Before he started his return from a broken neck, future New Orleans Saints cornerback Delvin Breaux wanted approval from the No. 1 woman in his life.
“Momma, I’mma play football again. What you think?”
“Well, Delvin, I’mma support you, no matter what you do. I’m not going to tell you to; I’m not going to tell you not. But at the end of the day, this is what can happen. I’m going to give you the good and the bad ...”
She then reminded him of his recent experiences as a near-quadriplegic. Without full movement in his arms and legs, she had to feed him, brush his teeth, clean him after bowel movements for nearly a month. Doctors told him if he suffered another neck injury, he could live the rest of his life in a bed.
“Think about it. ... Whatever you do, I’ll support.”
Nine years later, Breaux is approaching an on-field debut with his hometown franchise at Saints minicamp, sharing the honor with the woman who, along with his birth father, rescued him and his older brother from what they called an unfit living situation.
In a twist reminiscent of the “The Brady Bunch” and “The Bernie Mac Show,” Lionel Breaux Sr. and Juanita B. Smith raised Delvin and his older brother, Lionel Jr., along with Kierra and Kedrick, her children from a previous relationship; later, Lionel III was born.
They created a bond so strong that even after the separation of Breaux Sr. and Smith in 2011, she is still known to Delvin by her affectionate title: Mom.
“Everybody deserves to be loved, and I felt they needed more,” Smith said. “It’s something that grew on me. It came natural. A mother’s instinct, I guess. It wasn’t hard to me.”
In 2000, Delvin’s birth mother signed over her parental rights to Breaux Sr. Lionel was 11. Delvin was 10.
“Anger has never been a part of me about her situation,” Delvin said of his birth mother. “I’ve never been angry. I can’t get mad at her, because she gave us a way to my dad and my step-mom. I thought she did a great job of giving us away and letting them take us. I just thank her for that.”
Lionel Breaux Sr. coached locally, mostly at McDonogh 35 High School, and Smith became a sports enthusiast — a super sports mom complete with a custom van and Chevy Suburban for road trips.
The kids were known as the All-Around Children.
When Kierra played AAU basketball, the other kids were all around the gymnasium. When Lionel Jr. (who went on to play at Ole Miss) and Delvin starred at McDonogh 35, playing football, the rest of the kids were all around the stadium.
“Football is basically all I knew, coming up behind them,” Kedrick, who played receiver last season for Tulane, said of his older brothers. “Chasing behind them had me advanced.”
And everybody knew Ms. Juanita’s whistle.
It’s a sound that allowed her to communicate with her children on the playing field — or elsewhere. And it entailed a code: Sometimes it meant, “What’s up? You missed the tackle.” Or “What’s up? You missed the ball!” Or “Great play!” Or “I see you out there!”
Sometimes, it just meant, “What’s up?” It always meant mom wants something from one of her kids, no matter where they were in the area.
A hand in the air was the typical response, meaning, “Yeah, momma, I did that.” Or “My bad. I’ll do better.” Or “I’m OK.”
On Oct. 27, 2006, when Delvin struggled to raise his arm after an injury on kickoff coverage, she knew something was wrong. She left the stands, where she was recording the game against Jesuit.
“Oh mom, it’s starting to get hard for me to breathe.”
“Get the ambulance. Get us up out of here.”
At the hospital, a doctor told them he had suffered a broken vertebra in his neck.
“Mama, I’m going to have to have surgery?”
“Man, you’re going to be good. You’re good.”
Delvin told doctors they can do whatever procedure they need to — “as long as my mom can stay in here.”
The long road
Even now, Delvin uses many of the lessons taught by his mother to progress through sports, a journey that took him from LSU, where he never played college football; to the Hammond Vipers, a semi-pro team and his first contact football experience since his senior season of high school; to the New Orleans VooDoo, an Arena Football League franchise; to two seasons with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the Canadian Football League.
“She was there for me, whenever I needed her,” he said. “Sometimes I was crying because I couldn’t make a play or crying because I thought I lost a game for a team, and she was there, too, supporting me and lifting me up, telling me, ‘Look, son, a lot of people make bad plays. ... Just know that you always have next week. You always have another run at it, so don’t feel down about the one time. Come back next week and score four more touchdowns instead of three or two.’ ”
Even now, as he prepares to compete for a roster spot in the Saints secondary, he knows that if he makes a bad play, if a receiver catches a pass over him, mom taught him to move on to the next play. Go get you an interception.
Like most moms, she calls him. And calls. And calls. Even when he was in Canada.
“What you doing? How’s practice? You made any plays yet?”
They talk before games.
“You ready, huh?”
“Yeah, I’m ready, mom. I dreamed about making a big play.”
“I already know you ready. Ain’t nothing to it. Just go out there and do your thing, have fun and I love you.”
In New Orleans, the family watched Delvin’s CFL games on a flat-screen television, streaming from a laptop.
“When he would play on TV, you’d swear to God that we’re in the stadium,” she said. “We have some fun in here.”
Later: “Son, what happened? Why you let the dude ...”
Now Delvin gets to play in New Orleans.
“It’s going to be amazing,” Delvin’s youngest brother, Lionel III, said of his future with the Saints. “I know what he’s capable of. I know he works hard. I’m just happy to see my bro finally make it.”
Delvin, who also goes by the nickname “Chip” and whose football career started in the Goretti and Harrell Park programs in New Orleans, said he plays the game with the same passion and pace he did before his near-death experience. Yet he had to work to earn his sister’s approval.
“Seeing him in the hospital with the screws and the weights holding his head steady — it was a scary sight — I never wanted him to play football again,” Kierra said. “But the minute he was able to get out the hospital, he was saying he was going back to play. And I said, ‘You crazy.’ But he said it’s his dream, and he always wanted to play football. So I’m just wishing the best for him.”
Juanita, like Delvin, shares in the belief that his injury was a freak accident, not expected to repeat.
“When he gets on the field, I don’t get scared,” she said. “I can watch every play. I don’t have to turn my head when they get on defense. I got to see if he made the play. ‘Come on! Wrap up! Open your hips!’ I’m coaching! I’m not just mom.”