BATON ROUGE, La. -- All Nick Brossette wanted for Christmas was to have his mother be able to watch him play in the Under Armour All-America Game.
The task of traveling to the Under Armour Game in St. Petersburg, Florida, on Jan. 2, is simple enough for most people. But some things don't come easily for Nick and his mother.
Rita Brossette is Nick's biggest fan and Nick faced the emotional proposition of playing in the game and enjoying the festivities with a heavy heart knowing his mother wouldn't be there.
But the fact that she will even be in the stands at Tropicana Field represents a minor miracle.
In 2008, Rita Brossette started to feel ill. At first, the issues were simply aches, joint pains and different ailments. She visited a doctor to figure out what was wrong as the symptoms got progressively worse. It got so bad she was on 20 different medications and had been diagnosed with high blood pressure, fibromyalgia, Crohn's disease, herniated disks, carpal tunnel and just about everything you could possibly think of. This went on until 2012, when Rita, at the urging of her family and close friends, switched doctors. That began another round of poking and prodding in an effort to figure out what exactly was going on.
"It had gotten to the point where I really couldn't do anything," she said. "I went from an active lifestyle to hardly being able to function some days. Some days I would feel OK and I'll get up and start doing things, and then all of a sudden it's like I'm wiped out. I had migraines. I had to go to bed early. I couldn't finish doing whatever I'm doing.
"My doctor couldn't figure it out. He even went as far as admit me to a hospital for a week to just run a massive amount of tests to see what was wrong. Then he decided to run a protein electrophoresis. He said he was trying something out of the sky to see what would show up this time around."
That test revealed Rita had multiple myeloma, a type of cancer that causes cancer cells to accumulate in the bone marrow and crowd out healthy blood cells. Rather than produce helpful antibodies, the cancer cells produce abnormal proteins that can cause kidney problems and a myriad of other complications.
"Watching the pain and suffering my mother was going through on a daily basis hurt me more than you can ever imagine," Nick said. "I had this sense of helplessness. You want to do everything to protect your family, help your mother -- do something to make her better. But there was nothing I can do. It was the worst feeling in the world."
Rita didn't respond to the initial treatments, and after 30 percent of her bone marrow cells presented as cancerous, the number quickly climbed to 70 percent.
"She was living for three to four months with some excruciating, debilitating pain," Dr. Siva Yadlapati, Rita's oncologist, said. "One of the radiation doctors had to give her radiation to her right side to control the pain. She was on some very strong pain medications to help with that. Unfortunately, it was a really bad situation."
With Rita struggling to get out of bed for nearly six years, it was impossible for her to work. She tried to hang on to jobs as a nursing staffer and in the billing department at Baton Rouge General Hospital. Other jobs as a customer service representative with Sprint and as a teacher's aide came and went, and all the work she did to open her own mortgage finance company seemed to be for nothing because she just didn't have stamina.
"We hit rock bottom," Rita said. "The bills piled up. It led to us being evicted. We were homeless. We were having to boil water to take baths. Cars were repossessed. It was like we were in a really bad movie or something."
With Rita not able to work, in stepped Mendel Esnault, Rita's oldest son and Nick's older brother. After winning two state championships at Redemptorist High School and playing for a semester at Dodge City (Kansas) Community College, Esnault returned home, giving up his dreams of playing college football and getting a college education to put food on the table.
Esnault became much more than just a provider. He developed into the only true father figure in Nick's life. Esnault coached Nick's football teams before he arrived at University Lab High School. Esnault would break down film with Nick, helping him understand the game better than kids twice his age. Most importantly, Esnault would be there for encouragement, discipline, support and protection, all important traits a father displays for his children.
Nick developed into one of the nation's best and led U-High to the Division II state title this fall by rushing for 1,833 yards on 220 carries and scoring 31 total touchdowns. He ranks sixth nationally in rushing touchdowns with a four-year total of 137. While running for a Class 3A-record 272 yards in the Division II final, Brossette set a state mark for career rushing with a five-year total of 8,704 yards and 163 total TDs.
