He reminds himself every morning.
Everything his mother did while his father wasn't around. Her three jobs, the cities, states and countries he’s lived in. The times when he had to take care of himself and his younger brother when nobody else could. He remembers the meals, the noodle cups, the Ramen, the fried bologna and cheese. He remembers the many apartments, the bad neighborhoods, the eviction, getting only what he needed and rarely what he wanted.
And he remembers the love.
From his mother, who skipped meals in order to feed him and his brother, and from his grandmother, who housed his family in Chicago and who was always his biggest fan.
He reminds himself of his unique athletic abilities, the ones that brought him to where he is today, and his strong faith in God, helping to instill the motto that everything happens for a reason.
Every morning he reminds himself, tweeting out the message, the same words printed on the sides of his torso. Truly Blessed. The tattoo is one of many that form the underlying framework of Earnest Ross’ story.
He’s a starting guard on the Missouri basketball team, a junior transfer from Auburn, a leader who has guided the No. 12 Tigers to an 8-1 record, and he wants you to know one thing: He is truly blessed.
“Only The Strong Survive”
She answers, thrilled to hear you’ve called again.
Her laugh is infectious, even over the phone, calling you darling and sweetie even though you’ve never met face-to-face. You feel a sense of comfort when hearing her voice, catching yourself smiling and not knowing why.
Her name is Toy Ross, and she is a retired disabled veteran, a mother of two sons and a 50-year-old who “doesn’t look it.”
She’ll tell you anything you want to know. All you have to do is ask.
They divorced when Earnest Ross was 5.
She and her ex-husband were both in the military at the time, moving around early on in Ross’ life. He was born in Guam, moved to Hawaii and then Japan before they split.
She left the military in 1996 after 15 years because she was working 12-hour shifts and could not spend enough quality time with her toddlers. So she moved her sons, Ross (5 years old) and Jamel (3 years old), to Washington state, living on their own.
“Believe me, everything wasn’t peaches 'n’ cream,” she said.
His mother struggled to find work, sending her kids during the summers to live in Texas and Maryland with their father, who was still traveling from base to base in the military and made enough money to support the kids. It gave her a chance to get back on her feet.
But Ross hardly remembers those times.
If you ask him where he’s from, he’ll say Chicago. That’s where his mother moved the kids, to her hometown, when he was 8 years old. They first moved in with her sister for a year and a half and then Toy Ross and her sons got their own apartment.
“When I think of Chicago, that’s what I think about,” Ross said. “My mom working all of these jobs, and us (Ross and his brother) just being by ourselves.”
Toy Ross' days became longer than 12-hour shifts.
She worked as a waitress during the day, a cashier at night and retail on the weekends. They lived in a rough neighborhood, were evicted from their apartment and had to move in with her mother.
But no matter what happened, Toy Ross always provided, even if it was the bare minimum.
“They only got what they needed. Not what they wanted,” she said. “There were times when we didn’t have food, but I would always go without before I would let them go without. And I would try to keep them up to date with little clothes, and at Christmas time buy them little toys. It was a struggle.”
The tattoo was his first one, a picture of a cross stabbing into his right bicep, the words printed below.
It reminds him that even though it was tough, they all survived.
He never complained about the snow.
It went up to his ankles as he walked his younger brother to and from school on the cold winter mornings in the south side of Chicago. It didn’t matter that it was the complete opposite direction from his school or that he had to wake up an extra half hour early.
The now 9-year-old Ross and his 7-year-old brother, Jamel, always walked together.
She called them her “latchkey kids.”
Her sons had to take care of themselves when nobody else was around, walking back to the apartment, always carrying a latchkey.
“By the time your mom gets home, you’re sleeping. By the time you wake up, she’s gone again,” Ross said. “At an early age, I learned that I had to be a leader. I had to be a role model. I had to show him (my brother) that we were not really struggling or that we were in a tough time.”
Ross would force his brother out of bed at night and every morning to pray. He would reassure him that their current situation was only temporary, and in order for them to get out, they had to ask God. For his brother, Ross even did the thing that he hated most.
“It was something that, while my mom was at work, if I didn’t do it, he was too young to do it,” Ross said. “We were either not going to eat, or it was going to happen."
“And I was young, too, so him trying to ask for, like, fried chicken,” Ross said, shaking his head, pausing to laugh. “I’m like, 'I’m 9. I can’t do that.'”
They ate noodle cups, fried bologna sandwiches with cheese or Ramen with hot dogs.
“I hated that,” Ross said. “It was some weird stuff, but we made it through.”
