Travis Releford hustled out of Allen Fieldhouse on the evening of Jan. 2, 2011, after collecting five assists and three rebounds while failing to score in a 27-point rout of Miami of Ohio.
Then a Kansas University sophomore, his mission was to drive — make that speed — from Lawrence to Overland Park Regional Medical Center in time to join his girlfriend, Jennifer Covell, for the birth of their baby boy.
“He was delivered right after I got to Kansas City,” Travis said of T.J. (Travis, Jr.) Releford. “I was happy. I was shocked. I really can’t express how I felt. I was so happy I made it there in time. It was, ‘Wow, I have a son. It’s a little me.’”
Travis might have missed the arrival of T.J. if not for his caring girlfriend.
“I didn’t want him to miss the game,” Covell said, “(but) I was starting to get nervous he might not make it. My mom kept trying to get hold of him. I didn’t start pushing until he was close, until he was about 10 minutes away. Travis got there at 9:30 (p.m.). T.J. was born at 9:47 (p.m.).”
Travis made a solemn vow as he wiped away tears of joy at the hospital.
“I said I’d make a change in how fathers have been in the history of my family. I made that promise I’d be there for T.J. every day. Since Day One, I have been,” Travis said in an interview with the Journal-World conducted two weeks after T.J.’s second birthday.
Releford holds no ill will against his own dad.
In fact, he speaks with Tracy Releford almost every day — by phone. Tracy has spent the last 20 years in Crossroads Correction Center in Cameron, Mo., where he is serving a life sentence for second-degree murder.
“He’s seen me play. He gets to watch me on TV, but he’s never physically been there,” the 22-year-old Releford said of Tracy, who recently had his annual parole hearing and still has hope he’ll be released in time to see Travis play a game in Allen Fieldhouse and see Travis’ brother, Trevor, play a game at the University of Alabama, where he’s a junior point guard.
“I have a son I would hope one day would grow up and play basketball, too, and I want to coach him and help him out along the way. It means a lot to have a son, especially from how I grew up not having my dad around,” Travis added. “My mom had the same problem. She didn’t have her dad there. Through our generation, it’s been like that. I wanted to make sure I could change that. I’m there every day for my son. I see him every day, and I’m here to watch him grow and teach him.”
Releford, a 6-foot-6 senior out of Roeland Park’s Bishop Miege High, lives in Jayhawker Towers with roommate/teammate Christian Garrett. However, Travis spends most of his free time with his girlfriend and son at their apartment, conveniently located in Lawrence.
Travis understandably is proud of his son.
“He just went to the doctor’s (office). He was 99 or 98 percentile in height and 92 or something in weight. The chances of him being tall are very good,” Travis said, noting Jennifer, a KU senior, is 5-foot-10, Jennifer’s dad 6-5, Travis’ mom 5-7 and Travis’ dad, 5-9.
“He likes sports. He’s throwing balls, kicking balls, hitting them with whatever he can find. He’s all over the place,” Travis added.
Though Travis can’t remember his son’s first words — “I think it was ‘da-da,” he said — T.J.’s vocabulary is definitely growing.
“He sees me in pictures. He’ll go point to them and say, ‘Da-da,’ or he’ll see the Jayhawk bird and be like, ‘Jayhawk, Jayhawk,’” Releford said. “I think he knows the Rock Chalk Chant. We’ve been teaching him that since he was a few months old. He was just listening. Then all of a sudden he started mumbling and getting clearer. I think his favorite part is the end when they say, ‘Whoo.’ He looks forward to that.”
T.J. attends KU’s home games and sits in a section with family members of the Jayhawk players located on the lower level, southwest bleachers.
Jennifer and T.J. usually sit in the same row as Travis’ mom, Venita, who lives in Lawrence and works at Lawrence Memorial Hospital, plus Travis’ two sisters (Tamara and Katelin) and brother June, who is a sophomore on Free State High’s hoops team.
“He’s waved, pointed, actually tried to get down on the court,” Travis said of T.J.
Proud of papa
T.J. has become quite a fan of his daddy, who is a fifth-year senior starter who averages 12.9 points and 3.4 rebounds while also playing a role as the Jayhawks’ defensive stopper.
“Every time we go to a game and they go to the free-throw line, he says, ‘Whoosh,’” Covell said. “He does the cheers and chants. Every time we drive by the fieldhouse, he knows it’s the fieldhouse and says, ‘Jayhawk.’”
Jennifer says that T.J. is a “brilliant” child who looks like he’s 4, not 2.
‘“Eat’ is one of his favorite words because that’s all he does. He likes noodles, junk food, juice, candy. He eats almost all the junk I eat. His favorite food is probably waffles or mac and cheese,” Releford said.
Travis actually is a softie in supplying T.J. what he wants/needs, says Releford’s Towers roommate.
“It’s cool to watch ‘Trav’ spend time, hang out with T.J. when he’s not playing,” Garrett said. “T.J. is always around, making a mess, having fun. Travis is a great dad. He really wants to be a great father to T.J. and is doing a good job being there, showing love. I think when the season is over, he’s going to experience a whole new level what it’s like to be a dad. He’s growing up fast in it. He’s doing well.”
Garrett said the funniest thing, “is a lot of times I’m not there, and T.J. sleeps in my bed. So the little guy is in my room. We joke that T.J. is taking my spot as his roommate.
“Sometimes I feel like an uncle. I think everybody on the team feels like an uncle to the cutest kid I’ve ever seen. He’s so cute and cool. Everyone says, ‘That’s our little nephew,’” Garrett added.
‘A special thing to see’
One of Releford’s mentors — his AAU coach L.J. Goolsby of KC Run GMC — says he simply loves watching Travis and T.J. together.
“It’s a special thing to see,” Goolsby said. “Travis loves T.J. and wants to be a role model for him, especially as he (T.J.) gets older. Unfortunately, (Travis) didn’t have that father in his life. He doesn’t want that to be the case with T.J. It’s awesome to see how he treats him, acts around him, the way they act around each other.”
T.J. already has bonded with another child of a KU player — Amara Grace Tharpe, who lives in Worcester Mass., but visits her dad, KU sophomore Naadir Tharpe, from time to time.
“He calls her, ‘Baby.’ He knows she’s just a baby,” Releford said of the 1-year-old.
“He takes care of her. He gives her her bottle, binkie,” Covell added.
Travis said his own son inspires him and has made him consider his own future.
The plan is to play in the NBA or overseas after this season, and after his playing days are finished to pursue coaching as a career.
“There are so many good things. I can’t point out anything bad about being a dad,” said Releford, who has teamed with his girlfriend — a former KC Winnetonka High basketball, tennis and soccer standout — to make sure their class schedules allow somebody to be with T.J. at all times.
As students not yet in the workforce, they can’t afford the cost of day care.
“Some people think, ‘Ah, he (Travis) is in school and has a kid, and that could be the worst thing.’ I don’t think it’s the worst thing that could ever happen, especially the great situation I’m in with his mom and the way I handled it,” Travis said. “It hasn’t taken anything away from school or me performing on the court. I feel this has made me want to work harder so once I leave here I know he and my family will be taken care of.”