Iris Wilcox knew her son was holding out on her because it was written on his face.
Nick Eason was sitting on his mother’s bed at a Valley hospital. Cancer had come back on Wilcox with a vengeance, and both knew the reality. The doctor had told the Cardinals’ defensive lineman there wasn’t anything else they could do for his mom, and now she was demanding he let her know.
Eason couldn’t look his mother in the eye as he told her the doctor hadn’t said anything of note. “You’re lying,” Wilcox told her son. “If you love me, you’ll tell me the truth.”
So Eason told his mother the truth, that her breast cancer was going to take her life. He began to cry, until the massive 6-foot-3, 305-pound man heard from his mother once again.
“She said, ‘Look at you, you big baby!’ ” Eason remembered. “ ‘What are you crying for? Just deal with it! I’m going to be all right.’ ”
Soon after, following a private plane ride back to their home state of Georgia and Eason’s constant vigil at the side of his mother, Wilcox passed away. That was just two months ago Monday.
The wound is still fresh for Eason, who missed a chunk of training camp tending to Wilcox and now has the moment magnified as the NFL wears pink all of October raising awareness for breast cancer research. Yet Eason has embraced the connection. It’s a chance to tell the world about his mother, who was only 50, a woman who had Nick at age 19 but made sure to get her degree and become a high school educator.
“It gives me peace to be able to talk about her,” Eason said.
Wilcox was first diagnosed with breast cancer back in December of 2008, when Eason was playing for the Pittsburgh Steelers and unbeknownst to him, he would be playing against his future team in the Super Bowl a few weeks later. Her first chemotherapy treatment was just a few days before Santonio Holmes brought Eason a ring and broke the hearts of the Cardinals.
Eason’s mom went into remission, and Octobers were about wearing pink shoes and pink wristbands to honor not only his mother but all those women fighting the disease. For a player who spends almost every Tuesday – the players’ off day -- at a community event, the gesture was just part of who Eason was.
The veteran leader had a decent first season in Arizona in 2011, but knew after the lockout he had been out of shape, and he worked hard to drop 40 pounds this summer. He anticipated a great training camp.
Then his brother Anthony fell ill to cancer, crushing Eason. He went back to Georgia to help care for his sibling, who passed away June 18. That’s right about the time his mother started feeling flu-like symptoms – except it wasn’t the flu. Her cancer had come back full force, this time in her chest, her lungs, her liver.
Eason isn’t the only Cardinal to be touched by the loss of his mother to breast cancer.
Fitzgerald’s loss, however, was almost a decade ago. Eason acknowledges there are times when he feels like it was just yesterday he was with his mother, comforting her in her last days.
Eason spent as much time with her as he could. Once it was clear the doctors in Arizona couldn’t help, Eason ponied up for a private jet to fly his mother home. He didn’t sleep over his mother’s final few days, holding her hand has much as possible.
The Cardinals were into training camp by then, a hard time for Eason to be away from his job. Prior to the Hall of Fame game, Eason asked his mom if she wanted him to play or stay. Every other time in his life, she would tell him to play. Football was important, she knew. Not this time. “Stay,” she said, and Eason knew then she didn’t have long.
When Wilcox passed, in the middle of the night, Eason knew he had to be the strong one. He was the one who had to tell his surviving siblings, he was the one who had to set up the funeral. Hundreds of students came to pay their respects, crying when Eason showed a video of his mother singing a song about Jesus. Eason, heeding his mother’s words, remained strong as long as he could.
“I didn’t shed a tear,” Eason said, “until I got back here.”
It was a bit awkward at first. Training camp was going on, the preseason full underway. Eason didn’t have time to do anything but work again. His teammates knew of his mom and were fully supportive –
“(The team) has to know, can they count on me?” Eason said. “I was like, ‘Yes, they can count on me.’ Some of the coaches are probably thinking, ‘How is this guy doing it?’ ”
Sometimes, Eason isn’t sure how. After the season, and Eason still hopes it’s after a Super Bowl trip, he wants to go back to Georgia and spend time at the gravesite. He hasn’t seen the gravestone yet. But he wants to remember what he promised his mom.
That day, when she chastised him for crying at her bedside, she looked at him. “I’m worried about you,” she said. “I’ll be all right,” her son replied.
He’s not about to forget, however. Every Sunday for the next couple of weeks, Eason will don his pink gear, not only for Iris Wilcox, but for every person touched by the tragedy he has felt.
“This month,” he said, “is a lot more meaningful to me.”