Full Circle

I was in 6th grade when my life changed.

My dad did maintenance at the Marriott Hotel where the New England Patriots had their team banquets. He knew there was a dinner, so he decided to bring me along to work with him … on a school night! I had one of those Patriots Starter jackets that were the really popular in the mid ’90s, and my dad was like, “Why don’t you bring it for Drew Bledsoe to sign? He’s tall. You’re tall. You like to play quarterback.” (Note to Jets fans: I was in 6th grade and living in Malden, which is outside Boston, so of course I liked the Patriots. It’s not my fault! Now? I hate them. Just like you.)

I figured there was no way I would actually get the autograph because it was a formal dinner, but Bledsoe was really cool about it.

Little did my dad know — that moment would change my life, man. This star quarterback I watched on TV all the time had just signed my jacket. From that point on, he became an instant role model, and I wore that jacket until it couldn’t possibly fit anymore.

That’s probably a pretty common story for an American kid, but the thing is, I am a first generation American.

Both of my parents immigrated from Governador Valadares, a municipality in the Minas Gerais state of Brazil. My dad grew up on a farm. My mom worked the register in her father’s little market that sold beans, rice, seeds and stuff like that. Like many Brazilians, they were forced to grow up fast. Hard work was all they knew. Neither of them finished high school. They did what they needed to do to survive.

Mom and dad were in their early 20s when they came to America. My grandpa on my dad’s side had been to the Boston area before and suggested they move there. My parents knew nothing about Boston. They didn’t even know how to speak English. All they had was each other (and me, since my mom was pregnant). But they saw it as a high risk, high reward shot at a better life for the family they wanted to start. My dad’s first job was washing dishes. Two days after she arrived, my mom started cleaning houses.

Growing up, my parents went out of their way to make sure my younger sisters and I had a strong sense of heritage. We would go to Minas Gerais for the summer, even though my parents didn’t have the paperwork to leave America. They came here legally, but stayed longer than they should have, and at the time couldn’t travel back to Brazil. Instead, different family friends from church would take us. It was important to our parents that we be raised in the Brazilian way as much as possible, and learn about what shaped them into who they are.

Being first-generation American didn’t really affect my worldview until I was a little older. I was completely bilingual until the second grade, when I switched to a full-time English school. That’s when it hit me how I was being raised differently from most kids, speaking two languages. I had always thought that’s just the way life was.

At a young age, my sisters and I were ahead of my parents with reading and writing English. And just like my parents were forced to grow up fast in Brazil, this forced us to do the same. Every time we went out, we spoke for our parents, because they didn’t know how to. If somebody called, the kids picked up the phone. As grade schoolers, we were always the ones talking to people in English about the bills. It helped us understand real-life stuff. Why isn’t this bill paid? Why do they keep calling us?

For a while, my parents basically just got by. They provided for us through hard work, by constantly being on the grind. That attitude was part of our environment and helped instill my own work ethic.

As hard as you work in Brazilian culture, you play hard, too. It’s a culture big on friendship, family, looking out for each other, and celebrating life. Growing up, my American friends would have a birthday party at somewhere like Chuck E. Cheese for two hours. But Brazilian birthday parties, it’s like a carnival. It goes all night long. You have some barbecue, some music playing. People aren’t afraid to hug each other or dance. The older I got, the more I noticed that difference.

Entering high school, I was even more immersed in American culture and I began feeling more disconnected to my Brazilian heritage. English became my primary language. I spoke far less Portuguese, and heard it even less. My mom wanted to grow and make more of her opportunities here, so she started talking more in English at work and with me. We started celebrating Thanksgiving and other American holidays, and embraced this lifestyle more than my parents expected.

Plus, sports started taking over.

I started out playing quarterback in high school, then as a senior I switched to tight end and outside linebacker/standup defensive end. That’s when I started to love the physicality of football. At quarterback, you had a few hits, because we ran the option. But regularly delivering those big hits at the defensive end, it started to dawn on me … I love this game. I’m gonna go out there, rip somebody’s head off, then all they’re gonna do is blow the whistle and I can do it again? Really?!

This is for me!

But my dad actually objected to me getting so serious about sports in high school. My parents divorced when I was in 8th grade, so in his eyes we had limited time together. He thought these coaches were taking me and my sister, who played basketball, away from him. He also had that Brazilian mindset, always focused on working. We used to spend weekends together on his construction jobs. Suddenly I wanted to spend weekends on the field.

