FOREST PARK, Ohio -- When Markief White takes the field for his final high school football game Thursday night in Canton, he will look toward heaven.
The Winton Woods senior outside linebacker knows his late mother -- his No. 1 fan -- will be with him.
“Growing up, I always told my momma I wanted a high school championship ring,” Markief said. “To be here and finally get a chance to do that, it’s a blessing. I know she is real proud.”
Cherika White-Allen died Nov. 24 after a lengthy illness. She was 44.
White-Allen had been at one time on a list to get a double lung transplant, but battled complications including pneumonia. She had been ill since Markief was in the eighth grade.
“She was a fighter, too,” Markief said. “That’s why I am fighting to be great. She was fighting to get her health and I am fighting to be great.”
Winton Woods (13-1), ranked No. 25 nationally by the MaxPreps computer ratings, plays No. 14-ranked Akron Archbishop Hoban (13-1) in the Division II state final at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium. The game will be televised live by Spectrum Sports.
The Warriors, in the postseason for the first time since 2013, are in the state final for the second time in program history after winning the D-II title in 2009. For this year’s seniors, this week has been on their minds since they were freshmen.
Markief, who wears No. 4 and is a team captain, has waited his entire life for this moment. Cherika used to tell her son he came out of the womb ready to play football.
She had given Markief her full support during his youth playing days in Evanston and Avondale. She knew the effort he'd given toward the game. And she knew football would be an avenue for him to attend college.
“In Little League she used to be the loudest person on the sideline,” Markief said.
Thursday night, Markief is ready to seize the opportunity for the Winton Woods football brotherhood and for his mother. A state title would mean so much.
“He is a great kid,” Winton Woods Defensive Coordinator Art Wilson said. “He’s one of those kids you can root for.”
‘She had the best seat in the house’
Cherika died in Columbus at 1:25 p.m. Nov. 24 in the same city where hours later the Warriors played Massillon Washington in the state semifinal.
She had been transferred to a Columbus-area hospital that had the specialization to try to treat her condition.
Markief, 18, kept her in his thoughts throughout the entire season. He read an emotional letter to her over the phone during a team dinner prior to the Week 10 game against Moeller in late October.
Nearly four weeks later, Markief spoke with counselors and leaned on his teammates and coaches as he coped with her death Friday afternoon. Markief lives with his father, Markief Hatten.
“It’s been hard but like I said from the get-go, I am here with my family,” Markief said. “They have my back.”
The Winton Woods coaches noticed White was coping better than they expected last weekend. Still, they offered support. Few words needed to be spoken. Only the fact that they would do anything to help him.
“I can’t imagine,” Winton Woods coach Andre Parker said. “I experienced something similar but it was a lot different -- my father passed away when I was in high school before my senior year. When it’s your mother, it’s something different. Your mother is your best friend, that’s your care, that’s your blanket. That’s the person for most men or boys that really comforts them.”
Markief never doubted his resolve to play in the state semifinal. He knew it would be his mother’s wish to continue playing. He rose to the occasion that night, recording three sacks against Massillon Washington.
“He is really the heartbeat of the defense,” Wilson said. “They feed off his energy.”
“We knew we had to keep him up and keep him focused for the game and keep him calm,” said senior inside linebacker Chris Oats, who was named Tuesday as Ohio's Division II defensive player of the year. “We knew he was going to have a big game. And that’s what he did.”
This past summer, Markief worked at Arby’s near school and saved more than $1,500 to put toward a car. Instead of the car purchase, he helped his family with Cherika’s medical expenses.
There are other examples of his leadership around school. He volunteered at a National Underground Railroad Freedom Center event. He’s put work into the classroom to improve his grades since he was a freshman.
He also keeps a smile on his face.
“Markief is a special guy,” Parker said. “He is a three-year starter. He is so consistent. He’s the guy who is going to be there on time in the morning and he is going to give everything he has. You can depend on him.”
But make no mistake, he loves to hit on the football field. And he wants to play in college.
“Markief is a guy who has high intensity all the time,” said defensive line coach Dan Scholz. “He feels like and has taken ownership of the fact that we are going to push through. Whether that be in the weight room or practice or in film sessions -- I don’t know that he has ever been late to anything. He takes it as a responsibility to say, ‘hey, we are going to get this right.’ He keeps guys focused. He has been great.”
Markief has also earned the respect of his teammates. When he speaks, they listen.
Oats knows that first hand. He grew up with White and the two attended Rockdale Academy Elementary School in Avondale.
Oats listened to his friend address the team in the locker room after the state semifinal last Friday night in Columbus.
After Cherika died, the school community reached out to White and his family and gave him support. Prayers were offered.
The family theme around the team took over again. Loyalty is not second-guessed. Oats also knew what this week would represent to his teammate.
“He was smiling,” Oats said. “His goal was to win state and he was going to do it for her.”