For me, football has always been about family.
Regardless of where I am or who I’m playing for, that’s what everything always comes back to: Family.
I got into the sport because I wanted to be like my older brother. I was about ready to quit football altogether after playing my freshman year of high school. When you’re a kid growing up in New York, especially one as independent as I was, there are just too many other things that you can do after school that sound a lot more fun than going to practice. Those distractions suck in a lot of promising kids. But ultimately, I decided to give football another shot because my brother moved to New York the following year and joined me on the team. I don’t know if I’ve ever had more fun playing the sport.
Even after I went off to college at the University of Florida, I always tried to remember my roots. Not many kids from Staten Island make it to the SEC. While football opened new doors for me, my family was still my base and my source of strength. And just as my future was starting to shape up better than I could have hoped for, I got a phone call that changed my life.
The voice on the line belonged to Destinee, my little sister. She was 12 years old at the time and she told me she was in the hospital.
Out of everyone in my family, I think Destinee might be the person I’m most similar to. Even though there’s an age gap between us, I’ve always connected with her on a special level. She’s always been kind of a firecracker. There’s nothing you can’t dish at her that she won’t give back to you five times over. I love that about her.
I asked her what was wrong, and she didn’t know. I had found out she wasn’t feeling well while attending one of my games, but after she made the long trip home, the symptoms kept persisting until she had to be taken to the hospital. Over the phone she sounded so weak. She told me that she was just in pain, a lot of pain. At that time I was a broke college student, so I had no way of getting out there to visit her at the last minute. That killed me. As an older brother, I wanted to protect her, but I felt entirely helpless.
At first they thought it was a sinus infection, but then the pain started spreading. Eventually it took over her life. She was bedridden. She was an honors student but didn’t have the energy to take part in after school activities. It seemed like the things that had defined her were slowly getting taken away.
They ran several tests before finally reaching a diagnosis: Fibromyalgia.
Do you know what that is?
I certainly didn’t.
Fibromyalgia is a disorder that causes intense pain and fatigue. The most devastating thing is that it’s difficult to know what’s causing the pain or how to cure it. That’s why it’s generally difficult to diagnose and even harder to treat.
When I found out that Destinee had it, I tried to learn everything I could about the disorder. The one thing I did know for certain was that she wasn’t going to go through this alone.
When I did visit her for the first time, I tried to mentally prepare myself to see her in a bad state. When I left for school, she was a vibrant, active kid and now I knew that things were going to be different. The hardest thing was seeing her in a wheelchair for the first time. There was no way to prepare myself for that. It was just chilling. It wasn’t fair.
Sadly, her story isn’t that unique. Millions of people around the country suffer from this disorder, but it still doesn’t quite have the name recognition it deserves.
When I go down with an injury during a game, I get looked at by a team doctor who can diagnose the problem and come up with a treatment plan right away. With fibromyalgia, pinpointing the issue is much more difficult. Even though it’s 2016, there are still many more questions surrounding it than answers.
Over time, my family has adjusted, but there are still challenges. This past summer, Destinee visited me in Boston. I was so excited to show her around. I wanted her to see how well big bro was doing in his new life. But fibromyalgia doesn’t care about whatever plans you might have. For two days straight, I never even saw Destinee — even though she was staying in my home. She literally couldn’t move out of bed because the pain was so intense. She’s in high school, getting ready to go to college — to start her life, really. This is an age meant for fun.
But that’s the thing about Destinee. She probably has the best poker face of anyone I’ve ever met. She certainly didn’t ask for this, but she also does her best to overcome it. It doesn’t matter what pain she’s in; whenever I see her, she’s got a big smile on her face. I’ve suffered a lot of injuries during my career, not least of which are two torn ACLs. When it seems like the odds are stacked against me, she’s my strength. I’ll know she’s in pain. I can see she’s in pain. But she never shows it. So when I see how strong she is, what can I possibly complain about?
I don’t know why this happened to us, but I feel fortunate to be in a position to help make a difference. I want to use my platform to spread awareness about this disorder. My first step was to create my foundation, Easely’s Awareness, through which I hold events and fundraisers to raise money for the cause. I can’t get in the lab and research a cure myself. I can’t control that. But what I can control is spreading my family’s story.
Awareness and education are the building blocks towards a cure. And that’s the end goal for all of this. I want to do my part to help every person who suffers to the point of silence. And I want to do this for my baby sister, so some good can come from something so unfair.
To find out more about Dominique’s foundation, visit www.EasleysAwareness.com