SportsMonday: ‘She's here with me’

Sunday, September 15, 2019 - 3:23pm

Before senior Nick Eubanks' mother passed away, she left him with a parting message: “It’s going to be alright.”

Before senior Nick Eubanks' mother passed away, she left him with a parting message: “It’s going to be alright.” Buy this photo
Alec Cohen/Daily

Nick Eubanks felt chills when he heard the play-call. He knew it was one designed to free him over the middle, a play Michigan had practiced repeatedly in the lead-up to its Nov. 17, 2018 bout with Indiana. He lined up on the right side of the line, put his hand on the ground, heard the cadence and started flying as if carried by the wings of an angel.

He released up the field, darting up the seam through the Hoosiers’ defense. As Zach Gentry broke to the corner and the safety chased, Eubanks knew the rest was inevitable. It was a moment born of unspeakable tragedy and unthinkable resilience, and finally it was all his. His, and nobody else’s. Gone, if only for an instant, was the burdensome past. The end zone beckoned.

Eubanks caught a dart from Shea Patterson at the opposing 20. There was nothing but green grass in front, but his head jolted right, left and right again to be sure. It was the first touchdown of his career. Then he crossed the goal line, as the band played “The Victors” and the roar of 110,000-plus washed over. 

He didn’t hear much, but he felt plenty.

He felt his head drop, the wave of emotion crashing down. He felt those chills crawl back up his spine. He felt his nine siblings, sprawled out across the country, with him. At his brother in-law’s house over 1,000 miles away, Nick’s father, Clayton, leapt from the couch and screamed. Nick felt that, too.

Mostly, though, he felt his mom.

“I just had my head down,” Eubanks recalled last Tuesday afternoon, “and was just thinking, like, ‘After all I went through, especially battling injuries, battling doubts, battling myself.’ I had rough days in practice, messing up in practice, not being counted on. I just thought about all them times. It just hit me.” 

Then he looked up, pointed two fingers at the sky and addressed his mom with two words.

“Thank you.”

***

Cassandra Eubanks’ dream car was a Chevy Suburban. Nick hoped from a young age that she’d live to see him buy it for her.

As she was losing strength in the late 2000s, Nick slowly entering adolescence, he began to understand that dream wouldn’t come to fruition. Cassandra had been battling cervical cancer for nearly a decade, though Nick and his nine siblings didn’t know the extent until the bitter end. She fought it hard and meticulously, doing chemotherapy and radiation unbeknownst to her children. At first, the effort was to great effect. The cancer regressed; the Eubanks’ thought she was in the clear.

“And then it came back,” Clayton said over the phone last week. “And, what? They say it comes back with a vengeance? It did.”

With the cancer spreading and Cassandra’s health declining, the doctors recommended amputating her leg. The doctors felt it was the most effective way to rid her of the tumor. Amid tribulations and consternation, the family agreed it was the best course of action.

Clayton was headed to work when a doctor called to explain the recommendation. Harried by the news, he got a ticket for speeding through a school district on his way to the hospital.

“I always kept faith knowing that she would pull through, because she fought it all her life and ‘I’ll beat it,’ ” Nick recalled. “It got to a point where she was losing her strength and stuff like that, and basically that was it for her.”

Cassandra, 51, died of post-surgical complications on Sept. 11, 2011. To this day, Clayton regrets the decision to attempt the surgery.

“I wish I’d never have did that, but she left it on me,” Clayton said. “... Because it was all for nothing, and I was kind of just mad, really. Like I said, it was all for nothing.”

Nick, 14 at the time, internalized the emotions from that trauma. He was a reticent kid already, and the tragedy stayed clouded in an adolescent haze of confusion.

“He’s a shy person, man. He’s not talkative,” Clayton said. “He was sorta like me with that; he kept a lot of that inside. I know (my kids) cried and stuff, but he didn’t express a lot. And I tried to do my best talking with him and stuff, make him understand what their mother would want from them.”

Cassandra left her second-youngest son with a parting message, one Nick holds dear to his heart. 

“Before she passed away, I think two days before, I was in the room with her, and she was just like, ‘It’s going to be alright.’ ” Eubanks said. “That’s the only thing she kept telling me. ‘It’s going to be alright.’ And then, from that point on, through every adversity I’ve faced — being here, being hurt freshman and sophomore year — I just had that message in the back of my head. 

“It’s going to be alright. It’s going to be alright.”

That’s when Nick turned to football, which doubled as both a coping mechanism and a tribute. It was always Cassandra’s dream for Nick to make it big in football, even while, at the time, his focus largely centered around basketball. Nick dove into football head-on.

There were no guarantees, but his large frame and athletic gift made the transition a smooth one. He was a late-bloomer in recruiting, but as is often the case, word spread quickly once schools took notice. Alabama, Auburn and Florida all took interest. All Eubanks really wanted, though, was a sense of belonging and trust. At Michigan, he found both, and he knew it right away. To the public, the commitment mere days before National Signing Day came as a shock.

