FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — When the Atlanta Falcons take the field a week from Sunday in search of their first playoff victory in head coach Mike Smith’s five seasons, at least one player will be competing with a heavy heart.
Smith announced on Friday that four-time Pro Bowler and two-time Super Bowl champion Asante Samuel was not at practice all week because his mother Christine passed away earlier in the week.
Christine Samuel battled amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) — commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease — and the funeral will be held Saturday, the day before Asante’s 31st birthday. Part of the reason why Samuel said he agreed to a trade from Philadelphia to Atlanta prior to the start of the season was to be closer to his mother, who lived in Florida.
Teammates said that at times during the season when they had a break, Samuel would leave to tend to his mother. Samuel also created a foundation, Bring it Home Single Moms, whose mission is to provide “housing, education, support and networking to single moms,” according to its website. The website said the foundation’s work is inspired by the example of Samuel’s mother.
“I can never explain how much I love her, but she definitely knows,” Samuel told a Philadelphia television station in February 2012. “I’m always thinking about, (when) you make a play, you want to get in front of the camera and tell (her) ‘Mom, I love you and miss you.’
“She’s definitely the inspiration of me playing football and I always want to go out there and make her proud.”
In that same story, Samuel said finances were so tight that his mother lived in a hotel room during his NFL rookie year in 2003 when he played for New England. After winning the Super Bowl that season, he used his winner’s check to buy her a condominium.
The Falcons’ other starting cornerback, Dunta Robinson, said on Friday that the Falcons had a great deal of empathy for what Samuel is going through when they learned the news.
“It was tough,” Robinson said. “That’s hard to deal with. Some guys have lost their mother in this locker room, so they understand. So the ones who haven’t, we’re here to support him. Whatever we can do to make him feel better, that’s what we’re here for and that’s the beauty of a team.”
Robinson said he reached out and called Samuel, but hadn’t gotten through.
“Just wanted to let him know that we’re thinking about him, man, and if he needs anything, we got his back,” Robinson said. “Asante is — I mean, the kind of teammate he’s been this year has been amazing, man, so you hate for something like this to happen.
“I don’t know the pain of losing a mom because my mother’s still alive, but I’m sure it’s a very painful situation and he’s a strong person. It’s taken a very strong person to deal with the situation. Our hearts go out to him and his family.”
Samuel might be small of stature — he’s 5-foot-10 and listed generously at 185 pounds — but he possesses a larger-than-life personality. During practice, his loud voice with its pointed barbs and outrageous jokes can be heard above all others.
Many credit Samuel not only for his ability to sense passing routes before they unfold, but also for the huge influx of confidence he brought to the team, helping Atlanta to a 13-3 record, tied for the best in the NFL.
Safety Thomas DeCoud said the Falcons’ defensive backs are a close-knit group, often gathering to watch Thursday night NFL games. DeCoud said from the way Samuel carried himself, his teammates could not tell the difficulty he was going through.
“He’s a professional,” DeCoud said. “He knows how to separate his personal life and his professional life. You guys [in the media] see Asante every day, you would never know that something that big was bothering him. It’s a testament to his character as a person.”