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Mark Twain said the two most important moments in a person’s life are when you’re born and when you find out why.
I’m originally from Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. It's predominantly African-American. There were five of us. I’m the oldest.
My mom was just full of life. She had a smile that would light up a room. But she was hardly ever there. She was using drugs and prostituting. I was cooking dinners, changing diapers, braiding hair, and doing the caregiving.
My mom married my stepdad and moved the family to Staten Island when I was six years old. I remember driving around the neighborhood. I didn’t see one black face.
One day I came home from school and I rushed to go to the restroom. I opened the door and my mom was sitting there shooting drugs into her arm. I just stared at her. I asked, “What are you doing?”
She said, “This is gonna kill me, and I don’t ever want you to do this.” I said, “Mom, if you know it’s going to kill you, why are you doing it?” She told me it makes the pain go away. And then she proceeded maybe five seconds later to tell me that when she was eighteen years old, two guys grabbed her, covered her mouth, and raped her.
I’m a product of that horrific moment. I was a constant living, walking, talking reminder. I was really, really scared. I was upset with my mom.
Then my stepdad introduced me to the game of football.
He was a die-hard Jets fan. And I tell you what—that was one day that changed my life.
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I wanted to play that game. I realized that there was something about football that gave me an opportunity to unleash frustration and unleash being unhappy about things that were going on at home. I was always the smallest kid, but it didn’t matter. I just loved that game.
One day when I was fifteen years old, I woke up and I went through my normal routine. I went in the room to wake my mom up, but I couldn’t wake her up. I kept shaking her. I couldn’t wake her up.
She died from pneumonia due to complications from drug use. Three years later, my stepdad died after a sudden stroke, leaving me responsible for four siblings.
I had made a promise to my mother that I was going to keep my family together. I had an athletic scholarship to Carson College, and I woke up the next day and I said, “I have to turn pro.” I wasn’t a great athlete. I had no business playing in the National Football League. But if I didn’t pull this off, my family was gone. So I gave it everything I had.
When you don’t have an option, when it’s totally taken away from you forever, you go to Option B
Every practice, every play, I gave it. I was ready to die on the football field. Anyone who came up against me who wasn’t ready to die, I was beating them. I kept that mentality. And I played in the National Football League for six years.
I was so resilient and determined because I knew that I had to do this for my family. When you don’t have an option, when it’s totally taken away from you forever, you go to Option B—and you kick ass with everything you have.
Learn more about Vernon’s story on the Player’s Tribune.