My Biggest Fan

We were in the hotel in New York City the morning of the 2010 NFL Draft, and my phone started ringing. I was projected to be a first-round pick, but with other defensive tackles like N’damukong Suh and Gerald McCoy projected to go in the top five, I knew I probably wasn’t going at the very top. But I was still getting calls.

That’s the truth about the NFL draft: Unless you’re at the very top — and sometimes not even then — you really have no idea who’ll draft you. I was rumored to be going to Miami. Buffalo had already called the morning of the draft. And now, a third team was on the line.

“Who’s that?” my dad asked. I covered my cell phone mouthpiece and whispered exactly what he wanted to hear.

“The Raiders.”

I knew he’d love that. My dad had been a Raiders fanatic his whole life. He grew up in Tennessee when there was no NFL team there, but he watched the Raiders back in the 70s and just loved the way they played. He loved the Black Hole and the whole “Raider Way”. He loved the logo, the colors, everything. When I was eight years old, he got me a Raiders Starter jacket for Christmas so we’d have matching jackets. The first NFL game I ever went to was when the Titans first moved to Tennessee. They were still called the Oilers back then, and they played their first season in Memphis, where we lived, before moving to Nashville. When the Raiders came to town that year, my dad made sure we got tickets.

He even wore a silver and black fedora and a matching tie in the Green Room that night.

The call turned out to be nothing big. It was just the D-line coach doing his standard draft day check-in. Sometimes they just give guys one last little feel before the draft, and they always leave it open, like, Be ready … we might call your name. I got a couple of those calls that day.

When I hung up the phone, my dad said, “You know, son, if you got the chance to go to the silver and black, we’d all be pretty happy.”

And by “we all,” he definitely meant him. It was his dream to see his son in a Raiders uniform.

The Raiders had the No. 8 overall pick, and they went with Rolando McClain, a linebacker from Alabama. I didn’t end up getting drafted until 26th overall, when the Cardinals picked me.

My dad, decked out in his silver and black, gave me a hug, and I think he forgot about the Raiders for just a moment. He coached me when I was a kid, and he always took me to practice — first ones there and last ones to leave — and now I was a first-round NFL draft pick.

Raiders or not, we made it.

My dad would always say, “You know, son, fan is short for fanatic.” And that’s the kind of fan he was. He was a true fanatic.

I remember the first time I played against his beloved Raiders. It was the third game of my rookie season and the Raiders came to Arizona. My dad would always call me on game day and give me a little pep talk and his thoughts on the game. But this time, he was at the game, and when we talked, he didn’t talk about the game, and it wasn’t much of a pep talk.

”Well, son,” he said, all serious, “I want you to know I’m always your biggest fan, and I’m wearing my Cardinals jersey today. But you better believe I have my Raiders t-shirt on underneath!”

I was like, “C’mon, I’m your son! You can’t turn the Raiders fan off for one day?”

We had a good laugh about it, but I’m pretty sure he was serious, because after the game — after the Raiders missed a last-second field goal and we won the game by one point — he said, still serious, “Congratulations, son. This is bittersweet for me, but you’re my son, and I’ll always support you. I’m glad ya’ll won, but hey, that one still hurt a little bit!”

I only wish I could have seen his face when the Raiders missed that kick…

He was able to come see me play that weekend, but he couldn’t make it to every game. If he could have, he would have. Instead, he came to some games in Arizona, and if we were playing on the road anywhere near Memphis, he’d pack up whatever family members he could and make the drive to the game. He never missed a game when I was growing up, so it always felt good to know my biggest fan was up in the stands watching.

It was 2013, my fourth year in the league. We were coming off a 5-11 season the year before, and we had a new head coach in Bruce Arians. I went through a coaching change when I was at Tennessee, so I know that when a new coach comes in, everyone’s job is usually up for grabs. My dad and I talked a lot during training camp that year. He wanted to know everything that was going on.

In Week 3, we were getting ready to fly to New Orleans to play the Saints. I was excited, because New Orleans is only about five-and-a-half hours down I-55 from Memphis, and my dad, my mom and my sister were making the drive down.

The Friday evening before the game, I was at home packing and getting ready to head to the airport to catch the team plane when I got a phone call from a police officer. I could tell in his voice that something serious had happened. He told me that just outside of Jackson, Mississippi, about halfway between Memphis and New Orleans, my family had been in a car accident. My mom and my sister were in the hospital.

I asked the officer if my father was okay, but he kind of deflected, only talked about my mother and my sister.

