JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – It's the last week of preseason football, and dozens of NFL players are trying to make every day count.
Jacksonville Jaguars wide receiver Toney Clemons, however, is playing for more than his career.
He was leaving the locker room in May when he got a call from his mother. She had always been a rock, no matter how difficult things got. The whole Clemons family is quick with a positive word and a smile. This time, though, Toney's mom was unable to keep it together.
This was about Maiyanna.
Toney's niece was born in December, 2009, and she had the family spirit right away. Her first words were "oh wow!" and that pretty much captured a curious mind and heart. Maiy began walking at nine months, so she had Uncle Toney's athletic genes too. Her mother, Mycah, was a state championship hurdler.
"She's very strong," says Mycah, who lives with Maiy in Pittsburgh, where her brother used to play for the Steelers. "Independent, stubborn, intuitive, extremely loving, caring."
Maiy fell in love with princesses and pink dresses, like so many little girls do. She went to the park and ran around on her chunky legs. She had a round face and dark eyes and often, a flower in her hair.
Early this summer, Mycah noticed her daughter had a little trouble with balance. Her eyes were shifting in a strange way. Maybe it was pink eye, Mycah though. Then Maiy told her mom, "You have two heads." She pointed to the side of Mycah's face.
An optometrist couldn't figure it out. Maiy was sent for an MRI.
"They found a mass in her brain stem," Mycah struggles to say over the phone. "Said it was inoperable. Said it was terminal. Said it was very rare.
"They gave her a year."
Maiy was diagnosed with Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma, or DIPG, a vicious form of cancer that mostly affects children under the age of 10. There's no known cure. Maiy underwent 31 radiation treatments into July. She was back in the hospital Monday, fighting off a bacterial infection.
"It changed me," says Clemons, standing by his locker. "It kind of changed how I thought about the game – what it represented to me."
When he got the news in May, the 24-year-old Clemons called new Jaguars coach Gus Bradley and asked to leave OTAs for a day to be with Mycah. He came back from Pittsburgh with a stronger feeling about making the opening day roster.
"It's something I know I have the ability to do," he says. "You have a lot of potential to do some good things. It's a shame that this had to be a wake up call, but that's what it's been."
Clemons, a seventh-round pick in last year's draft, has a good shot to make the team. He has inched ahead on the depth chart since camp began. Each day, he brings to work the knowledge that his 3-year-old niece went to the hospital this summer while he went to practice. He knows she may only have weeks to live. It's been three months since the diagnosis, and the three months from now until her fourth birthday are not assured. If Clemons does make the final cut, though, it will help him contribute to Maiy's medical costs. That's yet another reason to push a little harder every day.
"We're not grim," he insists, "because she's not grim."
When she's not in the hospital, Maiy still plays with friends, still goes to the park and swims. The good news is radiation had a surprisingly good effect on the size of the tumor. "She did really well," Mycah says. "She didn't show any symptoms. Her body is responding very well."
The next MRI will be important. They all are. For now, Mycah is seeking alternative forms of therapy and trying to make life magical in their home, which Maiy calls "a castle."
Maiy can't fly because of the possible pressure on her brain, but she and her mom are planning to drive from Pennsylvania to Orlando in a couple of weeks to see the princesses at Disney World. There is the hope that Maiy can see her uncle play in person again.
"She's living," Mycah says. "She's not dying."
The family is raising money for Maiy at www.maiysmiracle.org, and trying to make every day both normal and extraordinary for a vibrant girl. Toney calls every day, no matter how busy he is with camp. Sometimes Maiy doesn't feel like talking. He listens anyway. It's enough to have her there at the other end of the line.
It's enough to remind him of his goal and his sister's: to have the season of a lifetime.