After tragedy, N.J. mom inspired by NFL

Benjamin Lowy for ESPN

Gina DiBenedetto says football, the Broncos and Peyton Manning have helped her heal after her daughter died in a house fire on Super Bowl Sunday five years ago.

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Kaylee Ramos loved football.

The 12-year-old from Freehold, N.J., was wearing a Troy Polamalu jersey the night she died. The Steelers had just won Super Bowl XLIII, and Kaylee convinced her mom to let her wear the No. 43 jersey to bed.

Gina DiBenedetto thinks about her daughter every day, but the memories are especially powerful at the moment -- because it was five years ago today, on Feb. 2, that Kaylee died in a house fire.

Benjamin Lowy for ESPN

Gina DiBenedetto was joined by her husband, Anthony, at Super Bowl media day.

DiBenedetto (formerly Ramos) was a single mom at the time, living in an old Victorian home with her four daughters: Kaylee, Lacey (now 20), Julianne (16) and Gracie (7). A faulty electrical wire caused the fire. Gracie, then just a toddler, awoke the family around 2 a.m. with her screams. Gina gathered all her daughters and led them outside; she didn't realize Kaylee had somehow become separated from them along the way. When Gina tried to rush back inside, the smoke, thick as a curtain, knocked her back. She tried a dozen times.

Kaylee died of smoke asphyxiation.

DiBenedetto thought she would never watch football again. Kaylee loved the sport so much, her mother could not bear to be reminded of it. When you lose a child, the world becomes filled with land mines, crushing bursts of emotion around every corner. DiBenedetto was just trying to make it through every day as best she could, after moving her family into her mother's house in Manalapan, N.J., and eventually getting remarried.

One day in late 2012, she found herself curled on the couch, crying. Kaylee's birthday was approaching, and Gina was so sad thinking about it, she turned her attention to the TV for some relief. Her husband, Anthony, was watching football, and the Denver Broncos were fighting their way out of a 24-0 hole.

Soon, Gina was sitting up, her eyes pinned on Peyton Manning as the Broncos quarterback orchestrated an amazing comeback against the San Diego Chargers. By the end of the game, a 35-24 Denver win, Gina was standing and shouting his name in excitement.

The metaphor did not escape her. Yes, life had delivered her a crushing blow. She had lost a child. She had lost everything she owned. She felt like she was down big at halftime, hopeless against such odds. But perhaps she could regain control, too?

"I never thought I would look to football the way I do now," the 40-year-old DiBenedetto told espnW. "I can't live without it."

She doesn't care that the Broncos were blown out of Super Bowl XLVIII, losing 43-8 to the Seattle Seahawks. A win would have been wonderful, of course, but Manning has already given DiBenedetto something so much more important.

"I'm sick of everybody talking about his legacy," she said. "He is signed, sealed, delivered. Just the fact that he made it back to the Super Bowl -- with his neck injury, he didn't know if he would ever be able to play again. And I didn't know if I would be able to live again. The way Peyton takes control of things, you need that instinct as a mom, too. I still have three kids I need to lead. I'm still trying to turn my tragedy into triumph."

DiBenedetto now watches the NFL Network every day. She rattles off statistics and facts. The wallpaper on her computer is a picture of Manning, and on days when she is struggling, she flips open her laptop for inspiration. Football provides a distraction, yes, but also a source of comfort -- the reassurance that coming from behind is possible.

Last Sunday, DiBenedetto waited six hours in the freezing temperatures outside the Hyatt Regency in Jersey City just to catch a glimpse of Manning. Simply seeing him from afar, amid a crowd of people, filled her with gratitude. And if she could ever meet him face-to-face, she would tell him one simple thing: Thank you.

"I latched onto this sport when all I had done before was make chicken wings for a party," she said. "But my daughter loved football, and now I need it. For a few hours a week, those players help me put everything else aside."

Before Sunday's game, Gina went to Kaylee's gravesite with orange and navy balloons -- Broncos colors. She doesn't visit the cemetery often. It's still too hard. Seeing Kaylee's name etched into stone is a painful reminder of permanence.

"I'm not shedding a tear that he lost," DiBenedetto said of Manning. "He's my hero. Quarterbacks get the best out of their teammates; that's their job. And that's how I have to raise my kids. I have to find out how to get the best out of them. I have to find out how to heal them."

Inspiration isn't an endless resource. When you find it -- wherever you find it -- you hold on tightly.

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