CLEMSON - D.J. Reader felt lonely, despite being surrounded by 100 teammates and a smattering of family members in the stands. One of them was missing.
Clemson's intrasquad scrimmages in early August were the rare occasions for David Vernon Reader Sr. to watch D.J. play from inside Memorial Stadium because he didn't have to fight through tens of thousands of people - adversarial to his 15-year battle with rheumatoid arthritis.
There's going to be a tailgate outside the stadium on Saturdays this fall sharing D.J.'s empty feeling. That's where David Sr. loved watching David Jr. and the Tigers, overwhelmed with joy as his son played college football on the biggest stage.
D.J. Reader, a junior defensive tackle, an only child but never short on brothers, always had a good head on his shoulders - thanks to his dad.
"A son never forgets anything that his father did for him," Reader said. "I'll never forget him. I'll always love him."
Reader lost his father at age 51 to kidney failure on June 30, the day before Reader turned 20. Reader will honor David Sr. by competing for a starting role in Clemson's revamped defense.
"I talk to him every night, and he always talks back," Reader said. "I know that everywhere I go, every decision I make, he's watching over me."
In mid-June, doctors advised David Sr. he needed to undergo dialysis, which was essentially a Hail Mary for his failing kidneys. Although doctors were unsure a transplant would restore him to good health, David Sr.'s wife Felicia, his son and several family friends offered to be kidney donors.
"My first thing was, I'd automatically give my kidney for him," Reader said. "He was like, no, I don't want you to do that."
David would only accept an anonymous donor, and certainly would not entertain his son's offer to jeopardize his own body.
"He was not agreeing to any part of that," Felicia Reader said.
Two weeks later, David Sr. succumbed to what doctors diagnosed as natural causes. It was a Monday, the day Clemson's second summer semester began, and D.J. had said goodbye to his father the Sunday before.
"After that, it kind of changed my perspective on life, how I felt about coming out here every day," Reader said. "It made me appreciate football a lot more."
"My mom said, everybody's on loan. It was just his time to go."
Both David Sr. and Felicia came from large families and assumed a house full of children was in their future.
"We wanted a big family, but that wasn't in God's will," Felicia said. "We were really fortunate and blessed to have D.J. We were just grateful we got him."
Reader attended private school from kindergarten through second grade, then was home-schooled by David from third through sixth grade. David held a master's degree in supervision and was a school teacher at Coates Elementary in Danville, Va., and Sedgefield Elementary in Greensboro, N.C., so Reader was in good hands.
When Reader began attending junior high school, his homeroom teacher asked his parents if they were sure he was an only child and had been home schooled, not believing it because of D.J.'s natural, friendly interactions with other students.
Reader played on travel baseball and basketball teams, was active in his church and in neighborhood games. David and Felicia took care of troubled kids in the community, offering food, shelter, school supplies and comfort.
"We just opened our arms and our home to anyone who needed that support," Felicia said, "so they know that someone cares and we love you and if we can do anything for you, that's what we did."
"I'm an only child, but I've never really been an only child," D.J. said. "I always had five or six brothers at a time."
Reader's mom doesn't miss a game inside Death Valley, and his dad never missed one outside it.
While David Sr. would go to road games at Wake Forest - nearby to their home in Greensboro, N.C., in a half-empty stadium - the hustle and bustle of Memorial Stadium was just too much. So he took up residence at a parking lot tailgate with some other couples.
"He likes to watch the games (on TV) so he can kind of freeze, and zoom in on things that he could jot down," Felicia said. "Not trying to tell the coach what to do, but he likes to scale down so he can give him some concrete feedback."
So he took notes, analyzing the play of Reader, defensive tackle Carlos Watkins, linebacker Stephone Anthony and others to offer after the game.
"It was more about becoming men, because he knew we were athletic enough to play the game," Watkins said. "After the game, he'd tell us how we graded out, what he thought. He would never boost us up. That's a good thing. He would keep us level-headed, and tell us important things about life and football."
And David Sr. was a straight-shooter.
"After the game, every little kid asks your dad, 'How'd I do?' He always hit you with, 'You want the truth, or you want a lie?'" Reader said, with a laugh. "That's how the guy was."
Watkins, also from western North Carolina, has seen his bond grow tighter with Reader as they endured adversity. Watkins was in a car accident last September, ending his 2013 season, and David Reader offered support through that.
"He was a great coach," Watkins said. "He actually impacted a lot of people back in Greensboro, so he was a good figure."
These days, Felicia's taken over as her son's personal football analyst. He played two-way football in high school, was recruited as an offensive guard and played on the Clemson baseball team in the spring of 2013, so his growth has sped up now that he's only focused on playing defensive tackle.
"I can tell the difference from when he was a freshman up to now, when I saw him in the scrimmage," said Felicia, a former college softball player. "The movement of his hands, how he thinks, how he can keep his balance more on his feet. All those things, eventually David and I told him he would grow into."
Defensive tackles coach Dan Brooks has noticed, talking up Reader in July when asked who on his unit behind star Grady Jarrett was ready for a breakout year.
"I don't really like to single guys out much, but D.J. kind of does," Brooks said. "D.J. played some very good football for us, then ended up starting two or three games, played well in the bowl game."
There's one more quote Reader recalls every night in private conversation with his late father.
"He always tells me, 'To whom much is given, much is required'" Reader said. "That always stuck with me. Every time I think about wanting to get down, I think about him."
Reader was blown away by the positive messages he received after his father's death.
"I always wanted to live up to him and make him proud," Reader said. "That part makes me feel real proud, that I had a great dad in my life."