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Death of more than a Dad

Posted Jun 14, 2014

Browns’ rookies Joel Bitonio and Chris Kirksey remember their fallen fathers

The phone call makes your body so numb, you can’t help but collapse to the ground. 

The phone call shatters your life into thousands of little pieces.

The phone call forces you to become a man, ready or not.

***

Chris Kirksey was in his car, set to begin the biggest journey of his entire life: his freshman year of football at the University of Iowa. He got the phone call.

“Son, I’ve got some terrible news,” said his mother, Patrice.

Elmer Kirksey Sr., Chris’ father, had died at the age of 58 from a heart attack.

What was the point of even continuing his football career? Kirksey remembers thinking he was turning his car around back towards St. Louis, for good.

***

Joel Bitonio saw that he was receiving a call from his mother moments before he was about to trot on the field for a summer practice at the University of Nevada. He let phone call go to voicemail with the intention of calling her later.

A scorching summer practice was winding down in Reno. Bitonio, a redshirt freshman competing for a starting job, slowly walked toward the locker room. He knew something was up. His good friend Guy Ryan Jr., the only one who knew who his mom was, was at Nevada’s practice field.

“I’m thinking, ‘What the heck is he doing here?’” remembered Bitonio.

Ryan told him he needed to call his mom immediately. Bitonio grabbed the phone, right on the practice field, and made the call.

“Your father had a heart attack,” said his mom, Debbie. “He didn’t make it.”

Mike Bitonio, Joel’s father, had died at the age of 45.

The man Joel grew up calling Superman was gone. Forever.

***

When the Cleveland Browns made Joel Bitonio and Chris Kirksey second- and third-round picks, respectively, in last month’s NFL Draft, the players had no idea that their common bond would go far beyond their likely major impact as rookies.

Their shared sorrow was no doubt an obstacle on the path that led them to the NFL, but both refused to allow it to hold them back. And even now, with Father’s Day approaching and serving as a painful reminder of their loss, they are confident in their ability to continue to persevere.

“People always check on me on Father’s Day,” said Kirksey. “I look at it like a celebration. He wouldn’t want me to be sad. He’s not suffering anymore. I believe he’s watching down on me right now. He’s smiling.”

“Father’s Day pulls at your heart,” said Bitonio. “I’m honestly happy that I had 18 great years with him. I can only hope I become as good of a dad as he was to me.”

Best Friends

Elmer Kirksey took his youngest son, Chris, to every single one of his football practices. Elmer taught Chris how to play chess, by far their favorite game. Elmer was a pastor at Christ Temple on the Rock Church. He was comforting, he was passionate, he was understanding. Elmer always had the answers for his son.

“I lost him at the time I needed him the most,” said Kirksey, then a 17-year-old. “I was going into my manhood. I had those questions that were left unanswered.”

The suffering was starting to improve for Elmer Kirksey.

In September of 2009, he was struck with what was supposed to be a debilitating stroke. Elmer was hospitalized for three months. The hospital happened to be across the street from Chris’ high school. After each football practice, Chris would walk to his dad’s room. All of the nurses would soon learn Chris’ name for his frequent and lengthy visits. With a lump in his throat, Chris offered his father encouragement and hope for recovery.

The positive vibes seemed to be working. Elmer was back at home. He was regaining the use of his motor skills. He even mustered up enough strength to attend church on Sunday’s, sitting in the back row now, instead of preaching from the pulpit.

Then, poof. A man who was on the way to recovery was taken from earth.

***

Mike Bitonio called his oldest son, Joel, every day on the phone. The two talked about anything and everything: football, babes, music.

Joel’s fondest memory of his dad is the road trips the pair would take during Joel’s travel basketball days as a 12-year-old. The two laughed until their stomachs hurt during long drives from their Long Beach, CA, home to tournaments in Arizona and Nevada.

“That’s the hardest part,” said Bitonio. “I lost a best friend. It was more than a Dad and a mentor.”

A hard working manual laborer, Mike Bitonio had no signs of poor health. He worked hours on end making a modest name for himself in the flooring industry. He famously dabbled with some MMA fighting in his younger days.

Mike Bitonio was simply working out in his garage. He didn’t feel right. His wife dialed 911. In the ambulance, his life ended from a massive heart attack.