The name, tattooed on his right forearm, is a reminder of the struggle they went through together. It’s a reminder of how far each has come, Ross playing basketball at Missouri, his brother playing football at UNC-Charlotte, and a reminder of the time when their bond began.
“Seeing that sacrifice I had to do back then just makes me more thankful and appreciative for what I have now,” Ross said.
“R.I.P. Ruth Miller”
His name echoes throughout Mizzou Arena. It's his first game since transferring from Auburn.
The crowd is cheering, music is blaring, anticipation is growing, chills are beginning. A spotlight illuminates Ross, and he pauses to let her know. He kisses his hand and lightly touches his left forearm, the tattoo of Ruth Miller’s name delicately wrapped around a rose.
Every game, Ross dedicates this moment, his moment, to her.
She housed his family in Chicago. Took care of them. Offered comfort. Acted as a second mother.
He points his finger high above his head and briefly looks up at the rafters. His grandma was never able to make it to any of his basketball games.
“And now she’s in a place where she can see them all,” Ross said, smiling.
His nickname is EJ. Earnest Ross Jr. is named after his father.
Ross' relationship with his mother couldn’t be stronger. He talks to his brother every day. He’s close with his aunts, uncles and cousins. Family means everything to him.
Then there’s his relationship with his father.
“It’s not bad, it’s not good, it’s not great,” Ross said. “It’s OK.”
Following the divorce, Ross’ father was rarely around. They lost touch. They hardly spoke.
“I was always the mother, and I was always the father,” his mother said. “You know, it was times when Father’s Day would roll around, and they would tell me, 'Happy Father’s Day.'”
Ross was 12 years old, and his brother was 10 when they moved from Chicago to Washington, D.C. The brothers moved to live with their father when their mother was unable to support them. She went to court and made an agreement with her ex-husband that the children would be returned after a year and a half, enough time to get back on her feet. She lived and worked by herself in Chicago and then moved to North Carolina where her two sons would soon join her and attend high school.
It was a rough year and a half.
“He hated it,” Toy Ross said, pausing long enough to think that the phone connection was lost. “He hated it the whole time. Pretty much point blank, he hated it.”
But Ross doesn’t hate his father. That year and a half was just different.
“Not seeing your dad for pretty much all of your life, to living with him, was a sudden change for me,” Ross said. “Relationship-wise, it was kind of a different move. I didn’t know how to relate to him. We didn’t really know how to talk. Pretty much all of the stuff I’d been hearing about him kind of set my mind on the kind of person he was going to be.”
His father has remarried twice and is still active in the military, currently in Afghanistan. He instilled strict values in Ross and his brother, teaching them their "Yes, sirs" and "Yes, ma’ams." He has seen Ross play basketball twice, his first and last game in high school. He now has two more kids.
Ross cares about his father, but he doesn’t have the close bond with him that he shares with his mother. He states that when he has kids, he’ll always be there for them and always be around.
He thinks his father might have learned from his previous mistakes.
“We could have been the experiment for them (his stepsiblings) to have a great life,” Ross said. “I’m a spiritual person. I believe that everything happens for a reason. My dad was young when he had us, so he probably didn’t really know. We were his first. So now he’s doing what he could have done with us, with them. And I totally respect that. He’s learning from his experiences, and everybody does that.”
Ross and his father communicate by email. He gives him tips and advice on the basketball games he is able to watch online and told Ross that he plans to come to at least one game when he returns to the U.S. in January or February.
The tattoo, printed separately on his inner biceps, reminds him of what he values most. Everyone who was there in the past, the one person who wasn’t and maybe a bond he will share in the future.
She stands outside the locker room.
It’s her first trip to the Bahamas, and she gets to spend it watching her son in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament. Missouri just won its first game, 78-70 against Stanford.
She waits patiently with her sister, who also made the trip.
“Is EJ still in the locker room?” she says to a coach, who nods his head.
Moments later, Ross emerges, his knees wrapped in ice, holding a backpack.
They both smile at each other.
“Oh sweetie, you had a good game,” she says to her son, who had 10 points and 11 rebounds.
Ross hugs her and reaches into his backpack.
He grabs a box with a bow and hands the earrings to his mother. It’s nobody’s birthday, and it’s not a holiday.
It’s just a Thursday.
The words, her maiden name, are separately tattooed on his wrists, a constant reminder of the one person in his world he owes everything to. She worked the three jobs. She put the food on the table. She instilled his belief in God. She went to the basketball games. No matter what, she was always there.
She is the one who motivates him every day, the one who makes him tick on and off the court.
His mother stares at the box, confused.
“Why, Earnest?” she says.
“Just because, Mom. It’s just because I love you.”