As he was leaving Ann Arbor, Nick called Clayton to break the news that he was committing.

“That was kinda quick,” Clayton said. 

“Yeah, man,” Nick replied. “It felt right at home.”

Morsels of Cassandra’s ethos constantly linger with Nick, both physical and metaphysical. Often they emerge in times of distress — a need to summon strength when his own is put to the test. Sometimes he’ll talk to her when he’s all alone, repeating things she used to say to him or do for him. Anything to push forward.

After he broke his forearm against Purdue early in the 2017 season, ending a potential breakout season in September, Eubanks’ frustration quickly morphed into dread. He’d caught two passes, including a 41-yard catch down the seam, in the season-opener against Florida. That existent dread soon turned to self-reflection, then angst.

He started asking himself if he still wanted to play. Recalling that time, perhaps the most trying in his career, Eubanks conveys sincerity in his desire to quit. He spoke to friends and family about the possibility. He spoke with Tarik Black and Jake Butt, both of whom are close confidants and understand his background, about his concerns. 

“I kinda thought, ‘This is something I don’t want to do anymore,’ ” Eubanks recalled. “I kind of had a thought of myself, like, ‘This is not you talking. This is not the Nick you were before she left.’ I kinda got myself back with that.

“ ‘You don’t quit,’ that’s something she told me. You don’t just sit down. There’s obstacles in life that’s gonna beat you down to the point you don’t want to do it anymore or you think you can’t do it anymore. I just always had that message saying, ‘You got this, man.’ ”

As Eubanks speaks, his voice remains steadfast, cracking occasionally to collect his emotions. This is not a tale he tells liberally. He makes clear that he does not intend to engender sympathy or pity. He has never told his coaches, Jim Harbaugh included, about his mother and he doesn’t know what they do or don’t know.

He and Harbaugh often sit together upstairs in Schembechler Hall, exchanging small talk over dinner. Harbaugh will ask about school or life. Sometimes he’ll tell Eubanks stories of previous tight ends he’s coached. Eubanks says it’s helped him grow as a player. Though Nick has never told Harbaugh directly, Clayton tipped him off to the family’s background early on — those conversations, in that context, doubling as a check-in.

Harbaugh often swaps texts with Clayton, spanning from check-ins on his son to well-wishes for the team. The two have struck up an unusual kinship, “to the point where they’re becoming best friends,” Nick said.

The loss of Cassandra struck Clayton in a uniquely crushing way, and it’s evident in the way he speaks. He often refers to his children as “good kids” and that he did “the best that I could.” Cassandra, by all accounts, was the family’s unifier. When she passed, the book lost its spine.

“Nick, he’s a strong kid, man,” Clayton said. “They loved their mom. And she loved them. She loved them to death; they knew it. And they wanted to finish what they started, and I admire that. That kid came a long way. And I did the best that I could with him. I had to be Mom and Dad. We came through it together, really.”

But then, just as you seem to understand Clayton Eubanks, a flashbulb memory comes firing from the recesses of his past. He recounts, in excruciating detail, getting called into the office in 10th grade; being told his mother had passed away; running home, not waiting for a ride; walking up to the house, and being told cancer had taken her. 

Suddenly, the scale of his grief takes on new meaning. Suddenly, the ripple effects shower down; the tragedies hold new weight.

It was all for nothing… like I said, it was all for nothing.

The totality of those losses, and the succession of the two, cannot possibly be quantified in Clayton’s or Nick’s lives. How does a father possibly handle raising his kids under the exact same pain he experienced? How can he look Nick in the eyes, and sincerely tell him it was going to be alright? 

That is, of course, not something Nick — at age 14 or 22 —  can properly contextualize. Neither he, nor Clayton, can properly put into words the impact those experiences had on his upbringing, nor the rest of his siblings.

“It kinda sent me spiraling, really,” Clayton said. “I got out of control for a minute. Once I got past that, I met his mom. And eventually, we started having kids. Kids are nice.”

Eubanks chooses not to dwell on those complexities. He’s focused, for the time being, on making the most of his last season at Michigan, continually improving. To start the year, he’s shown hints of being an integral part of the new offense. Flashing a smile, he says he’s even hoping to get his dad up for a game from Florida, circling the Ohio State game as a distinct possibility.

“I carry her spirit with me,” he said, “just having a good spirit. Just having her in my ear, in my corner, being that person that’s here with me, even though she’s not.”

Then he flashes the inside of his left forearm, pointing to a tattoo bearing her name. He often looks down when he’s going through something. Maybe it’s after a rough practice. Perhaps another injury arises. The understanding is clear.

“She’s here with me.”