We had just stepped off the plane in Austin when the guy slipped me his card.
“If you ever need anything,” he said, “don’t hesitate to call.”
I didn’t really think anything of it. I got a lot of cards passed my way during my career. It’s part of being an NFL player. Financial advisors, entrepreneurs, salesmen of all kinds — it didn’t matter what they were selling or what kind of business they were in, they’d drop me a card. When you have money, everybody wants a piece.
This card came from a guy who owned a private jet company. We had happened to sit next to each other on a flight from Chicago and we started talking.
It was February 10, 2012, four days before Valentine’s Day. The jet guy had told me about his business, and I had told him about my NFL career and how the last year had been tough. After three Pro Bowls and a trip to the Super Bowl with the Bears, they released me. I caught on with the Colts, but was cut just a month later. Then I signed with the Chargers, where I spent the 2011 season as a fill-in guy — not the kind of role I had played in Chicago. Now, I was a free agent, looking to extend my NFL career.
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I also told him about my family. About my three-year-old son, Tyson, and my four-month-old daughter, Tinsley. About my wife, Ashley, who had gone back home to Oklahoma to finally have a routine medical procedure that she had been putting off. I was on my way to my hometown of Killeen, Texas, to visit my sister before flying to Oklahoma to meet Ashley for Valentine’s Day, our first as a married couple. We had been married 40 days earlier, on New Year’s Day.
Despite being uncertain about my future in the NFL, I was the happiest I had ever been.
When we got off the plane, the jet guy and I shook hands and went our separate ways. As I made my way to baggage claim, I got a phone call from an Oklahoma area code.
“Tommie,” the voice said, “you need to get to Oklahoma right now.”
“Your wife has stopped breathing.”
I met Ashley when I was in college, in a hotel room in New Orleans. It was the week of the 2004 BCS title game at the Sugar Bowl, and my Oklahoma Sooners were set to face LSU. A couple of my teammates had some girls up in their hotel room — nothing crazy, just … college — so I joined them.
I walked into the room and there were three girls hanging out with the guys. Off in the corner, sitting by herself, was Ashley. I walked over to her.
“Watchu talkin’ about Sunshine? You don’t know me.”
“I know you’re beautiful.”
She went on about how I probably said that to all the girls — which I did — but then we started talking. She told me how she had gone to LSU for a while, how she was from Oklahoma, this and that — you know, small talk. Then, I made my move.
“Why don’t you write my number down.”
“What makes you think I want your number?”
“Oh, you’re gonna want my number. You gonna watch the game?”
“O.K., then write my number down. You’re gonna want it.”
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A couple of days later, in the last game of my college football career, we lost to LSU, 21–14. To this day, I still say it’s the toughest loss I’ve ever suffered on a football field. To come that close to a national championship and not close the deal — I’ve never felt worse after a game.
A couple of hours later, I got a text.
“What’s going on? Where are you?”
I realized that it was Ashley, and for the first time since the game had ended, I smiled.
“What do you mean she stopped breathing?”
It was the doctor’s assistant on the other end of the phone.
“We just need you to get here.”
Instead of going to baggage claim, I stopped to find the closest TV monitor to check the departures to see if there was a flight that could get me to Oklahoma as fast as humanly possible.
Not knowing what else to do, I reached into my pocket and pulled out the jet guy’s card and dialed his number.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I know we just met, but I need a way to get to Oklahoma. My wife stopped breathing and there’s no commercial flight that will get me there fast enough.”
“Where are you going now?”
“I’ll have a jet waiting for you when you get there.”
I didn’t know this guy from Adam, and he came to my rescue when I didn’t have any other options. I wish I could have expressed my gratitude in that moment, but I couldn’t. All I could think about was Ashley.
It was a 45-minute drive from Austin to Killeen. I called my mom, who lives there, and told her to meet me at the small commuter airport near Fort Hood. When I arrived, there was a jet waiting for us. I ran out onto the tarmac, and as I reached the jet, I dropped to my knees and asked God to let his will be done in my life. I knew that something was about to change. I could just feel it. I just didn’t know what or how.
I remember sitting on that jet and looking out my window at the sun shining down. You know how sometimes you can actually see the sun’s rays bursting through the clouds? Like you could reach out and grab one? That’s what I saw. It was like there was a light shining down from heaven, and I was overcome by this feeling that Ashley was gone.
