The Rookie Mom: Reflections on a whirlwind week culminating in Eli Apple's home debut
My son Eli’s first-ever NFL home opener against the New Orleans Saints was a low-key family affair. I had just flown in from San Diego the night before where I had spent time with Melvin Gordon and his mom for my Sunday NFL Countdown debut. It was pretty cool to see another mother and son who share an unbreakable bond. After the season opener in Dallas, I was looking forward to the first home game of the season and finally celebrating Black Eli’s 21st birthday so I collaborated with Betty Crocker to bake my son a cake. We've been trying to make time as a family to celebrate Eli's birthday but since his birthday, August 9th, falls during training camp, followed by preseason and the regular season, it's been hard to get everyone's schedule together, and after the game we’d finally have a chance to be together while he had cake and opened his presents.
But amid the excitement, the game action offered a harsh reality check.
When you drive by a horrible car accident and someone is lying on the side of the road motionless, your first instinct is to help. So why is it that when a football player is lying motionless on the field, for many, it's just part of the game? Fans continue their meaningless conversations and order concession food while the rest of us pray and watch in horror. To us, families of players, he's not just a name on a jersey. He's somebody's son. His mom, dad, wife or children watch helplessly as he lies motionless on the grass of a field far away from home.
When P.J. Williams, the 23-year-old cornerback for Saints, was on the field concussed, not moving, Sunday, it was horrible. Trainers and medical staff tended to Williams, who plays the same position as my son, for reportedly six minutes. Those minutes felt like an eternity. I kept expecting him to move but nothing happened. When a stretcher was slid under him, he didn’t give the thumbs up as he was carted off. Everyone cheered but I just wanted to see movement. I didn't. Soon the game went on. As it always does. What a sobering reality of the game our son plays for a living.
Before Williams' injury, our first home game at MetLife Stadium was pretty chill—it definitely wasn't the Shoe. On our way to stop at a tailgate, I saw my Countdown piece teased on a nearby TV. I stopped to watch, but it wouldn't air for another hour so I would have to watch later. Inside the stadium, Brian McKnight sang the national anthem and both teams’ players stood in honor. Normally that wouldn't be significant but today who knelt vs. who stood is the most talked about event of an NFL game.
I came to America in the early 1980s from Ghana, West Africa via Liberia, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, London and Scotland. My mom was a missionary, and we traveled often. When I came to America, I attended Maple Ave School in Newark, New Jersey, and my fourth grade teacher Ms. Love was a woman in her 30s but she had a very old way about her, with a strong southern accent to boot. Ms. Love was from Alabama and had been at the forefront of the Civil Rights movement. She'd tell us stories about sit-ins, other protests and all about Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Every morning when we arrived to her class, no matter what we were doing, when that bell rang and it was time to salute the flag, we stood erect, hands over our hearts and pledged our allegiance to the flag of the United States of America. She taught us the Star Spangled Banner, America the Beautiful and the Negro anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” This was our norm. This was what made little kids in an impoverished neighborhood feel connected to America. Here was a woman who had seen our country at its worst and wanted us to still believe in what America could be.
Protesting the national anthem is every American’s right, but what message does it offer to kids living in impoverished, underserved neighborhoods? You can’t change what you’re detached or disconnected from. That’s why I’m working on an after school program that focuses on helping inner city kids in maximize their citizenship and know that America needs them to help her become better. And most importantly, remind them, they too, are America.
My American dream continued last Friday in San Diego when I filmed my Sunday NFL Countdown feature with the Gordons. Though I didn’t see the final product live, we got so much great stuff from this fantastic mother and son, I wasn’t concerned. It was kind of weird with people commenting on your piece when you haven’t seen it, like having a baby you haven’t seen and wondering if it’s cute or not. After the game, we celebrated Eli’s birthday. At this point I needed to unwind and relax, so even though the producer sent me a link, I didn’t actually watch my segment until early the next morning.
Though folks thought my baby was cute, I was like, “My baby could’ve looked a lot better.” I knew it could have been so much more than just a three-minute segment about a mother putting on her son’s jersey. I wish the world got to see and feel the energy of Melvin and Carmen Gordon the way I did.
Let me tell you about the Gordon you didn't see in the piece. Melvin is personable, soft spoken, relaxed and focused. He has an infectious smile. He loves football. He has an inner strength more durable than his outside physique. Melvin's dad is in prison; he was sentenced to prison in 2012 for being part of a cocaine ring but still remains close to his family and is very much a part of Melvin's life. Being a mom to her only son is Carmen Gordon's life's purpose and she makes no apologies about it. She loves him and is beyond dedicated to him and they’re an absolute riot together. His mom has always supported him and worn his jerseys. She didn't wear it during his first year at Wisconsin because she didn't want anyone to know who she was; by not wearing his jersey, she could hear what folks were saying about her son. "What was positive I told Melvin about. What was negative I told Melvin about. What was trash, I didn't worry about."
When we walked into the Chargers stadium store, an old Chargers game was on a television mounted on the wall. Melvin walked toward the TV with the grainy picture and was glued to the set. I said, “But Melvin, that game isn’t even in HD.” With his eyes lit with joy, he said, “It doesn’t matter. That’s L.T and Antonio Gates. I used to watch Antonio Gates. Now I play with Antonio Gates.” Often we forget that these guys are young and grew up as fans of the game that they now play professionally. Like my Eli, Melvin believes Walter Payton is the greatest running back to ever play the position, and Melvin will passionately shut down anyone who says differently. I remember Eli reading Walter Payton’s biography in two days as a kid. And his LaDanian Tomlinson fathead still hangs on his room wall at our family’s home.
Melvin has always been a fan of Tomlinson. He's grateful for their relationship, but he also realizes there is only one running back L.T. and is focused on his own game. "You can't worry about other guys’ game or how well they're doing or how many picks they got. You just gotta go out there and play your game." Sound advice from Melvin for my rookie son, who he met during the 2014 Big Ten Championship game. I joked with Melvin if he remembered the score of that game. When he “forgot” I reminded him about the 59–0 Buckeyes beat down of the Badgers.
Melvin is content with his mom not knowing how to use any form of social media. “She just learned how to use emojis the other day,” he said proudly. “What’s her favorite emoji?” I asked. “The one with just the eyes,” cracking himself up. Melvin had a fascinating notion about why he thinks parents shouldn't be on social media. "Because it wasn't invented in their time. If it's not invented in your time, you shouldn't be using it," he said while driving a car invented way before his time. “I guess you don’t use the microwave,” I shot back.
Melvin doesn't shy away from being a role model; he embraces it. "Growing up I didn't have anyone like me around to look up to." The story with the Gordons wasn't about a physical piece of clothing but the relationship and bond between a mother and son and the name on the back of his jersey.
Sunday, I got to see our family’s name on the back of Eli’s number 24 jersey as he played in his first NFL home opener. During the game, I kept checking online for updates on P.J. Williams. I later learned that Williams was unconscious for moments, but his spine was fine. I continue to pray for a strong recovery for the Saints cornerback.
After the game, our son walked off while another family’s son was carted off. Though still somber from the Williams injury, feeling for him, his family and knowing it could have happened to any player on any given Sunday, Monday or Thursday, I forced myself to mentally focus on my little boy who dreamt of playing in NFL at age 11 is now doing so at age 21. And today he faced the amazing Drew Brees! Yes, THE Drew Brees.
From his days with the Chargers and now the Saints, as a family, we have watched Drew Brees being epic for years. Now Eli, who spent a chunk of his childhood watching Brees be prolific, was suddenly trying to stop Brees from being prolific. Life in the NFL is wonderfully strange like that.