CINCINNATI -- After a Xavier volleyball home match ends, middle blocker Alexis Newsome makes a beeline for the stands. She swoops up her son, Braylen, and gleefully plays with him on Cintas Center’s court.
Three years ago, she never thought she’d be here. Still at XU, that is. Playing volleyball.
Newsome learned she was pregnant when she was 19. It was the summer before her sophomore year, and she went through the regular rituals of preseason practices with her Musketeers teammates while her thoughts wavered between fear and panic.
“I definitely thought my college time was going to come to a close. In other situations like this, scholarships can be taken. That’s something I took into account,” Newsome said. “I honestly did not see myself coming back. I really didn’t.”
Telling her teammates about the pregnancy was difficult. Telling her mother was heart-wrenching.
“I was very disappointed and more upset that it happened, that she put herself in that position, so that was really hard,” Alexis' mother, Debra Newsome, said. “There are millions of thoughts running through your head at that point in time but there’s no direction, other than, ‘OK, we’re going to figure out how we’re going to do this.’”
It didn’t take long for the Newsome family to embrace Alexis’s pregnancy and support her as she navigated the joys and challenges of life as a student and mother. Some experiences were far more difficult than she imagined; others were exponentially more rewarding.
Now, as she nears the end of her final volleyball campaign, Newsome has a December graduation date and visions of a new chapter with her 2-year-old son.
She harbors no regrets about her college experience. In fact, she wouldn’t change a thing.
“I feel I’m happier leaving here than if I didn’t get pregnant and didn’t go through the journey that I had,” Newsome said. “I feel like this journey was better than it ever could have been.”
A mother's love
Xavier volleyball coach Christy Pfeffenberger has learned the many personality traits of Alexis Newsome, and being a ‘mother hen’ is not among them. Lex, as friends call her, is not the fussy, soft type.
Pfeffenberger said she’s more like football player Michael Oher, who scored high in protective instincts in the movie “The Blind Side.”
“When the team’s back is against the wall, she’s the first to be like, ‘I got it.’ And she does something about it. That’s how I think of Lex -- she’s always going to come through in the clutch,” Pfeffenberger said.
Newsome has evolved into a leader in her five years at Xavier. Pfeffenberger can’t say if that’s part of her natural maturation as a 22-year-old or the fact that she’s a mother. Probably both.
Pfeffenberger was an assistant coach at Notre Dame when Newsome arrived as a Xavier freshman. The Musketeers’ then-coaching staff red-shirted the 6-foot-1 Columbus native to facilitate her development.
Newsome cracked the starting rotation as sophomore, the same year Pfeffenberger returned to the Musketeers’ program as associate head coach. That’s also when Newsome said she and her then-boyfriend, former men’s basketball player Brandon Randolph, learned of their pregnancy.
Randolph played for Xavier for two years before transferring to Utah Valley State in 2015.
Newsome knew no other college athlete like herself -- pregnant and in-season -- and felt increasingly isolated. She took a medical redshirt, leaned heavily on her mom and siblings, Garrett and Alena, and tried to lay low.
“That was tough. I kind of hung out in my room a lot because walking on campus and being pregnant, people stared and people looked. That was one of the tougher things,” Newsome said. “But my teammates were always very supportive. They even threw me a baby shower. And when I revealed the sex of the baby, they were all really excited. That aspect was really fun, but the outside part where people didn’t understand, that was kind of hard.”
Newsome took Saturday classes and completed the semester before Braylen was born April 17, 2015. She returned home to Columbus with her family after being discharged from the hospital and did not return to Xavier until testing her mettle for two days at volleyball camp.
Even then she wasn’t sure she was coming back for good.
Her mother thought she should, so much so that she volunteered to raise Braylen in Columbus until Alexis finished school. The arrangement made sense for several reasons, Mrs. Newsome said: To provide around-the-clock care for the baby, to allow Alexis to be a student and an athlete and to fulfill her scholarship.
“That’s a dream that a lot of girls don’t get an opportunity to do,” Mrs. Newsome said. “But the other part was if she dropped out, would she go to a local school here, and now she’ll have student loans? For her to stay at school and on scholarship was beneficial because she wouldn’t have to worry about paying student loans plus raising Braylen. For her to keep her scholarship was a big deal.”