I gave Tyson the ring and waited around the corner. Ashley was up in Tyson’s closet, trying to get it organized.
It was late 2011, and Ashley and I had been together on and off for about five years. By that time, we had had our son, Tyson, and our daughter, Tinsley. We were already a family. I just wanted to make everything complete. It was time.
So I gave Tyson the ring and I waited around the corner in the stairwell. When he said, “Mommy … Daddy asked me to give you this,” that was my cue. Tyson opened the box and there was a light inside the top than shone down on a beautiful cushion-cut diamond ring. Just as Ashley turned around and saw it, I came around the corner, dropped down on one knee and said, “Will you marry me?”
And that was it. We decided to have a small wedding on New Year’s Day, just to get it done because we were both so excited. We were also planning to have a bigger wedding in June with all our family and friends. I played my final game with the Chargers in the afternoon, and that night, a couple of friends and a couple of my San Diego teammates (Antonio Garay and Corey Liuget) gathered alongside Ashley and me, and we made it official.
I was a tough guy — a typical football player. So I pretty much never cried. And I remember after Ashley and I had each said, “I do,” and we kissed, she looked at me and said, “You’re gonna cry.”
It wasn’t a question or a prediction. It was a demand.
“You’re gonna cry” — like the moment wouldn’t be right if I didn’t.
But when she looked into my eyes, there was nothing. Not even a sparkle of a tear.
So she held up two fingers and poked me square in my eyes. Up on the altar, in front of everyone.
Everybody was like, What just happened?
I immediately put my hands over my eyes — that’s just a natural reaction when you get poked — and when I pulled my hands away, my eyes were watering.
“You’re gonna cry,” she said.
Everybody laughed, and she kissed me again.
It was a nice night.
It was breast-reduction surgery. That was the routine procedure that Ashley had gone to Oklahoma for. She had been considering having the surgery for some time. Now that there were only a few months away from our June wedding — the larger celebration that would include all our friends and family — she thought that it was as good a time as any to get it done. She’d have the surgery, have time to recover, and be able to fit into her dream wedding dress on the big day.
The doctors didn’t know what had gone wrong. Ashley was resting quietly after her surgery, they said, when she suddenly jumped up in her bed and started screaming in pain, and then passed out and stopped breathing.
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When I walked into her room, I saw Ashley, my sweetheart, hooked up to a ventilator. The doctors said a lot of things to me right after I arrived. She was in some kind of coma. They said something about brain matter. Something about her organs … harvesting … I don’t remember exactly what.
The only thing I was sure of was that I believed she still had a chance.
For three days I stayed at the hospital with Ashley. The waiting room would fill up with family and friends during the day, and then empty out at night. Then fill, then empty. On the third day, I was sitting in the chapel, praying for a miracle, when somebody burst in.
“Have you seen this?”
It was a news article. It said something like, Tommie Harris’s wife has died of a brain aneurysm.
I rushed to Ashley’s room. The doctor was there, and there were people coming in behind me. I didn’t know who they were. I yelled at the doctor.
“What’s going on?”
He explained to me that the other people coming into Ashley’s room were there to harvest her organs. There had been a miscommunication somewhere … something lost in translation. The ventilator hadn’t been keeping Ashley alive so that she would have a chance to pull through. The brain aneurysm she had suffered had done too much damage. She was gone. The ventilator had been keeping her body working so that her organs could be harvested for donation.
My wife had passed away, and I found out over the Internet.
In the midst of my shock, I asked everybody to leave the room. When we were finally alone, I kissed Ashley on the forehead and promised her that I would take care of Tyson and Tinsley. And I said goodbye.
My wife, my sweetheart, the mother of my two children, was gone.
Ashley and I used to talk about what our lives were going to be like together. When I was done with football, we were going to move to Oklahoma and build a house. She was big into clothing and style, so she was going to open up a boutique called Ashley’s Closet. I would take my NFL earnings and invest in different business ventures and try to make that money go as far as possible — far enough to take care of our family for the rest of our lives.
But just like we never got to celebrate our first Valentine’s Day together as a married couple, and just like Ashley never got her dream wedding, or to wear her dream dress, I was never able to give her Ashley’s Closet.
