Brother's Keeper: Millwood receiver De'Mariyon Houston is kept in check by his little brother
Walking through the school gym, Millwood high school football coach Darwin Franklin is stopped by a small but determined voice.
"Hey, Coach," says the skinny boy with diamond stud earrings. "I need to check on my brother. Is he keeping his grades up?"
Franklin laughs it off, telling Carter Ray-Thompson he has nothing to worry about and that his brother is doing just fine in his classes.
But the 8-year-old insists.
"You tell me if he's not acting right," Carter says. "I'll tell Mom."
De'Mariyon Houston might be one of the top playmakers in Oklahoma high school football. The senior receiver has dazzling speed, great hands and a knack for big plays that have landed him scholarship offers from the likes of Alabama, Notre Dame, Oregon and Texas.
But even he will be the first to admit who keeps him in check.
"Carter. He's the big brother, I guess," Houston said. "I have to be on my top game because he's on top of me."
Little Carter is so on top of things he was asked to join the Millwood football team on the sideline this year. Moving in and out of the guys while they drill in tackling and route running, the 4-foot blur is in charge wrangling footballs for referees and playing catch in warmups for the back-to-back Class 2A state champion Falcons.
Carter is Millwood's newest and by far the youngest ball boy in school history.
Making Carter part of the team was an easy move for Franklin as Carter was at nearly every practice already, always right at the heels of his older brother.
"Everybody knows who he is and says hey to him, and they like playing catch with him," Franklin said. "His brother wants him around, too, because that's his guy.
"That's his roadie."
The two brothers aren't just bonded over a love of football, says the boys' mom, Charmonique Thompson.
Houston is equal parts brother, best friend and guardian to Carter.
"Big brother, little brother, it doesn't matter," Thompson said. "They are so far apart in age, but they love being together. Their relationship is everything."
The duo shares a room at home, forcing 17-year-old Houston to weave through a path of scattered toys every morning as he rolls out of bed. Houston makes sure Carter gets some breakfast, double checks that he's brushed his teeth and chauffeurs his younger brother to school.
When Houston goes to the movies, Carter is in tow.
If he is working out at home, Carter is running right next to him, practicing imaginary routes and shouting out plays from memory.
"That is me all over again," Houston said. "I just keep seeing myself over and over, and I want to make sure he's taken care of."
Houston's mom says her oldest son wasn't always so responsible. Growing up, Houston loved to play the class clown at school, getting in trouble with teachers and not taking care of his academics.
"It was just him and I forever," Thompson said. "We were all each other had and he was spoiled rotten.
"But then along came Carter."
Houston said gaining the role of older brother was not one he took lightly. He wanted to set a good example and he wanted to help his mom.
"He helped me grow up," Houston said. ""I want him to be the best. I want him to be better than me."
Thompson works two jobs to support her family in addition to keeping up with both pee-wee football for Carter and Houston's senior year at Millwood. She's ever-present in their lives but says it's a relief knowing Houston loves having his younger brother around.
"It takes a lot off of me," she said. "I'm all over the place, so knowing he's got his brother with him really means the world."
Franklin wondered at first if Carter was too young to be on the sidelines. After all, it's not exactly the safest place for a small boy when huge lineman and speedy linebackers are flying about.
But then he got to see Carter play football in person and realized that the kid's understanding of the game was already off the charts.
"He's never a distraction, never in the way," Franklin said. "He's always trying to help someone out or help out with a problem."
Before one practice, Franklin noticed Carter off to the side of the field. The boy was tossing a football to himself and acting out catches he'd seen the Falcons making in practice.
Franklin had his players huddle up and told them to look over at Carter.
"The next generation is looking at you all," Franklin told his guys as they watched Carter. "I want you all to think about your behavior and your actions and think about what it looks like to him.
"He's looking up to you. You have a responsibility to him."
It's a responsibility Houston cherishes. He loves watching his little brother display his speed and ability while staring at the exact same positions he plays.
Houston's teammates have even joined him at Carter's pee-wee games, making up one of the rowdiest cheering sections in Pop Warner.
Houston feels grateful that his coaches and teammates have made his younger brother feel like another member of the team.
"It really says a lot about Millwood," he said. "We are all about family. This is my last year and they really care about it and want me to have a chance to be around him as much as possible."
It's one thing for Houston to hear from Millwood fans about his skill on the field. He's appreciative of the praise but wants to remain humble, usually shifting the attention to his teammates.
But for Carter, he only has eyes for his brother on the field. He recounts his best plays with stunning accuracy and dons Houston's gloves when re-enacting his favorite catches.
"Football is fun because of my brother," Carter said. "I like it most when he scores touchdowns. That's the most fun."
In the back of Houston's mind is the unknown of what will happen next year. He committed to the University of Texas over the summer and is excited to flash the Hook 'em Horns in Austin next fall.
Thompson has plans to get a more fuel-efficient car to make the seven-hour trek south.
But Carter has plans of his own.
"There's got to be an elementary school on campus," he told his mom. "I've gotta go with my brother."
Carter still checks in with Franklin from time to time, wanting to make sure his older brother is staying out of trouble and getting his assignments turned in on time.
Franklin just smiles to the little, big brother.
"Yeah, Carter," he says. "He's doing exactly what he's supposed to do."