It was almost exactly four years ago that a chubby boy from Dallas walked into my home along with a few of his teammates. It seems so long ago I don’t even recall how long it took him to warm up to me, my son, my husband and most importantly, my 120 lb. black Labrador retriever, Bubba.
From the beginning, it was apparent to me that he was different. He had a dream to be the starting center for the NMSU Aggies. He came to college to work. He came to focus on his studies. He wasn’t here to party or meet ladies. And eventually, way down the road, he would pursue the NFL. But first, he would try to make a difference with the Aggies. He would rarely complain, but over the years the I could tell team’s losing record would dishearten him. Still, with a grin he would say, “I’m just here to do my job.”
His role with the Aggies quickly accelerated to that of a team leader. Coach Martin nicknamed him “The Governor,” as team events would not start until he was ready. Often times I worried that NMSU was wasting this sweet kid’s talent. Being part of his journey has been a highlight of my life and of my family’s. Ultimately, we wanted the best for him and I worried for his future.
In the beginning he was terrified of Bubba. But over time they came to an understanding: Valerian would feed Bubba from the dinner table, and Bubba would shadow him. Now, there aren’t many “rules” in my house, but not feeding the animals from the table is one of them! If you’ve spent much time around a Labrador, you’d know that their gas is terrible and human food just makes it worse. Ewwww!!! I would keep an eye out and then catch the two of them red handed. I would usually yell, and the three hundred pound man (with a 120 pound dog at his feet) would instantly turn into a ten year old boy. His eyes would get big, he would sit up straight in his chair and I knew, he knew he was busted.
So many of my relationships in my life changed once I got diagnosed. Most of the players that my family got to know over the years became sources of strength and protection. Their love of my food had slowly turned into a love for me. Valerian was no different. Our relationship grew and our love for each other did as well. Just minutes after I told him of my diagnosis (on his 21st birthday, even) he made me promise that I would beat this. In our most recent conversation I told him that I beat cancer every single day. He wears a Team Lori bracelet with pride (unless his incredibly large wrists break them). He might be on his fifth one. In case you aren’t getting the point, we loooovvvvvvve each other, like to the moon and stars and back again. He once told me that there was a reason he came NMSU which was sometimes unclear, but now it’s clear to him, it was to meet me and my sweet little family. My heart just swells with love for him.
This last spring semester he decided to take the minimum class requirements and spend his time training for the NFL. This often happens to talented young men with the NFL in their future. What makes Valerian special is that unlike many other NFL prospects, he took school seriously, and carried a 3.8 GPA in a public health and biology degree. I’ve seen his hard work first hand. I’ve had the opportunity to travel with the team, and while most players were sleeping, texting or watching YouTube videos, he was studying.
Although Valerian wasn’t drafted in the official NFL Draft, he was signed as an undrafted free agent with the Atlanta Falcons, just minutes after the draft closed. I knew I would have a range of emotions with this news. First, I was over the moon happy for him! But, also sad, because his bright face would no longer be a regular presence in my house. My little #21, Brandon, summed up Valerian’s signing best when he said, “The Falcons picked the right man for the job.” They did indeed. I hope they know what a special person they have. He’s the REAL deal. He is determined, a leader, talented, focused and now an Atlanta Falcon. But beyond the list of superlatives I’ve already listed, I have to tell you, his heart is kind, genuine, gentle and made of pure gold.
I know you’ve already been lauded by others, but here are a few more, direct from me to you, Valerian Ume-Ezeoke… Good for you sweetie pie! Congratulations on setting your mind to accomplish something and not giving up until you achieve it. Thank YOU for inspiring me. You’ve done nothing but improved our lives since the moment you entered it. All my blessings, love and gratitude sent from us to you. I also understand that there are very few NFL rookies with any true guarantees. Whether you snap 1 football or 1,000 my love for you will never change.
I hope one day soon, to turn on the TV on a Sunday and say, “Hey, we know that guy, but most importantly we love him!”
I’ve had a draft of this post pending for a long time because it never felt “good enough.” But in light of recent events in our country that show discrimination and racism still being all too real, I feel the need to add this last part. One of the many things that I cherish about my relationship with Valerian is that our skin color has never been a topic. It’s obvious his skin is black and mine is white, but mine could be green and his could be purple. Our culture is as different as our ages and religious beliefs. But, what’s most important is love–at least our love–sees no difference at all.
Over the last four years, we have A LOT of pictures together. Uploading pictures to wordpress is so awesome and easy (enter sarcasm) therefore I put together a little slideshow instead. Enjoy!