I have to start with an apology.
I haven’t been talking to you as much as I should, and that’s my fault. It’s just that, for a while, every time I thought about you, all I did was cry. All I could see was the image of you lying in that ICU bed. I’d think about how quickly life had changed — and for you, how quickly it had ended. I never even got to say goodbye.
So, honestly, for a long time now, I’ve tried not to think about you too much. I’ve avoided it. And for that, I’m sorry.
That’s why I’m writing this.
Because I’m done crying.
I’m ready to talk to you — to say all the things I wish I could have said before you left us.
I’m ready to tell you about the Super Bowl, and what it really meant to me.
I’m done crying. I’m ready to talk to you — to say all the things I wish I could have said before you left us.- Alex Okafor
Not the one I just played in, but the first one. In February 2020. The one I watched from the stands with you and Dad. The one I was heartbroken to not be playing in because I had gotten injured in Week 15 and missed the Chiefs’ whole playoff run. I remember what you did when I teared up during the national anthem because I wanted so badly to be out there with my teammates. You held me. Comforted me. Told me not to hang my head.
You said, “Alex, you helped get them here.”
It was exactly what I needed to hear. And after that, we had a ball watching that game. Remember? We had so much fun, just being together as a family and watching our Chiefs come back and beat the 49ers. And when it was over, and my teammates were celebrating on the field, I didn’t even have time to feel sorry for myself because I wasn’t out there with them. Before I could even think about it, you were right there, giving me the biggest hug, reminding me.
“You helped get them here, Alex!”
I never told you how much that meant to me.
Probably because I don’t even think I knew at the time.
Because none of us could have expected what the next few months would bring.
You know something I’ve always wanted to ask you about?
When me and Anderson were kids, when it came to you and Dad, it was always a good cop-bad cop situation. Dad was the disciplinarian and you were the easygoing one. It’s not that we couldn’t talk to him about stuff, it’s just that … you had a much softer touch. The only time I remember you really getting mad at us — like mad mad — was when you’d take us to the grocery store and we’d try to sneak stuff into the cart. You’d turn your back and we’d drop in a bouncy ball or a bag of Skittles or something, thinking we were all slick. Then, in the checkout line, you’d see it and get so mad that you’d smack us upside our heads. In front of everybody, too. You didn’t care. You were not having it. Because you knew that we knew better.
But that was really it. Most of the time, you were even-keeled. Gave me a lot of slack and didn’t get on me too much.
Until I went to college.
That’s when you really started to press me. You’d call me up like every other day to make sure I wasn’t drinking and partying too much. Making sure I was staying up on my schoolwork. Reminding me to check in on my little brother.
And at the same time, Dad got a little more chill. You guys kind of flipped.
I never did ask you why.
I guess it’s just that when I was a kid, you treated me like one. But when I started playing football at Texas, the stakes were higher and the consequences for my actions were greater. I was a grown man now, and you treated me like one. You challenged me. Pushed me outside my comfort zone.
You challenged me. Pushed me outside my comfort zone.- Alex Okafor
That’s when you started asking me, “What are your long-term goals?” I remember you’d ask me that all the time. Even before I made it to the NFL, you wanted to make sure I was thinking about life after football. And one of your biggest things was making sure that I gave back to our community in Pflugerville, Texas, and throughout the Austin area. “These people helped raise you,” you’d say.
Which was just like you, seeing as every job I remember you having was focused on public service. I remember when you were a probation officer, working for various nonprofits, and the job you had with the housing authority, helping underprivileged families find housing. Everything you did, you did for others.
I always admired that.
And that’s what made it hurt even more when you got sick. Because it was finally time for everybody to band together to do something for you….
But there was nothing we could do.
It was in early April, just a couple of months after the Super Bowl, that you started feeling sick. You were coughing a lot, started losing your voice and your sense of smell. This was right when the coronavirus really blew up, so we thought for sure you had COVID. But when the test results came back negative, we were so confused.
If not COVID, what could it be?
A couple of weeks later, you were still feeling sick, so Dad took you to the hospital. They pulled some blood and sent it to a lab. I don’t think anyone knew what to expect. But we definitely weren’t prepared when the doctor came back and told us what they had found.
Acute myeloid leukemia.
We’d never even heard of it. The doctors told us it was pretty aggressive — it starts in the bone marrow and then quickly moves to the blood and then other parts of the body. It’s super rare. When the doctor was telling us, we were all in shock. I don’t even think we fully understood what he was saying.
