Natoshia Mitchell lay in her bed in Bayfront Hospital in St. Petersburg, Florida, watching the Denver Broncos play the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl XXXIII. The previous day, she had given birth to a baby boy, An’treyon “Trey” Sermon.
“This is going to be you one day,” she remembers telling the 7 pound, 3 ounce boy as she held him up to the TV on Jan. 31, 1999.
Today, 18 years and 215 pounds later, Sermon has become Oklahoma’s featured running back in his freshman year.
The son of a single mother, and the uncle to his sister’s 6-year-old daughter, Sermon has grown up shouldering a lot from a young age. Bearing tattoos with the word “Trust” on his right bicep and “God” on his left, his faith helps with the weight of his life. Giving a prayerful bow each time he scores, Sermon has become a reverend of sorts, turning football into his sanctuary, family and friends into his disciples and Sooner Nation into his congregation.
Unlike the long, often tedious speech given in a church on Sunday, Sermon is a man of few words who typically delivers his message in a palace on Saturday.
“Have faith in God in everything you do, just trust in him,” said Sermon, who has been nicknamed “the minister” and finds strength through faith and family. “Leave it up to him to know everything is going to work out.”
Mitchell is a mother who has suffered unmeasurable pain. Experiencing the death of three children, she’s conquered a lifetime of tragedy in her 44 years. Writing an autobiography in 2012, titled “When My Soul Cried,” Mitchell poured out her life, reflecting on abusive relationships, her parents’ deaths and raising two kids on child support.
Through it all, she’s put her kids first and herself second. Mitchell’s toughness and resiliency has made her Sermon’s rock, shaping him into the man he is today.
“I attribute a lot of his success to the strength of his mom,” said Billy Shackelford, Sermon’s coach at Sprayberry High School in Marietta, Georgia. “His mom is a phenomenal lady. She brings both bags of tricks: she’s tough, but also nurturing and loving.”
Her fortitude has become his motivation.
“It’s really inspiring because she did go through a lot and just to see how strong she was, it kind of makes me want to be just as strong as her and to be able to support her whenever she needs it,” Sermon said.
Raising both Sermon and his older sister, Oneisha, for the majority of their lives as a single parent, Mitchell says she always tried to do what was best for her children. Sermon and his family moved multiple times when he was child, before eventually ending up in Georgia when he was 11-years-old.
The move was tough on Sermon he says, but his mom demanded a better life for her kids.
“I wanted something different for them. I wanted them to see life other than Florida. So I just stepped out on faith and brought them here,” says Mitchell, who now works as a financial analyst at Parallon after going back to school for her degree in 2005. “I stopped everything in my life and just focused on both my kids.”
Coming to OU as an early enrollee, Sermon has always had a niche for exceeding expectations. At just 5, Mitchell signed Sermon up to play flag football. Having the tendency to tackle more than pull flags, Sermon soon was forced to play tackle with older kids.
During his time in Georgia, Sermon ranked as one of the top prospects in the prospect-rich state. However, Sermon stayed humble, not forgetting his roots.
Two years after moving to Georgia, Sermon’s sister, Oneisha, had a baby girl. At 13-years-old he became a father figure to little Amia, helping anyway he could.
“She (Amia) loves him,” Oneisha said, who attends Kennesaw State in Georgia. “When he left, it was very devastating for her. She’s adjusted to it now, but he’s a really big help especially when it comes to disciplining her. Whatever I need he always has my back. You would think they were brother and sister. He’s been there since day one for her.”
Sermon, who’s dad still lives in St. Petersburg, continued to emerge as a standout player at Sprayberry, rushing for more than 1,200 yards and 16 touchdowns as a senior. His decision to attend Oklahoma wasn’t easy, with schools closer to home such as Georgia, Alabama and Florida bidding for his commitment.
“He felt like it was home,” Shackelford said of Sermon’s decision to come to Norman. “They were jovial, they loved on him, they teased him and gave him a hard time. Those players and coaches did a phenomenal job recruiting him.”
Sermon is 852 miles from Marietta, but his family understands his decision to chase his dream.
“It was tough in the beginning because we’ve never been apart,” Mitchell said. “But I knew he was going for his dream and knew he was happy, so I was happy.”
Balancing the struggles of everyday life and football stardom, Sermon flipped the script, becoming the superhero his mom has for so long been to him.
Sermon has burst onto the scene in his first season, leading the Sooners in carries, rushing yards and tied for the most rushing touchdowns. He’s Oklahoma’s new workhorse, walking in the footsteps of Sooner legends like Billy Sims, Adrian Peterson, DeMarco Murray and recently Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine. Stepping into that role — especially helping to fill the void left by Mixon and Perine’s departures to the NFL after last season — doesn’t faze Sermon.
“He’s an overachiever, he sets the bar high,” Mitchell said. “It doesn’t surprise me.”
Not even half way through the season, Sermon has made his presence felt.
“That’s a grown man,” defensive end Ogbonnia Okoronkwo said after Sermon’s late game heroics resurrected OU at Baylor. “You all saw him. (Defenders) bouncing off him, spinning off, (he’s) getting extra yards — he’s not playing like a freshman right now.”
But despite those high expectations and praise, Sermon has remained humble. His calm demeanor and soft spoken personality off the field counter his loud, tenacious play on the field. His style takes bits and pieces from former OU greats. He’s patient like Mixon, physical like Perine and quick like Murray. He say he mirrors his game after Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell, critiquing his craft any chance he gets.
His faithful work continues off the field, too, where Sermon’s become a member of Everlasting Baptist Church in Norman. Almost every other day, Sermon talks to his mom over the phone, and before every game they read Scriptures, praying together.
“I’ve always told him be true to yourself and always be honest with yourself, and with that strength will come,” Mitchell said.
Having to watch him the majority of the time on TV, Mitchell and Oneisha have made only one game — UTEP — but it’s a game Sermon will never forget.
“It was really big for me,” Sermon said. “For her to come all the way out there and see me play in my first college game, it was a really big moment.”
It might have been just the first in a series of big moments to come, each realizing a dream his mother had for him 18 years ago.
“Trey always wanted to be that kid that made me proud,” Mitchell said. “I’ve cried tears of joy. To see him live out something he said he wanted to do at a young age…
“It’s special to me.”