It’s me, Casey.
I’m writing you because … well, I’m writing for a lot of reasons. Because I love you. I miss you. I just want to talk to you.
But also, I need something.
Actually, I need to know something….
I need to know how to cook cabbage. You know, the kind you made with the baked chicken and macaroni and cheese when I was a kid. Last time I made it I had the chicken down — all the little spices and everything — and the mac and cheese was … well, it was decent.
But I couldn’t get the cabbage right.
At least not like you used to.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about getting back in the kitchen, the way I did when I was out on my own for the first time up in Green Bay and you had me cooking all your old recipes. I know you remember how I would call you up asking what spices to use for this, or how long to cook that, or what temperature to set the oven at so I didn’t burn the house down.
I loved talking to you about cooking.
And that’s why I have to say … I’m sorry, Mom. Because since you’ve been gone, I haven’t cooked at all. I mean, I’ll microwave something for myself every now and then, or fry up some eggs for breakfast. But actually cook, like you used to? I haven’t been able to. I imagine myself standing over the stove, grabbing different ingredients, trying to make it like yours, then having a question and reaching for my phone….
And having nobody to call.
I don’t know … I guess I’ve been avoiding it because I know it would be another reminder that you’re not here, and of how much I miss you. I already have so many of those moments.
The toughest is probably right before games. You used to always call me and give me a little pep talk and say a prayer for me and my teammates.
And I gotta say … that first game after you passed away in 2016, I didn’t know how I was going to feel before the game without hearing your voice. So I decided that since you couldn’t be there to talk to me, I’d talk to you. And every game since, I’ve recited the same prayer to you before each game:
Spread your wings and protect me
From my head to my toes
Get on my back
And let’s fly
Emily Johnson/The Players' Tribune
I still remember when you first told me you had breast cancer. It was my fourth year in Green Bay. You had been sick for a while but you hadn’t told me or Jecavesia about it. I know you just didn’t want us boys to worry about you. You never wanted anybody to worry about you. You were always the one worrying about everybody else — volunteering for events, letting somebody stay at our house if they needed to, letting people borrow five or 10 dollars whenever they needed it, even though we didn’t have much money to go around.
You know, growing up in Perry, Georgia, Cavey and I didn’t even know that you and Dad were struggling financially. Because you guys made sure we didn’t know. You made sure we had everything we ever needed.
I remember you waking up at four o’clock in the morning to deliver newspapers. You and Dad would go out and restock the newsstands and be home in time to send us off to school. I never realized that you were doing that to earn extra money to support our family. I just thought you liked getting up early.
And between you working at the salon as a hairdresser and Dad being a manager at McDonald’s, I thought we were straight. I mean, all my friends knew who Dad was because they all ate at McDonald’s and they’d see him up there. Everybody knew him. He was like a little celebrity, in my eyes. And he would always bring food home for us, too. I don’t know how many Happy Meals I ate in my life. Then I graduated to Quarter Pounders and Big Macs, and I would just go to town.
But it was the nights when we didn’t have McDonald’s that I remember most. The nights when you would cook, and we would sit around the table as a family and enjoy a meal together — you and Dad not worrying about the fact that we were struggling, and me and Cavey not even knowing … just being kids and loving the life you guys had given us.
I don’t know if I ever thanked you for that.
Courtesy of Casey Hayward
We had a lot of love in our house, but you were tough, too. Even today, when I make a mistake in practice or something, I can still hear you yelling at me like you did when I was a kid. Like when I was seven years old and you were in the stands at one of my basketball games and I turned the ball over. You stood up and yelled something at me, and I looked up at you and was like, “Leave me alone!”
And mom … the look you gave me … I don’t even know how to describe it.
I just remember seeing your face and thinking, Oh, Lord, I’mma get my butt WHOOPED when I get home.
And I did.
I think that was one of maybe two times when I talked back to you like that. Like, really talked back.
The other was when I was 12 and I got so mad at you that I told you I was gonna move out.
I know you’re laughing just thinking about that one.
I don’t even remember what we were butting heads about — probably me cleaning up my room or doing the dishes or something. And I threw the biggest fit. I got so mad at you that I was like, “Man, I’m leaving.”
You said, “Excuse me … you’re what?”
“I’m leaving! I’mma move out!”
You didn’t even flinch. You were just like, “O.K. G’on, then. Leave.”
You told me to pack my bag and go — but I was only allowed to take one pair of jeans, one shirt and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. That’s it.
So there I was, little 12-year-old Casey, packing my bag and walking out the front door, like I had someplace to go. Like I was gonna show you!
I was walking down the road with my backpack on, kicking dirt, still arguing with you in my head, and I didn’t get but 20 minutes down the road before I realized that I didn’t have no money. We lived real far from the city, too. I was never gonna make it. And even if I did, what was I gonna do when I got there?
So I turned my butt around and walked home.
And you were standing right there in the doorway.
“I knew you’d be back.”
That’s all you said.
Then I went inside and did whatever chore you were trying to get me to do.
Yeah, you were tough, Mom.
It was all tough love, though.
That’s why it hurt me so much when I saw you wearing beanies all the time because you had lost your hair from the chemo. I’ll never forget going to the barbershop one day up in Green Bay, sitting in the chair, thinking about you — because I always do — then looking at myself in the mirror and telling the barber, “Man, just cut it off.”
“The whole thing?”
