METAIRIE, La. -- Delvin Breaux wouldn't let them throw away his jersey.
Even in that frightening moment nine years ago -- when Breaux was lying on a stretcher in the emergency room after breaking three vertebrae in his neck during a high school game -- he was determined not to let anybody take football away from him.
So when Breaux realized his jersey was being cut off of him and torn into pieces, he spoke up and made sure somebody saved it.
"'Man, they cut my jersey,'" Breaux's stepmother, Juanita Smith, recalled -- able to laugh at the memory now. "That's what he actually said."
The jersey hangs over Breaux's bed today -- a constant reminder of what he survived and what it took for him to get here, on the cusp of starting his first NFL game as a rookie cornerback for his hometown New Orleans Saints on Sunday at Arizona.
It almost looks like a work of art now, after it was stitched together by a family friend of his wife and framed. Before that, Breaux used to pin the pieces together and nail them to the wall when he was in college.
The jersey was with him during three frustrating years at LSU when he never received medical clearance to play. And it was with him as he fought his way through semi-pro football, the Arena Football League and the Canadian Football League to earn this opportunity.
The frame's casing is even cracked, banged up from so many moves, his wife, Kasey, explained.
"I cherish that jersey," Breaux said. "Every time I look at it, it gives me like ... 'Man, look what you went through.'"
Breaux and his family never lost faith he would have this chance, mostly because they knew something his Saints teammates and coaches also have come to realize this year.
He's an excellent cornerback.
Coach Sean Payton said Breaux's workout was one of the best he had ever seen from a cornerback. Safety Kenny Vaccaro said Breaux is going to be a "superstar." And receivers such as Josh Morgan and Joe Morgan said they hate going against the 6-foot-1, 195-pound Breaux in practice because once he gets his hands on you, you're done.
"Had he not hurt his neck, he would have been in the same conversation as Patrick Peterson because they did have some of the same physical tools," said Arizona Cardinals safety Tyrann Mathieu, a fellow New Orleans native who would have been teammates with Breaux at LSU had Breaux been cleared to play. "He was big, strong and fast. And before he hurt his neck, he just completely dominated high school receivers in New Orleans."
Breaux, 25, said he has been humbled by his experiences, but he never lost confidence in his ability. Ask him how he remained convinced he was good enough to play in the NFL, having gone so long without playing, and he'll give you a sideways look.
"Maaaan, c'mon man. I had the confidence. I just knew one day I was going to be like a top-10 pick in the draft; I had that since high school. A top-10 pick going to the Washington Redskins," said Breaux, who admittedly didn't grow up rooting for the Saints, though they were his first choice after he was invited for more than a dozen tryouts for NFL teams this year.
"Then the neck injury happened, and then everything fell apart, and I was just like, 'Dang, how are we gonna get it done now?'" Breaux said. "I just knew something was gonna happen; I just needed the break. And now I get the break, and I just have to go out there and show it."
Breaux said the doctor who treated him said Breaux should have died on that high school field when he banged his head into another player while covering a kickoff for New Orleans' McDonogh 35 Senior High School. In addition to the three broken vertebrae, Breaux also damaged a blood vessel in his neck.
Kasey, who met Breaux in college and played on a rec-league flag football team with him that went to nationals, said Breaux's lowest point came when he got his final rejection from LSU.
"Once LSU gave him the final no-go, he just got really sad, you know? And his grades started slipping. And he wasn't really enjoying himself in life in general," Kasey said. "Football lights him up. It brings him so much happiness. And he just loves to play.
"It wasn't even a hard decision in my eyes (for him to keep trying to play) because he just had lost all happiness. I know that sounds dramatic. But it was just kind of like soul-crushing for your dreams to be told you can't do it.
"It's kind of like we had a little detour. And then we found a different path. And once he set that path out for himself, he became more driven and he knew from that spot, 'OK, well it's not gonna happen this way. So I'm gonna make it happen in my own way.'"
Breaux finally received that medical clearance he had been waiting for in 2012 with the Lousiana Bayou Vipers. Then with the Arena League's New Orleans VooDoo, then the CFL's Hamilton Tiger-Cats, where he played for two years before nearly half the NFL came calling.
Breaux said he wasn't medically cleared by every NFL team that worked him out, but he didn't let that deter him.
The family celebrated when Breaux signed with the Saints and realized his NFL dream. But there wasn't really much need for the same type of recognition when he officially cracked the 53-man roster this past weekend because it was such a foregone conclusion he was going to make it.
All he needed was the chance.
"That's how I think we all feel. I thank God he got the opportunity to just show what he can do," Juanita Smith said. "I was happy and excited for him because he worked so hard at it and for it. But really celebrate? Naaah. Because there's work to be done. His foot is in the door now."