I found defensive end Justin Tuck’s reaction to his Giants’ Super Bowl victory most disquieting.
While all around him confetti fell and celebration raged, while teammates hugged and laughed and donned victory headgear, Tuck took a knee and took in the scene.
When asked by an on-field reporter how he felt, he could barely acknowledge the question, much less offer an answer. He seemed totally overwhelmed.
Now I know why.
Tuck was overcome with thoughts of his friend, Evan Sullivano. Tuck met Sullivano through the efforts of the Ashley Lauren Foundation (ALF), which assists New Jersey families with children battling cancer.
Evan had been quite the football player in middle school. In 2005, the 13-year-old became captain of his Middletown Eagles Pop Warner team. The stocky running back earned the nickname “The Brick” for his ability to burst through defenses for touchdowns.
He earned his league’s Most Valuable Player award, which in turn earned him a visit from Middletown South High School’s star running back, Knowshon Moreno. Evan’s dream became playing for his beloved Giants in the Super Bowl.
Then came the headaches. And the weight loss. And the greenish hue to his skin. In March 2006 came the diagnosis: acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
Evan spent six weeks in the hospital, and doctors were optimistic for a full recovery. “I really believed he was going to play football that summer, and he believed that,” his mother, Debbie, told Dustin Racioppi of the Asbury Park Press.
As Evan battled his disease, his father died of a heart attack, and the family home was foreclosed. In 2009, when Monica Vermeulen, executive director of the ALF, learned that Evan’s favorite football player was Justin Tuck, she arranged a meeting.
“Evan walks up and sees him,” his sister, Nikki Lane, told Racioppi, “and he goes, ‘Hey!’ like they were buddies. And from then on, they were.”
“When I first met Evan, it wasn’t with the intention of having a prolonged relationship,” Tuck told the ALF website. “I just wanted to go down there and give him a good word and try to encourage him a little bit. But we clicked so much in that first meeting; we exchanged e-mail addresses and then, later, phone numbers. We actually became pretty good friends.”
A year later, Tuck invited Evan to spend a Wednesday at the Giants’ complex and noticed the green plastic bracelet Evan wore. It said “Brick Strong” and had been produced as part of a fundraiser for Evan. Tuck was wearing a pink bracelet for cancer. They decided to trade bracelets.
The bracelet “has nothing to do with lifting weights, nothing to do with how many push-ups you can do,” Tuck told Rachel Nichols of ESPN. “It’s all about mental toughness. Cancer was eating away at his body. His mind never wavered. I never saw him down.
“I think a lot of times, in situations like that, you think that I’m the one having an effect on him. He had just as much, if not more, of an effect on me. And how I played and how I go about my daily life, just watching how strong he was going through what he was going through.”
That Sunday, Evan got to watch Tuck and his Giants beat the Lions, 28-20. He got to be on the sideline before the game. He saw Tuck make four tackles and recover a fumble.
“When we got home,” Debbie told Nichols, “he finally looked at me and said, ‘I’m dying, aren’t I?’ And I had to tell him. All he said was, ‘I’m just so young.’ I told him, you’re going to be with daddy, and you can play football all you want.”
Evan’s battle ended nine days later, on October 26, 2010. His last request was to be buried wearing Tuck’s jersey, wearing Tuck’s bracelet.
“I definitely cried,” Tuck told Nichols. “I know a lot of people think I’m the big, tough, bad football player, but it wasn’t the normal football player-fan type relationship. It became a lot more than that.”
As for Evan’s bracelet, “I never take it off,” Tuck told Nichols. “It’s hard to complain about anything, to look at and see it, and, just the message on it — Brick Strong.”
Tuck wore the bracelet during the Super Bowl, where he turned in a game-changing play on his very first snap, forcing Tom Brady to throw a pass away from the endzone, resulting in a safety for the Giants. Those two points became crucial in the game’s final minute, when Tuck also added a key sack.
Debbie Sullivano was watching, and she saw Evan’s bracelet on Tuck’s wrist. “He looked up to the sky, like, ‘Aha, I got the sack!’” she told Racioppi. “Evan always wanted to make it to the Super Bowl, and he made it to the Super Bowl! His dream came true.”
And what did it mean to Jason Tuck, winning the Super Bowl while wearing Evan’s bracelet? “It means a lot,” he told Nichols. “I wish he was here to see it. But you know what? I know he’s watching, and I know he’s smiling.
“Evan, Brick Strong, baby.
“Love you, boy!”