“Yeah, man. Straight to the scalp. Bald.”
Now, Mom, you know I got a big ol’ head. So afterwards, I was sitting in my car looking at myself in the mirror, and I didn’t even recognize myself. I looked so weird.
Then I took some photos of my giant bald head and sent them to you. Remember? I was like, “Look, Mom! I got the bald head, too!”
The very next day, you posted a photo of yourself. No hat. No beanie. Just bald as hell, and beautiful. Owning every bit of it.
I was so proud.
Courtesy of Casey Hayward
You fought, Mom. You fought hard. Even in the two or three weeks before you passed, you were adamant that you were gonna beat it.
But the doctors were telling us there was nothing else they could do.
It was the summer before the 2016 season. I had recently signed my contract with the Chargers, and we were all excited about my new opportunity. I had been staying at my house in Atlanta, driving an hour and 15 minutes every day to the hospital down in Macon to be with you. And for those two or three weeks before you passed, every time my phone rang, my heart sank into my stomach because I was thinking that maybe this was the one — maybe this was gonna be the call where somebody tells me that my mom is gone forever.
On July 17, 2016, that call came. It was a Sunday morning. Dad called me up and told me that you had passed.
You had done all the fighting you could do.
I drove down to the hospital, and the whole family was there. I went into your room and sat down next to you. I don’t think I even said anything. I just know that I held your hand and prayed that you would watch over me and the family. That you would spread your wings and protect us.
Then I made you a promise.
I promised that I was going to dedicate the rest of my NFL career to you. That every time I stepped on the football field, I would be a reflection of you.
And you know what?
I’ve made the Pro Bowl each year since.
It’s been two years since you passed, Mom. And I’m telling you: In that time, I’ve been playing the best football of my life.
Because I’ve been playing for you.
And even though I’d trade it all in a heartbeat to have you back, I know that you’re the reason behind all my success. Because you’re there, spreading your wings over me, protecting me, soaring with me every Sunday.
Joe Amon/The Denver Post via Getty Images
It’s been a tough couple of years. But after everything that happened with you, if there’s one thing I’m thankful for, it’s that we had time with you before you passed. That the whole family had the chance to let you know how much you mean to all of us and that we love you. I’m thankful that we had that time together, because I don’t know what I would have done if things had happened differently and you were taken from us suddenly, without the chance for us to say goodbye.
That’s what happened with Cavey, mom.
I was at a rookie dinner with a bunch of guys from the team and my cousin called me, panicking, asking if I had talked to Cavey. I tried to calm him down, but he just kept telling me to call Cavey.
A car had been involved in an accident on I-75 just outside of Macon. There were three people inside. Cavey was one of them. One person had been killed, but we didn’t know who.
I left the dinner without telling anyone, and I cried the entire drive home. My phone was blowing up. When I got home, I talked to Dad.
He told me it was Cavey.
He was going to the hospital to identify the body.
I flew back to Perry the next day to help dad get things in order and to be with the family. I stayed for the funeral.
That was hard, Mom. It’s still hard. I can’t even begin to describe it. But the toughest part was how he was just taken from us. We didn’t have that time with him like we did with you. It had been a little over a year since we had lost you, and now my brother — my man — was gone, just like that.
And same as with you, I think about him all the time.
Especially when I look at his little girl, September.
That’s right, mom … you have a granddaughter.
Cavey named her September because that’s the month you were born. It was his little way to pay tribute to you because he knew how much you wanted grandkids. You were always on me about it, like, “When I’mma get some grandkids, Casey?” But I wasn’t ready for all that. I’m still not.
And you remember how Cavey never even wanted to have kids. He was adamant.
But I wish you could have seen how excited he was when he found out September was coming. I’m telling you, Mom, a switch just flipped in him, and it was really beautiful to see. He was so excited be a father. He couldn’t wait to meet his little girl.
I just wish he would have gotten that chance.
See, when the accident happened, Cavey’s girlfriend was still pregnant with September.
He never even got to meet his own daughter.
I know he’s there with you, so just let him know that I’m helping take care of September. Let him know that she looks just like her daddy. I mean just like him.
Let him know that she’s beautiful.
And let him know that I miss him. I miss him texting me before every game. We had this thing we used to always say to each other: “If you ain’t gettin’ money, why you livin’?” It was just our little saying that meant if you’re not out here to make plays — if you’re not living this life to do big things and ball out — then why you livin’ at all?
Getting that text from him and talking to you were the biggest parts of my pregame ritual.
Now, I call Dad before every game. We talk about how you and Cavey are shining down upon us, and then I say my prayer.
Emily Johnson/The Players' Tribune
I think that’s all I got for now. I’ll talk to you again soon. But until then, I guess … just let me know about the cabbage. I don’t know if I’m ready to get back in the kitchen just yet, but when I do, it’d be nice to know that you’re there with me. Just show me a sign. Smack me upside my head or something if you catch me using the wrong spices or cutting the cabbage wrong. I won’t get mad. I just want to know you’re there.
But I know you will be. You’re always with me. Every time I take the field. Every time I hear your granddaughter laugh. Every time I pray. You’re always here.
I am a reflection of you.
I love you, Mom. Thank you for everything. Keep watching over me and the rest of us. We still need you as much as we ever did. Maybe even more.
Spread your wings.
Protect me from my head to my toes.
Get on my back.
And let’s fly.