COLUMBIA — South Carolina wide receiver Josh Vann wakes up at 4 a.m. most days. As soon as he gets out of bed, he fills a bottle with milk and carefully heats it in short bursts in the microwave until it reaches an acceptable temperature for an 11-month old.
Vann’s daughter, Jennah, recently switched from formula to milk, and navigating that process has been just as complicated as learning the Gamecocks’ playbook.
“There’s some tough days at home,” Vann said. “She just got over a cold, so that’s been tough. She just got off formula and we don’t have a bottle warmer, so you’ve got to put the milk in the microwave and make sure it’s not too hot, so you’ve got to put a finger in there. It’s a lot. I’m just taking it day by day and thanking God for the opportunity that she’s here. Seeing her grow has been an experience.”
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Vann’s girlfriend, Amina Sabria, gave birth to their daughter on December 7, 2021, so this season has been Vann’s first balancing the demands of SEC football while parenting an infant.
“I’m always a dad, but I come here to play football, go to school, so it’s a lot to juggle,” Vann said. “But I’m the man of the house, so I’ve got to get it done. I want to set a good standard for her to know that I’ve got her back and for the team to know I’ve got their back.”
Vann is not the only parent on the roster: wide receiver Dakereon Joyner is expecting a baby girl in March, and star defensive back Cam Smith has a daughter, Oakleigh, who turned 1 in June. Smith is from Blythewood, a suburb less than 20 miles from downtown Columbia, so he has the benefit of his family’s support in raising his daughter. Smith said his mother Alicia has been essential in caring for Oakleigh amid his football obligations.
“Just having my mom and my grandparents and my people close, if I have her and I have to go to a meeting or something, I can have somebody come get her,” Smith said. “It’s just stuff like that where … I don’t have to try to be two places at one time, so it’s been really good with my support system.”
Sabria, who graduated from South Carolina in 2021, met Vann in 2018 in a public speaking class. The two quickly became close friends and began officially dating in 2020. Sabria also has a son, Azeem, from a previous relationship who will turn 6 exactly two weeks after Jennah’s first birthday.
Even before Jennah was born, Sabria said she knew Vann would be a good father because of how he treated her son: She said two of them go on “boys’ trips” any time Azeem has a day off of school.
“My son definitely adores him. When we started dating and I saw how he played with him, I always would say like, ‘You’ll make a great dad — I just didn’t think I’d be the one!'” Sabria joked. “He’s really amazing. I tell him all the time, I don’t know what other guys your age could be doing what you’re doing and doing such an amazing job, because he really is the backbone to this family.”
Sabria and the kids travel to any road game within driving distance, and they are always on the sideline at Williams-Brice Stadium decked out in noise-cancelling headphones to brave the sold-out crowds. Sabria’s favorite part of game days is seeing fans get excited to meet and talk with Vann, and she said even she and Jennah are sometimes recognized by his supporters.
On the field, it has been a mostly disappointing year for Vann. After leading the Gamecocks with 679 receiving yards and five touchdowns in 2021, he has 240 yards and three touchdowns with one game left in 2022. Vann chose to return to South Carolina for his fifth year rather than declaring for the 2022 NFL Draft, and he said he has no regrets about that decision despite his stats falling below expectations.
“It’s been a one-of-a-kind year. I thought I was going to have all of the accolades … and it hasn’t been like that,” Vann said. “I’ve just been able to take it all in and take a step back … to let my other teammates cherish that and have me being a player, a mentor, a coach, a brother, a father. It’s been a great year, believe it or not, for me.”
Smith faces a similar decision this season between returning for another season of eligibility or declaring for the draft, though he said he is leaning toward leaving South Carolina. For Vann and Sabria, the decision was complicated further because Sabria had recently moved with the children to Ohio for a job opportunity. When Vann chose to stay another year, she moved back to Columbia to reunite the family.
“He knew he had things he needed to work on, but the kids have always been his main focus, so he was just like, ‘I’m going to do what I need to do to create a better opportunity for them,'” Sabria said. “He had lots of agents reaching out to him, and on one hand I was like, ‘Do what you feel like you need to do,’ … but ultimately he decided and I’m happy because regardless of how the season’s going, he’s working on all of those things he wanted to work on and improve in.”
South Carolina coach Shane Beamer knows the challenges of parenting in college football well: He has two daughters and a son with his wife Emily and has had to adapt to the responsibilities of a head coach while raising his children since taking over the program in 2021.
“I want our families to feel a part of this program, and it’s no different with Josh and and some of the other dads that we have on this team,” Beamer said. “A couple of times I’ve had to do a double take. I remember after one of the first games, we finished Gamecock Walk and there’s Cam walking through the locker room with with his baby. I’m proud of those guys, because I know it’s not easy. I understand that the sacrifices that they make.”
Being a father also comes with moments of joy. Joyner’s future daughter was on his mind as thousands of fans stormed the field following South Carolina’s upset of No. 5 Tennessee on Nov. 20 at Williams-Brice Stadium.
“We’re going to tell our daughters about this someday,” Joyner said to Vann after the victory, and the two fist-bumped. “Girl dads.”