But I remember how you reacted.
You didn’t care about any kind of numbers or statistics or survival rates or anything. There wasn’t any question or hesitation.
The doctor suggested chemotherapy, and you were like, “Let’s go. When do we get started?”
And listen … I didn’t tell you this at the time, but when you left to go to the hospital for your chemo treatment, that destroyed me. Because COVID was raging and the hospital was locked down. No visitors. And I would be sitting home at night, just thinking about you in your hospital room, all by yourself, fighting through that first round of chemo. I’d think about how scared you must have been, even though you were too tough to show it. I would have given anything to be there with you, just so you didn’t have to be alone. But all I could do was call you. So that’s what I did. Every day. And even on the bad days, I could always hear something in your voice. It was so full of positivity. Fight.
And even on the bad days, I could always hear something in your voice. It was so full of positivity. Fight. Hope.- Alex Okafor
I can still remember the last time I heard your voice. It was after that first round of chemo. You’d been in the hospital for about three weeks and the doctor said that everything had gone well, and we were getting ready for you to come home. I can’t even tell you how excited I was. I remember being on the phone with you, talking about how I couldn’t wait to see you and how good everything was going to be when we had you back. I must have sounded like a little kid who was getting his mama back. That’s what it felt like.
And then, the next day — the day you were supposed to come home — Dad called. He said that, according to the doctor, your white blood cell count had gone through the roof overnight. He said they had moved you to the ICU.
He said it didn’t look good.
This was in May, only a few weeks after you’d started feeling sick. And from there, everything kind of unraveled. We were finally allowed to come to the hospital and see you … only because the doctors weren’t sure if we’d get another chance.
That’s the image that has stuck with me: You, lying there in that ICU bed, hooked up to all those machines, totally unresponsive. Sick. Tired. Not the lively, vibrant person I remember you as. Not the mom that I loved so much.
I couldn’t handle seeing you that way. I broke down. I just couldn’t understand how this had happened so quickly. How you were so close to coming home, and then everything flipped like it did.
Within 24 hours, you were gone.
I never told you how difficult this all was for me, mostly because I didn’t really get the chance. But also because … what I was dealing with paled in comparison to what you were going through. You were battling, Mom. I hope you know that. You fought your ass off. We were so proud of you.
We still are.
I’ve been checking in on Anderson. Back when you used to get on me about it, I’d call him like once a week just to say hey. Just to check that box so that, when you asked me about it, I could say, yeah, I’d checked in.
Now, I talk to him three or four times a week. And it’s not just to say hey. It’s a whole thing. A real conversation. We talk all the time, Mom. We’re as close now as we’ve ever been.
Because we know that’s what you wanted.
We talk all the time, Mom. We’re as close now as we’ve ever been. Because we know that’s what you wanted.- Alex Okafor
Dad’s good, too. He’s been a rock. You probably know that. Never too high, never too low. Always cool.
But he misses you.
I know he misses you.
We all do.
I guess I just want you to know that I’m trying hard to do all the right things. I’m bringing educational programs to Pflugerville that focus on diversity and inclusion, something we talked a lot about. I’ve been speaking out on the social-justice front. I’m doing all the things I told you I would.
And I’ve also added something to that list.
I’ve started working with The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. We’re working to raise awareness about acute myeloid leukemia and other rare blood cancers. And this year, we’re partnering to start a program to provide educational scholarships to blood-cancer survivors. Our goal is to raise at least $250,000 each year, and to provide more than 30 young cancer survivors with financial support as they work to achieve their academic goals.
Because I feel like that’s what you would have wanted me to do, Mom.
And that’s really the thing. I know I haven’t been talking to you as much as I should. But I still hear you. You’re still the voice inside my head, Mom. In every situation, I ask myself, What would Mom do? And you’re always there to guide me. To show me what’s right. And even though you’re not here, I just want to tell you the same thing that you once told me.
You helped get me here.
So thank you. For everything. For molding me into the man I am today. For being a light. For keeping me motivated. Keeping me strong. And please know that everything I do in my life — every accomplishment, every person I impact in a positive way — is because of you. I am going to do everything in my power to continue your legacy, and I can’t wait to tell you all about it.
I’ll talk to you soon.
Join Alex in his fight. If you or someone you know has been impacted by blood cancer, please visit LLS.org for more information or visit alexokaforfamilyfoundation.org to donate to The Alex Okafor Family Foundation and The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society Scholarship Program.