FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Outside linebacker Matt Judon has quickly endeared himself to New England Patriots fans with exemplary performance and red sleeves that pop like his play. But preparing for a big home game against the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday (4:25 p.m. ET, CBS), Judon is all about pink.
The Patriots will be highlighting the NFL's "Crucial Catch" mission to fight cancer through early detection and risk reduction. The mission hits close to Judon's heart after his mother, Pieretta Hairston, was diagnosed with breast cancer in February 2020.
"My mom means the world to me. When we wear those colors, or we say 'real men wear pink,' it's not just out there to put on a show. A lot of our family members, or people we know and love, went through that. It's very real," Judon said Tuesday. "Bringing awareness to the situation, and also empowering the people going through it, it means so much."
Thankfully for Pieretta, she isn't going through the toughest parts of it anymore. She received word that she was in remission about four months ago, which was news she had prayed for since receiving the initial diagnosis that doctors at University of Michigan Hospital told her was detected between Stage 1 and 2.
The first thing Pieretta did was take a picture of the paperwork and text it to her 10 children.
"To ring that bell on my last day of treatment, I know a lot of people don't get to because they find it late. But finding it early helped me a lot," she said. "They told me the type I had was very aggressive, and moves fast, and could have moved into my chest, throat and brain area. I'm grateful every day I wake up that I still have my life."
For Judon, who has already registered 6.5 sacks this season, talking about Pieretta shows a compassionate side that is in contrast to his high-intensity, ultra-physical style of play.
"I can speak for hours about my mom, and tell story after story about the amazing person she is," he said. "So her being able to still be here after going through that, you just never [know]; life is so short. With that being said, I'm just thankful and blessed that I can still call my mom. Or when I see her, I can still hug her and kiss her. She just tells me she's proud of me, and that means everything."
It means everything to Pieretta that Judon will be wearing pink Sunday -- possibly gloves or cleats -- along with those sharp red sleeves.
"I'm always the person in the background, but it's an honor to be able to see him wear pink for me. Just to be here, among the land of the living, is a total blessing," she said.
A dark day
Judon, 29, was preparing for his fifth and final season with the Baltimore Ravens when he first learned of Pieretta's diagnosis. Pieretta's motherly instincts took over initially.
"I was more worried about my kids than myself. With Matt being in the forefront, trying to keep him calm and not worried about me a lot," she said. "I knew I had to get through it -- for myself and for them.
"It was a dark day for me. I had to figure out how I was going to sit down and tell my children what was going on. You get a lot of mixed feelings. You ask, 'After all I've been through, why me?' I just hit the ground running."
The timing of the diagnosis, on Feb. 27, 2020, created additional challenges.
"The pandemic started in March, so I felt like I was in a pandemic within a pandemic. I knew it was a dangerous time. It was like double life or death for me," she said.
It tested one of Judon's core beliefs -- that life’s journey is enriched by personal connection and the quality of people surrounding you -- because he couldn't be side by side with his mother.
"When you get that diagnosis, it's like 'Let's rally around this person and go see them.' But in the pandemic, you kind of have to stay away from that person to keep them safe," he said. "I know she wasn't the only person who got that diagnosis through COVID, and I just sympathize with so many people that couldn't see their loved ones for however long it was."
Pieretta had her final chemotherapy treatment in early July before having surgery. Then came radiation treatments, every day over one month.
Judon proudly points out that Pieretta didn't miss a single appointment, no matter how sick or tired she might have been. And she was -- often.
"Radiation was worse than the other treatments. I know what burn victims feel like now," she said. "It was the worst pain I had ever felt, and I had 10 children."
It is obvious where Judon, in his first year with the Patriots, gets the toughness that is hard to miss on the football field. He also received something else from his mother that he's thankful for each day.
"She did so much for all 10 of her kids. She raised us right, with manners, respect and dignity," he said. "She instilled in each and every one of us that we are no lesser than anybody. She would always say, 'Don't tell me what that person can do, tell me what you can do.'"
In addition to wearing pink on Sunday for his mother, Judon will also continue to wear the jersey number 9 -- a switch from the 99 he wore in Baltimore. He said it represents his siblings, whom he plays for each time he takes the field.
Mother and son bond grows stronger
Pieretta attended the Patriots' season opener against the Miami Dolphins and was in Houston for Sunday's win against the Houston Texans. Judon said he was so engaged in catching up with her and many other family members that the team buses actually began to leave the stadium without him.
"They had to stop and pick me up. I might get some lashings, but it was worth it," he said, smiling.
Pieretta doesn't plan to attend Sunday's game, but will be watching closely from home.
"I love him so much," she said. "He was my first baby boy before I had my last four children; my first baby boy for six years. I spoiled him."
The bond between mother and son was always strong, but it's never been stronger than now. It's one reason Judon signed on to become an ambassador for the American Cancer Society's "Real Men Wear Pink" campaign, which engages male community leaders and influencers in the Society's mission to eliminate breast cancer.
Judon wore pink when he arrived at Sunday's game in Houston. He'll do it again Sunday, when he looks forward to seeing cancer survivors in attendance for the game against the Cowboys.
"I'm thankful the NFL allows us to go out and represent people who can't. And the people that can, we bring them out and show them a good time and bring them excitement with the game," he said. "Then after, just laugh and love with them, because joy mends the soul."