You try not to be frantic in situations like that, but it’s hard to think clearly. I actually got off the phone without hearing from the officer whether or not my father was okay. I just turned my focus to my mom and my sister, and I wanted to be there for them.

I thought, He didn’t tell me anything about my dad because there was nothing to tell. He’s fine.

Then I thought, Wait, if my dad was fine, he would’ve been the one to call me and tell me about my mom and my sister and he’d want to reassure me that everything was gonna be okay.

I hoped for the best, but in the back of my mind, I kind of knew the truth.

I have two sisters. One was in the car with my parents on their way to New Orleans and the other was back in Memphis. When my sister in Memphis got the call about the accident, she went straight to Jackson. I guess the officer didn’t tell her anything about my father either, because when she got to the hospital, she got the news, and she broke it to me over the phone.

My father — my biggest fan — was killed in the accident while he was on his way to see his son play.

I didn’t get on the plane to New Orleans. I didn’t play that weekend. I went to Jackson, Mississippi to identify my dad’s body so my sister didn’t have to do it. Coach Arians told me to take as much time as I needed, and I just tried to focus on my mom and my sister. They weren’t severely injured, so it could have been much worse.

Even when we were sitting in the hospital together watching the Saints game, my mom was telling me to go play. She’s a strong woman, and I know she just wanted me to take my mind off what happened, but in the same way that I’d just lost a father, she’d lost a husband. I needed to be there for her. My dad’s funeral was the following Saturday, the day before my Cardinals played a road game in Tampa Bay. I didn’t play in that game, either.

My dad believed that when you face tragedy, you mourn and you let it out. He also would say that the reason you create memories is so you can remember people and the good times, so you can carry on when they’re gone. So two days after his funeral and the day after I missed my second straight game, I went back to Arizona and rejoined my team. The following week, we played the Panthers at home.

That’s when it all became real for me. It really sunk in that my dad was gone when I didn’t get that pregame phone call and pep talk. It was just weird not getting that call.

Mom and my sister were okay, and they were surrounded by family back in Memphis. So when I didn’t get that pregame phone call, I did the only thing I could do: I took my dad’s advice. I thought of all the great memories I had of him from over the years: The Raiders jacket he gave me. The youth football practices. The Raiders game against Tennessee. Draft night.

And I went out and played.

It’s been almost two years to the day since I lost my dad in that car accident, and I still think about him all the time. The time when I miss him most is usually on game day, when I don’t get that phone call or when they play the National Anthem before the game. My dad was a retired veteran, so he always saluted during the National Anthem, and when we were kids, it didn’t matter what the sport was, he was always that parent who yelled out, “Let’s play ball!” He always said it with so much enthusiasm because he was always so excited for the game to start.

That was him. He was just a happy-go-lucky sports fanatic who always went crazy over the littlest things. When he’d go to games, he’d always spend the extra $2 on the bigger drink to get the souvenir cup. They always had different players on them, and he collected them all.

One time during my second season, I was featured on the souvenir cup for a preseason game, and he almost cried. He was like, “Wow, son. You earned the cup.” I think he was more excited about that cup than the fact that I was actually playing in the NFL. He even had me get him extra cups so he could give them away to everybody. He definitely found joy in the little things.

In the two years he’s been gone, there’s one moment I really wish he was here for. The moment I made his dream come true.

This last offseason, I hit free agency. I had a few teams I was looking at and that were considering signing me, but there was one that turned out to be the perfect fit.

My dad’s Raiders.

The scheme was right. I liked the coaches — who wouldn’t want to play for Ken Norton and Jack Del Rio? It really was the best fit for me. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think about my dad when I was making the decision. Maybe he was the tiebreaker that put the Raiders over the top.

When I went out to Oakland to meet with the team and sign my contract, I wish my dad could have been in that room with me. I wish I could have told him the news when we agreed on the deal: “Dad, I’m going to be a Raider!” I wish he could have come to the facility with me, walked through the halls and seen all the history. I probably wouldn’t have been able to get him to leave. He’d probably still be staying with me out here now if I brought him out. I’d have a new roommate.

There have been some tough moments since my dad passed. Moments I really wished I could’ve shared with him. But the toughest one yet was probably when I took the field on Sunday for my first regular season game as a Raider in Oakland. It would have been his dream come true to see his son on the Raiders’ home sideline in the silver and black, looking down to the end zone and into the Black Hole. I definitely cried a little when I heard the National Anthem, because when it was over, there was only thing missing.

My dad saluting from the stands, yelling, “Let’s play ball!”