Alexis initially rejected the idea of leaving her family but eventually relented.
“I think I (returned) because my mom pushed me to do it,” Newsome said. “She actually had my brother around the same age I had Braylen. She tried to go back to school too but she didn’t have any of the help I had. So I feel like it was more for her, just to show her that even if she didn’t have the chance, I could do it.”
Layers of living
Although Newsome and Randolph ended their relationship, she said they continue to co-parent Braylen amicably. Each parent frequently FaceTimes the toddler and Newsome orchestrates Christmas visits to Utah.
“We all do what we can,” Newsome said.
Mrs. Newsome has been a fixture at Xavier home matches, Braylen in tow, and even has taken him on road trips to Marquette and DePaul. Whatever leftover free time Alexis has on weekends, she devotes to her son and family.
But when she’s with her Xavier teammates, she tends to refrain from talking about motherhood. That’s the story of Newsome’s life, Pfeffenberger said: She has layers and layers, some of which the Musketeers have never peeled back.
Newsome’s father, for example, is ex-NFL player Craig Newsome. The former cornerback was drafted by the Green Bay Packers, necessitating a family move from Arizona to Wisconsin when Alexis was young. After her parents split up, she lived in California, and then Ohio, with her mother and siblings.
Newsome’s teenage years were tinged by depression and a suicide attempt. The summer before her senior of high school, she swallowed 40 tablets of Ibuprofen and went to sleep, only to be awakened by family friends stopping by the house.
She spent two days in the hospital and three days at a mental health facility.
The suicide attempt was a mistake, Newsome said. Foolish. Selfish. To remind herself of her resilience, she had Malosi tattooed on her left wrist. The Samoan word for “strong” was chosen as an homage to her mother’s heritage and proof of her own fortitude.
Within the year she was offered a scholarship to play volleyball at Xavier. Within three years she had Braylen. Within six she will earn her degree.
Leaving a legacy
Few Xavier volleyball players own the net like Alexis Newsome. She takes charge of it, issuing blocks with her long extended arms and gaining reinforcement from her vertical jumps.
Last season she led the Musketeers in blocks with 142. This year she has a team-high-tying 97 blocks and counting.
Newsome’s best showing this season was Oct. 7, when she set a single-match school record with 12 blocks against St. John’s. Newsome also flummoxed the Red Storm’s defense with 12 kills, cementing her second career double-double and reinforcing the offensive progress she has made in the past year.
“This whole season she’s been one of our top offensive weapons as far as on-the-floor performance. She’s there. The team knows she can do it. The setters can just put the ball in the air and she’ll find a way to do something with it,” Pfeffenberger said.
Earlier this season Newsome was briefly waylaid by injury, a recurring theme for a Musketeers team in danger of absorbing its first losing season since 1997. Injuries to upperclassmen have led to multiple losing stretches and shaped a 10-17 (5-8 Big East) record with five regular-season matches left.
Newsome has made sure to enjoy each outing, knowing her competitive days are numbered. She technically retains one more year of eligibility, but will not use it. Pfeffenberger is behind her all the way.
“Trust me, I would love to have her back next season. She’s only going to get better. She performs at such a high level. But I know for her quality of life that she needs to move on,” Pfeffenberger said.
What does the future hold? It’s hard to say, Newsome said. She’s “ready for something new,” and that might be a family move back to Arizona or California. Regardless of the destination, she’s excited about raising the sweet, happy boy that’s always on her mind.
“It’s just so much love. When you talk about him, you just want to smile. He’s honestly the best,” she said.
Newsome hopes some day to become a sounding board to other pregnant athletes in search of support. In the end she’ll leave Xavier “exactly the way she was supposed to,” Mrs. Newsome said, which is to say strong, determined and prepared.
And she has touched others in ways she may not even know.
“I love watching her play with her son,” Pfeffenberger said. “She could just go play a five-set match and be exhausted and she’ll still run around with him after the match. She’ll roll on the ground with him, play with him. You can tell that those 20 minutes mean the world to her. It could be a win or a loss. It doesn’t matter. She plays with him like she has all the energy in the world, and that I think is neat for our team to see.”