It didn’t help that my dad didn’t understand American sports culture — how football could maybe get me into college, or just keep me safe and off the street. He didn’t understand football, period. Like everyone from Brazil, he knew soccer, and volleyball because my mom played. Even basketball. But football was unfamiliar as a sport and culture, and he was against how much my life centered around it. That conflict also contributed to feeling separated from my heritage.

It wasn’t until I got a surprise scholarship offer from Louisville that my dad began to understand where football could take me. When I told my parents the first time, my dad still didn’t grasp what “scholarship” meant. But his work buddies explained the situation — and then he was excited. My son’s gonna get a great education. That was his main thing. As long as I got my education, he and my mom were fine with it. Over time, they really fell in love with football. After my senior year, I got invited to the Hula Bowl, and my dad actually went to Hawaii with me, just taking it all in. We definitely weren’t expecting to go pro, but they were 100 percent sold on me trying.

When I got that letter to attend the Combine, my mom started crying.

I said, “It’s just the Combine.”

But she knew what the Combine was about. They were beginning to understand the game.

Still, it took a while for my parents to wrap their heads around their son playing American football for a living. They were supportive, but always encouraged me to save my money. They went to a game in Green Bay my rookie season, but I didn’t play much. Then I became a starter in Seattle, and seeing me on the field all game, they understood this was real. They’re the biggest fans in the world now. My dad doesn’t watch anything but football now. He’ll see plays and know exactly where I was bad or good. I’ll get a full — and accurate! — post-game report.

After contributing to that disconnection for a long time, football eventually took me back to Brazil.

In 2011, along with Cleveland Browns tight end Gary Barnidge (my old roommate at Louisville) and our college friend Ahmed Awadallah, I co-created a foundation called American Football Without Borders, where we conduct international football camps. AFWB obviously stems from our mutual love of football, but it’s about so much more. Among many goals is to put an international kid into a school on a full scholarship — D1, D1-AA or D2. We target disadvantaged youth, trying to occupy the time that could be spent doing something else … because “something else” are usually bad things. Since 2013, we’ve held camps in China, Turkey and Brazil — one planned in Egypt was tabled because of the recent unrest — and each offered a unique experience.

But the most personal AFWB experience for me came during the 2014 camp in Rio. Around 500 campers from all over Brazil participated, and it was awesome. They wanted to soak everything in and learn the game. They loved all the rules — why you punt, how to hit somebody the right way. Even more amazing was seeing how much my relatives loved the game. This was right after I won the Super Bowl with the Seahawks. They had all watched, and they were wearing Seahawks jerseys when I saw them. Talking to family members I hadn’t seen in seven or eight years, I learned they had started following the game. The talked about the growing passion in Brazil for football.

This camp was also about reconnecting with myself. My blood is Brazilian blood. Spreading football there feels like I’ve come full circle. I did a lot of interviews for local media about being Brazilian. I talked with these kids in their language about their favorite foods and music. It was like I was reaching out to a younger version of myself. The campers looked like me — some little, skinny Brazilian kid running around like I used to. I didn’t grow up in a family that watched football for three or four generations, like a lot of American families. The game began as foreign to me as it was for my family. I was gifted with a little bit of height and athleticism, but the biggest difference between me and these kids is that my mom left for America when she was pregnant.

It’s for the kids, man. If I can provide a positive outlet for even just one kid, that’s all it takes to make a change. And what better way than going back to where your blood and family is from?

As I get older, I find myself wanting to rediscover more of my roots. Language is the biggest thing. It feels good to speak Portuguese instead of English. I want to pass it along to my little girl. She’s seven years old and knows some words, but she’s not fluent like I was at her age. Even Brazilian music means something different now. I’ve always liked it, but as I got older, I’ve started listening more because it’s kind of a way to talk to myself in Portuguese. The music lets me keep hearing the language, because I speak to my parents now more in English.

But at the end of the day, my parents are still Brazilian through and through. I told my mom she can stop working, but that’s not going to happen. She’s still cleaning houses. My dad is still working at the Marriott. There’s no slowing them down. But we’re very blessed. My mom and my dad harp on that all the time. I didn’t make it. We made it. When my mom and dad walk around Malden, everyone knows they’re the reason I’m in the NFL.

They’re a huge part of who I am, and the hard work paid off, man.

To learn more about American Football Without Barriers, visit afwbcamp.com.