Cowboys’ James finds mission in mom’s death
Etta Mae James had let her insurance lapse to pay for her husband’s insurance as he battled kidney disease for almost 12 years. Three months before her husband died, Etta Mae found out she had an aggressive form of breast cancer, which killed her within six months.
James, then a sophomore at LSU, lost both his parents in a three-month span nine years ago. While he’s a long way from the down days of grief, the fact that he didn’t have to lose his mother drives him to this day.
“I turned a mess into a message,” said James, who will host some 20 family members at his home in Dallas on Sunday. “I did a lot of reading about breast cancer when I was in college. I was in the perfect place to learn and even though I really couldn’t talk about it with many people back then, I knew it was going to be my calling.
“I was going to do something to make sure other people didn’t have to go through what I had to go through.”
This year, 65 women in the Dallas area have received mammograms courtesy of James’ Foundation 56, which helps to fight breast cancer. Of those women, approximately 90 percent had never had a test for breast cancer. His efforts earned him a nomination this year for the prestigious Byron “Whizzer” White Award from the NFL Players Association (Oakland cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha(notes) won it). He also earned a coveted JB Award handed out by CBS broadcaster James Brown.
The accolades are a drastic change from the days after his mother died. In September 2000, Etta Mae James felt a sharp pain in her side and found she had cancer, but didn’t tell any of her children.
“She didn’t want to burden anyone, she wanted to protect them,” said Jeannette Conway, Etta Mae’s sister and best friend. By February 2001 the cancer had ravaged Etta Mae’s body despite two surgeries. “It wasn’t until just a few days before she passed that she gave me permission to tell everyone.”
James, still dealing with the shock of losing his father before the Peach Bowl during his sophomore season, was stunned into silence. Only months before, his dying father had told him to take care of his mother. He never had a chance to fulfill his promise to his dad.
In the weeks after his mother died, James lost weight and eventually saw a counselor after he returned to LSU. He resisted talking until the therapist related a story of a young woman who had lost her family in a car crash.
“She told the doctor that a lot of people would think about committing suicide after going through that, but she was going to keep going. She said, ‘I’m going to keep going for me, take care of me,’ ” James said. “That’s when I realized I had to do something with all of this. It took me about three or four years to really talk about it and figure it out, but this is what I’m supposed to do. This is my purpose.”
These days, the sadness is mostly gone, replaced by the idea of celebrating his mother and everyone else in his family. On Sunday, James is going to do some serious cooking on his new Big Green Egg smoker.
“We don’t want anybody getting too down,” James said. “You know what happens, one woman starts crying and it’s a chain reaction.”
He laughs, knowing that his aunt is the prime candidate to shed some tears.
“I’m just so very proud of him because after she passed, he was real silent,” Conway said. “You don’t want to talk about the emotions at first and it took him a long time. Awhile later, we finally were able to talk about it, just a normal conversation and he said he had a plan to do something about this. He’s done it. He’s really done it, put his heart into it.”
In the process, James has relieved others of facing the same burden his mother and family had to face.
One example is 61-year-old Ruby McGee, who lives in Duncanville, Texas, just outside Dallas. Between fear and lack of insurance, McGee went 15 years without being tested for breast cancer. That’s akin to playing Russian roulette with three bullets.
“You’re just so nervous about it, both about finding out what might be there and about paying for it,” said McGee, who has had trouble maintaining insurance coverage while bouncing between full-time and part-time work at Burlington Coat Factory. “When I finally got a chance to go, it was such a relief … I gotta go back this month for another check-up, but you feel so much stronger knowing what’s going on with your body.”
“I’m just so glad he’s doing this for women,” McGee said. “It takes a lot of pressure off you when you’re in a situation like this, not knowing if you’re going to be able to pay, if you have insurance. You just don’t know what this means for me, for my whole family.”
This is exactly the kind of reaction James hoped for when he started Foundation 56. On Mother’s Day, James will celebrate Etta Mae James’ life with his family and hopes that his efforts will continue to help many other families.