I had to develop a new plan for my life. My life without Ashley.
Ashley was an unbelievable mother. She worked in child development — that’s what she had gone to school for — and she worked with kids with autism and she educated and mentored kids every day. She was a natural. She was the kind of mother who would pick Tyson up from school early, just because she missed him. She was attentive. Gentle. Caring.
She was golden.
Whenever anything happened with the kids, or when it came to make lunches, make bottles, change diapers … I mean, I changed some diapers here and there, but when I was playing in the NFL and I was on a strict schedule 10 months out of the year, I just kind of pushed everything else to the back of my mind. When I’d wake up in the middle of the night to the sound of a kid crying — and I had to be at the facility early the next morning — I’d go back to sleep and say to myself, Ashley’s got it.
For weeks after Ashley’s death, I was in a daze. Not only was I coming to grips with losing my wife, but I was also learning how to be a full-time parent. I had to be patient, which wasn’t my strong suit. I had to develop a level of compassion I had never known. I’d see my son stub his toe, or my daughter fall down, and I’d be like, “Come on. Get up!” That’s just how I had been programmed as a football player. Get over it, you know? Next play….
But the most difficult part came at bedtime, when I would tuck Tyson and Tinsley in. Even today, that part still hurts. When I put Tyson down, and then in the glow of the night, I look into Tinsley’s eyes, and I just know that she’s yearning for female companionship. For female guidance. For something I’ll never be able to give her.
Those are the moments when I miss Ashley the most. If for nothing else, I just wish she was there to rub our babies’ backs at night.
The one thing that got lost in all of this — and rightfully so — was my football career. I had been a free agent, and when Ashley passed, my children became my sole focus. I promised Ashley that I would take care of them, and I was not going to let her down.
But a little over a year after she died, I got the itch to play again. I had moved the family to Texas and had settled into my new role as a single father — with the help of Brenda, my amazing nanny — and after sitting out for an entire season, I was healthy for the first time since 2004, when I had entered the league. I was in the best shape of my life. So I put my name back out there, and I got a tryout with the Buccaneers down in Tampa.
When I arrived at the airport for my flight to Tampa, my hands started shaking. My knees started knocking. I felt tears well up in my eyes, and I was like, What’s going on?
I was a mess.
Physically, I was ready. But mentally, I wasn’t dialed in. I mean, what if I went out there and suffered a head or neck injury and couldn’t take care of my kids? What would I tell them, that Daddy had wanted to make some more money? I had something like $25 million in the bank when I lost Ashley, and not one dollar had been able to help her. If it could have, I would have given every last cent to save my wife.
Then I realized that even though I had left my kids with the nanny and I knew that they were in good hands, they still weren’t in my hands. And that’s where I promised Ashley they would always be.
Ben Liebenberg/AP Images
So rather than go back to playing football — for money, for me, for whatever — I decided it was time to hang it up.
For my kids.
A lot has happened in the five years since Ashley left us. Tyson has developed into a fantastic athlete. Tinsley is five years old now and reading at a third-grade level. I know Ashley would be proud of them.
And I think she’d be proud of me, too. I’ve been investing in different business ventures, like I had always planned to do after my playing days. I’ve made some money and I’ve lost some money. I’m just trying to become a better businessman, a better father and a better man every day. I went back to school and got my MBA.
Ashley would have been excited about that. She was always my biggest supporter. She would have screamed out of sheer joy to see me accomplish that.
Then she probably would have poked me in the eyes….
Through all of this, I have found strength that I never knew I had. If Ashley were here today, I would simply tell her, “Thank you.” As I stood over her in that hospital room, telling her I loved her for the final time, I watched as her chest rose and fell — and I knew that wasn’t her breathing. It was that machine breathing for her. And in that moment, I made an honest oath to God — and to Ashley — that I would devote every inhale and exhale for the rest of my life to God, to my children and to others, and that I wasn’t going to waste one single breath. So I share my story as often as possible — to show others facing the same struggles, or any struggles, that they’re going to be O.K.
Today, I’m not the man Ashley married. I’m a much better version of that man — one I wish she was here to see. But I know that she is here. Every day. Watching over me, Tyson and Tinsley. Shining the light that guides us as we do our best to keep her spirit alive and make her proud.
We love you, Ashley, and we miss you every day.