This is a story about the NFL. But it’s not really a story about football.
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This is about a defensive lineman for the undefeated Arizona Cardinals and what that 6-foot-3, 305-pound lineman will be wearing on the field during Thursday night’s game in St. Louis against the Rams.
It’s not really a story about Nick Eason.
“Make it all about Iris Wilcox,” Eason instructed me, “not Nick Eason.”
Iris Wilcox isn’t the only reason Nick Eason will be wearing pink cleats and pink wristbands and pink gloves throughout the month of October. That will happen throughout the NFL, as players will be speckled in pink to honor Breast Cancer Awareness Month and add to the $3 million the league has raised for the American Cancer Society.
But when Eason tugs on those cleats and wristbands and gloves before each October game, Iris Wilcox, who was Eason’s mother, will be the reason he’ll say a prayer and give thanks for the time he had with her.
He used to save his game-worn gloves and cleats as mementos for his mom. Now they are a memory of the woman who supported him every step of the way, who was tough and loving at the same time and who died of breast cancer this summer at age 50 as Eason’s Cardinals began preseason action.
This is a story about Iris Wilcox and the NFL’s pink-tinged October representing a rare and beautiful thing: When professional athletes do good with no eye toward public perception. When they do good because it is the right thing. When they recognize the fight against cancer because they know the disease touches us all.
“I’d wear pink even if my mom didn’t have breast cancer,” Eason told FOXSports.com. “Any time anyone dies from a terminal illness, it’s a battle for them, a battle for that person and their caretaker.”
Eason was happy to take on the role of caretaker during his mother’s last days. How could he not, after all she’d done for him? She’d had him at 19 in small-town Georgia, but that was no reason for Iris Wilcox not to move forward in life. The single mother of three got a degree in mathematics, became a high-school teacher, went back for a degree in counseling and focused on down-and-outers like teen moms and troubled kids.
Most of all, she loved the Lord. She had a strong moral code; when Eason asked her to lie for him so he wouldn’t get in trouble with his football coach, Iris Wilcox would have none of it: “I’m not going to tell a lie,” she said, “so you might as well tell the truth.”
She teased her oldest son all the time — she called him “Black,” because his skin was a darker complexion than hers: “Black, what chu doin’?” — but when Eason played at Clemson and later in the NFL, she couldn’t have been more proud.
It was the high moment of Eason’s football career, before Eason’s Pittsburgh Steelers faced the Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII in 2009, when his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 47. Days before the Super Bowl, Iris Wilcox had her first chemo treatment. Then she traveled to Tampa to watch her son play. Eason’s Steelers won, but his mother celebrated by going back to his hotel room and falling in bed, exhausted from the cancer treatment.
They thought she had it beat. Then this summer Eason took her to the hospital to check out swelling in her throat and fluid in her lungs. The cancer was back, now at Stage 4. Eason missed the Cardinals’ final few OTAs and some of training camp as he became his mother’s primary caregiver. He moved his mother to Arizona to be treated at the Cancer Treatment Centers of America. But the cancer had spread: to her chest, heart, liver and lungs. It was terminal. The doctor gave the bad news to Eason, and it was Eason who told his mother.
“She said, ‘Just take me home,’ ” Eason said. “She said, ‘My life is good with the Lord.’ And she started singing this song about how Jesus is real, He is real to me, right after I told her the bad news.”
So Nick chartered a plane and took his mother back home to Toombs County, Ga., a cozy place between Macon and Savannah known for the world’s best Vidalia onions. As she took her last breaths in a hospice, Eason spoke to her: “I’ll do my best to live the life you taught me to live so I can see you on the other side.” Hundreds of her high-school students came to her funeral, where Eason played a video of his mother singing that song about Jesus.
And so when you watch NFL games this October, and you notice the pink ribbons on the game balls and the pink tees for kickoffs and the pink cleats and wristbands and gloves that players such as Nick Eason will wear, don’t cynically assume this is some marketing ploy to appeal to female fans. For once, this might be something pure and good that’s happening right before us, even if we’re busy paying attention to something else.
“This game is about winning, don’t get me wrong, but it’s also about giving, giving back to the community,” Eason said. “It’s a great cause, man. That’s why I believe God put me in this position, to be a role model. I’ll wear pink every game. I’m all in. Because of what it represents. It represents the people who’ve lost their lives and the people who are still fighting.”