Saturday, June 20, 2009
Stephen Nicholas' arms were wrapped around his infant son, somewhat loosely because he didn't want to bump the tubes that had kept the child alive the past four months.
Wife Irene sat nearby and the doctor began talking. The doctor said the tubes were going to come out that afternoon. Stephen and Irene looked at each other and started crying as both minds registered the same two thoughts.
Stephen Nicholas Jr. had been in Children's Hospital Boston since last summer, waiting for a heart suitable to transplant into his little body.
"That was the doctor's way of saying there was a heart coming in,'' Stephen said.
Stephen Jr. was going to get a shot at life with a new heart. Tears of joy for a few seconds. Then, tears of sadness.
"The most bittersweet moment you can imagine,'' Irene said. "Our baby was going to get a new heart. But then you realize the heart had to come from someone his age and his size.''
Somewhere, someone else had lost a baby.
The date was Oct. 17, 2008. The surgery took hours upon hours and finally ended sometime around 4 the next morning. When the father saw the son at around noon, the baby had better color and was looking more alert than ever.
In another few weeks, Stephen Jr. would be given a clean bill of health and sent home to Atlanta. The doctors all have said Stephen Jr. should have a normal and healthy life.
If you looked over at the bleachers where the families sat during the Atlanta Falcons' minicamp practices last month, you never would have guessed life had been far from normal for the Nicholas family. When practice was over, the father went over to where the son sat with his mother. Within a few seconds, the two were running around and rolling in the grass.
Teammates walked by and smiled at the scene. Their wives and girlfriends watched the two Stephens and there might have been a few tears. This was the happiest ending to the best-kept secret of the 2008 season for the Falcons.
While rookie quarterback Matt Ryan was lighting up the NFL and the Falcons were making a run to the playoffs as the NFL's most surprising team, there was a little family secret that wasn't public because it was a very private matter.
Now Stephen, Irene and the Falcons are ready to tell the story that everyone else helped keep quiet last year.
Stephen and Irene were going through hell, but they had 52 other Falcons, a coaching staff, an owner and an entire building of employees quietly helping them along.
After all the craziness (the Michael Vick saga, Jim Mora melting down and Bobby Petrino walking out on his team) that had surrounded the Falcons in recent years, this story -- even more than the playoff run -- demonstrates a franchise with sanity, compassion and priorities that are very much in order.
It all started soon after Jan. 6, 2008, when Stephen Jr. was born. He was the first child for Stephen and Irene, but the new parents quickly could tell something wasn't right.
"He was sleeping all the time and he barely would eat,'' Irene said.
There was a flurry of visits to pediatricians in Jacksonville, Fla., where the Nicholas family makes its offseason home. Nothing was really clear and doctors eventually sent the baby to a hospital in nearby Gainesville for more evaluation. That's when it first became apparent that something was wrong with Stephen Jr.'s heart.
More tests only enhanced that idea and, with help from Stephanie Blank, wife of Falcons owner Arthur Blank, Stephen Jr. was airlifted to Atlanta. Stephanie Blank is a board member at Children's Hospital of Atlanta. There, doctors determined the baby had cardiomyopathy, a condition where the heart isn't able to properly pump blood throughout the body.
At first, Stephen Jr. was given medication and sent home. There was some mild improvement, but it didn't last long.
"I can't even begin to tell you how many trips we made back to the emergency room,'' Irene said.
A few weeks before Stephen, 26, and the Falcons were scheduled to begin training camp last July, doctors sat him and Irene down.
"They basically said it wasn't getting any better and that just treating it with medication wasn't going to work,'' Stephen said. "He had to have a heart transplant and it would have to come soon. There was no other choice at that point.''
Irene and the baby went to Boston. Stephen went to training camp, where he went through the motions, but his heart was in Boston. For the next four months, Stephen Jr., wired with tubes of medication to help keep his heart functioning, waited for a donor they weren't sure would come in time.
As all this was going on, there was a development that makes you realize the NFL isn't always the cold, hard business we always hear about. First-year coach Mike Smith, a gentle man with a family of his own, sat down Nicholas and told him not to worry about his job security.
"We were very cognizant of what was going on and wanted to make sure he was able to get to Boston as often as possible,'' Smith said. "We wanted him to be with his wife and baby because that was a very trying situation.''
Smith offered a deal. Each Sunday night during the season, Nicholas could fly to Boston from wherever the Falcons were playing. He could take Monday and Tuesday off and fly back to Atlanta in time for Wednesday's practice.
The show of support went even deeper than that. As a second-year backup, Nicholas wasn't making a lot of money. Two veteran teammates, who don't want to be named, helped take care of his travel expenses and the costs of Irene staying in Boston.
Then there was Kevin Winston. Officially, he's the Falcons' director of player programs. Unofficially, he's the team's social worker and a big brother to the players. Winston looks like he could play linebacker, but has a soft spot for anyone who's going through a tough time.
"Kevin was on the phone with me all the time,'' Irene said. "He was always checking to see if there was anything I needed or anything the Falcons could do.''
Back in Atlanta, Stephen was able to focus on football for a few hours each day. He was a fixture on special teams and a backup at outside linebacker.
"It says a lot about Stephen's character that he was able to still play football while he was going through all that,'' Smith said. "It also says a lot about our football team and how the guys rallied around him.''
The situation also revealed an awful lot about Irene. She might have been the strongest of all. She was on the front line, sitting with Stephen Jr. every day, not knowing how long his heart would last or if a new one was coming.
"She's a rock,'' Stephen said. "She held down the fort and told me to keep plugging with football because we had to keep going on. I thank God for giving her to me. Every day when I go home now, I kiss my wife and I kiss my baby. I've been blessed with both of them.''
As Father's Day approaches this weekend, things are back to normal around the Nicholas' house -- as normal as can be expected when you're the proud parents of a rambunctious 18-month-old.
"He's more than normal now and really has been since just a few days after the surgery,'' Irene said. "He's into everything and he never really stops, but that's fine with us.''
Without knowing what was going on behind the scenes last season, some Falcons fans were wondering why Stephen was having a quiet year, after a promising rookie season, and not getting on the field much even though starting linebackers Michael Boley and Keith Brooking weren't having great seasons.
Now, fans know. The Falcons learned plenty about Nicholas last season and that's part of the reason they let Boley and Brooking go.
Nicholas has been working as the starter on the strong side throughout the offseason. Part of that is because the Falcons believe his physical skills are ready to blossom. And part of it may be because Nicholas already has shown he's the strongest player on the roster as a person.
"Stephen and his wife are incredibly strong,'' Smith said. "And they've gotten even stronger because of what they've been through.''
This year, Nicholas is looking forward to training camp and a shot at a starting job. Irene and Stephen Jr. won't be so far away this time. In fact, Nicholas already is looking forward to taking some glances at the bleachers between plays to see his son, safe, sound and healthy.
"It's going to be nice to be out there with a clear mind,'' Nicholas said.
WRITTEN by Pat Yasinskas for ESPN.com on June 19th, 2009