It was one of Prince’s fondest memories of his great grandfather -- Dad, as he knew him. Before Damian Prince turned into a hulking 6-foot-6, 305-pound offensive tackle and the 26th-ranked senior in the 2014 ESPN 300, the two might stop at D & S for a lottery ticket and some banter before practice.
Flashbacks to those memories were changed forever on Nov. 28, 2011.
A look in his eye
LaKeyia Chappell was determined to have a son. Her first three children were all girls, but she needed a boy.
“I wasn’t gonna stop until I got one,” she said.
She finally gave birth to Damian DeVaughn Prince II in April 1996. He looked just like Damian’s father, Mr. Prince’s grandson.
“[Mr. Prince] had this look in his eye that was just like, 'Wow.' I was giving them something that had been taken away from [them],” Chappell said.
Five months earlier, Damian DeVaughn Prince I, Damian’s biological father, was shot and killed. No arrests were made, and to this day, Chappell seeks clarity.
At the time, Chappell was living in southeast Washington, D.C., in one of the city’s roughest neighborhoods. She raised Damian as an infant, but without a male role model in the home and the inner-city streets only a few feet from her doorstep, beckoning to swallow another impressionable young son, Chappell sat down with Mr. Prince and Damian’s great grandmother, Jean. They offered to take Damian into their home in the Maryland suburb of Mitchellville.
“There wasn’t a whole lot for me to think about,” Chappell said.
Damian called Mr. Prince his "dad" from the time he was born. He is the only father Damian ever knew. He reflected several times on how lucky he was that Mr. Prince and his wife opened their home to him.
Whatever Damian needed, Mr. Prince was there. He would drop him off at school before going to work as a police officer at the Washington D.C. Veteran Affairs Medical Center. During basketball season, Mr. Prince would leave work and get home at 6:30 p.m. to have Damian back at the school by 7. A boxer in the military, Mr. Prince didn’t have any background in basketball. But Damian’s basketball coaches opened the floor to Mr. Prince at the end of every practice, begging him to address the team.
“Coach would ask, ‘Dad, you having anything to say?’ And he always knew what to say and how to say it,” Damian said.
A star basketball player in the youth ranks, Mr. Prince approached Damian about playing football before his eighth-grade season. Damian brushed it off, wanting to stick with basketball, as some of the area’s most prestigious basketball programs were recruiting him. Mr. Prince insisted.
“Ninety-five percent of the time he was always right,” Damian said.
Damian became a football player, and will commit to either Florida or Maryland at 10:25 a.m. on national signing day, Feb. 5, on ESPNU at Bishop McNamara High School in Forestville, Md.
Myron Jeter worked the same shift with Mr. Prince for a decade, and they were close. On the evening of Nov. 28, 2011, Mr. Prince’s shift ended at 7 p.m., but he stuck around, trading fishing stories with Jeter, joking he’d bunk with Jeter’s family in Amelia, Va., to fish for Atlantic croaker.
“He said, ‘Don’t be surprised if I’m on your porch when you get there,’ ” Jeter recalled.
It would be one of the last times anyone would talk to Mr. Prince. When Jeter came in the next morning, a co-worker met him at the gate. “Daddy gone,” he told him.
Mr. Prince left an hour after his shift ended, prompting a call from his daughter to Jeter at about 8:20. He told her Mr. Prince had just left and should be home in the next few minutes. On his way home, Mr. Prince made a stop at the D & S General Store. As he left, a car was stalled across the street of Maryland Route 193, a two-lane highway aligned with horse barns and lavish two- and three-story homes.
The oldest of 13 kids and a Korean War veteran, it was Mr. Prince’s nature to help, “even if you weren’t blood,” Damian said. He helped the owner of the disabled vehicle jump-start his car, but as Mr. Prince walked back across the street, an oncoming vehicle struck the altruistic 78-year-old.
Damian was at home playing video games when his best friend and neighbor knocked at his door.
“Is Pops home?” It was more prayer than question.
The neighbor saw Mr. Prince’s car outside D & S, with him nowhere to be found and an ambulance speeding toward Prince George’s Community Hospital.
Damian and his Aunt Donna were the first to arrive, where they saw the car that hit Mr. Prince.
“It looked like they had hit a wall,” Damian said.
Willie Prince was pronounced dead at the hospital.
Devastated their beloved patriarch was lost, there was comfort among family and friends that Mr. Prince died the way he lived.
“He’s been taking care of people his whole entire life,” Damian said.
Said Jeter: “The thing that eased my mind was he pretty much died doing what he did. He didn’t care who needed it -- if he had it, you got it.”
“That wasn’t a fluke or anything; that was just him,” said Tommie Boozer, another VA officer.
The hospital allowed family members to go into the room and say their goodbyes to Mr. Prince. Damian never got out of the waiting room chair, though. He lost the only father he ever knew, 15 years after losing the one he never met.
“Me, I couldn’t do that. I wasn’t strong enough for that,” he said.
‘I wouldn’t attribute it to anything else’
The death came at the end of Prince’s sophomore season. The summer before a prospect's junior season is an important one for football recruits as they look to build a national profile and offer sheet. But Damian wasn’t interested.
“Losing Mr. Prince, it was different. It changed him for a while,” Chappell said. “He didn’t want to play football anymore. He was losing his drive.”
After all, it was Mr. Prince who guided Damian to football. By bringing Damian into his home, it kept Prince away from the D.C. streets that often turned teenagers into troublemakers. With Mr. Prince, the only time he called Chappell to tell her Damian was giving him trouble was when Damian would spend his weekly lunch money allowance by Wednesday.
“I wouldn’t attribute [Damian staying out of trouble] to anything else other than Mr. Prince,” Bishop McNamara athletic director Anthony Johnson said.
Damian returned to the football field in August 2012, knowing that’s what Mr. Prince would have wanted. And the first game of the season happened to fall on Mr. Prince’s birthday. He wore No. 79 instead of his normal No. 55 to honor him.
Damian wishes his great grandfather was once again there to mentor and offer advice. He could use his wisdom to whittle more than 40 scholarship offers to the only one that matters.
“Anyone who knows me,” he said, “knows he was the dearest person to me.”