"I look up to [Esnault] so much," Nick said. "At first, I don't think I realized what he had done for all of us, but I see it now. I understand now more what he did. He gave up on football completely and just helped us. That's huge. He's like me. He's a competitor. He had opportunities to make it. It had to kill him deep down to give it up, but that's what family does.
"I tell him all the time that even though he gave up football for us, he can live his dream through me. That's a big motivation for me. I want to do big things for him, and for everybody in my family. Everybody can live their dream through me."
The recruiting process is already difficult enough, especially when you're as coveted as Nick, whose process has added layers of complexity. Along with dealing with all of the struggles with his family, he's had to endure the searing spotlight that comes from being a star high school football player in Louisiana, where it's not only expected that you go to LSU, it's required. Adding to the difficulty is that U-High is located on LSU's campus and one of his best friends is Les Miles' son, Manny.
Nick landed an LSU scholarship offer after his freshman season and shortly after that offers from Arizona State, Alabama, Auburn, Baylor, Florida, Florida State, Georgia, Miami, Ole Miss, Notre Dame, Tennessee, UCLA and numerous others materialized. He committed to the Tigers on Aug. 26, 2013, 527 days before he could sign with the Tigers. Rita, though, wondered if Nick truly knew what he wanted.
"When he decided he wanted to commit to LSU, I knew he had been thinking about it because I was newly diagnosed and that was about the time they said my cancer was at 70 percent," Rita said. "I was afraid he was originally committing because of my situation, so I asked him 'Is that what you want?' He was like 'Yeah, I've always loved LSU, and it's a great fit for me.' I told him to not make this decision about me. It was something I was really worried about."
But as happens with many players who commit early, Nick decided he wanted to look around since he really had never been outside of Louisiana.
Nick visited Notre Dame in October and loved his visit, but after the Brossettes came back from South Bend, Indiana, they called the Irish coaches and declined because it was just too far away. Texas has come a long, long way in Nick's recruitment and is a legitimate threat to pluck him away from Louisiana. Rita calls Texas coach Charlie Strong a "perfect gentleman" and has really enjoyed the way he's recruited her son. Nick has also become "kindred spirits" with Strong, because his stepmother had multiple myeloma. Nick also is considering a visit to Arizona State, but everybody in the family understands it will come down to LSU and Texas.
"He loves, loves LSU and always has, but he owes it to himself to look around and make sure he's making the right decision," Rita said. "We've never pushed him one way or another because he knows he's going to have to be the one on the field, he's going to be the one in the classroom. He's going to have to be comfortable there, not us. We're not going to be going to class for him. The decision has to be his. We've made it clear that his decision should not be made on us. I don't care if it's Texas, LSU, or whatever, I just want him to be happy."
Nothing is more important to Nick than having his mother be happy, and lately she has been smiling more than at any point in the past six years.
Rita has responded to the chemotherapy treatments Dr. Yadlapati prescribed and no myeloma cells were detected in her bone marrow after her most recent biopsy. The next step is a bone marrow transplant on Feb. 9 that Dr. Yadlapati calls "the most important part of keeping her cancer in remission." That'll be followed up with more chemo that will strip her immune system down to the point where she's basically like a newborn baby. She'll be quarantined from her family for around 100 days and then will begin maintenance treatment with even more chemo.
But before that happens, she's going to be in the stands at the Under Armour Game cheering Nick on like she has every Friday night throughout her whole ordeal.
"I've broken down many times," Nick said. "Sometimes I cry. I just ask why me, why me. There are many times when I get frustrated, but I then step back and think about what's at stake and what's really important, and for me that's family.
"It's extremely important to have her in the stands. ... She is my No. 1 fan. I can't even put into words how excited we are that she's going to get to go. We never even thought she would get to the point where she would be healthy enough to travel like this. She's never been to any of my things before. She didn't get to go to The Opening out in Oregon. It was a real honor to be selected to play in the game and go, but it means even more because she will get to go. I'm so proud of her. She never ceases to amaze me with the things she does."