Coping 

The first few weeks without dad are so unusual. Waves of sadness come crashing in. From time to time, small moments of joy will seep through. You lose all sense of the concept of time. But mostly, it’s the abrupt end of communication that becomes the most unfathomable part.

“It didn’t feel like he was gone,” remembered Kirksey of his freshman year at Iowa. “It felt like I was on a vacation or something, and he would be there when I went back to St. Louis. Then one visit home my freshman year, he wasn’t there. It hit me like a ton of bricks.”

Compelled to honor his father, Bitonio gave an emotional eulogy at the funeral. Shortly after, Bitonio remembers the sleepless nights. Staring blankly at the wall, Bitonio wondered when, if ever, the emptiness would subside. Sure, his Nevada teammates and coaches did their best to cheer him up. But nothing would ever be the same.

“You hear all these sad stories growing up but you never, ever, think it’s going to be you in those shoes,” said Bitonio. “People say that time will heal it, you learn to cope with it. But it’s so gut wrenching at the time.”

Ironically, both Kirksey and Bitonio’s first season on the college football field would come in 2010.

Chris Kirksey didn’t want his dad to miss one of his college football games, so he had Elmer’s face tattooed on his right bicep. The linebacker became one of Iowa’s best in program history.

Kirksey remembers one distinct piece of advice from his dad he believes helped propel him to the NFL.

“Never settle till your good is better, and your better is best,” recalled Kirksey. “And I always take that with me, everywhere I go.”

Joel Bitonio looked up in the stands at Nevada’s first home game against Eastern Washington. He saw his mom. He didn’t see Superman.

For Bitonio, it’s not just football games when he reaches back in his memory bank to picture his dad. It’s every single day.

“There are little moments when I think, ‘Man he would’ve laughed at that, or he would’ve definitely liked that,’” said Bitonio.

Now, Mike Bitonio and Elmer Kirksey have sons that are taking baby steps in the NFL. They would have liked seeing that, too.

Editors note:

On May 2nd this year, like Kirksey and Bitonio, I got the phone call.

I was in the car, racing home towards Washington D.C. from Cleveland. Doctors had informed me hours earlier I needed to come see my father. His days would be coming to an end soon.

Four hours into the car ride, my mom, Bonnie, made the call.

“I’m so sorry, Kevin,” she said. “He’s gone.”

With the sun still beneath the horizon, I pulled over to the side of the road. Uncontrollable tears poured from my eyes.

Mike Jones, my dad, died at the age of 58.

Like Bitonio’s, my dad was an exceptional worker. He built our entire basement with his bare hands. My dad was hilariously inappropriate. He always knew how to make a crowd laugh at the wrong time.  He did everything for me. Cut my hair, cooked my meals. But mostly, he got me into sports.

As a toddler I wouldn’t be seen without a plastic golf club in my hand. Instead of watching Sesame Street or Barney, I demanded VHS tapes of The Masters and The British Open.

Eventually it was football that became my language, thanks to my dad, and I could speak it fluently. By the time I reached the age of 10, my dad let me hang with his golfing buddies and go to dinner parties. I’d stand in a circle full of adults predicting outcomes for the NFL playoffs and debating why the Redskins would surely win the NFC East that season. I started collecting my favorite newspaper clippings from The Washington Post sports section and hung them in my room. My dad would beam with pride, fully knowing one day he would be the one assembling my best articles for keepsake.

In 2011, while Kirksey and Bitonio were still grieving, my dad was diagnosed with liver disease. For three years, he was in hospitals more than he was out of them – Johns Hopkins to be specific. The Baltimore medical facility was an hour and fifteen minutes from my suburban Virginia residence. The visits were draining. Our hope was dwindling. But our talks about sports and life; those never faded. No matter how sick he felt. 

My dad took his last breath from his bed on May 2nd. I arrived one hour later, to hug him for the last time. I glanced at his iPhone, to see he had the Cleveland Browns application up, and one of my recent articles. I collapsed onto the floor. 

For me, there’s still a longing for more. This can’t be it, can it? I just want one more text. One more laugh. I’d even take hearing his sneeze one more time.

Obviously, I don’t wear pads and a helmet. But I’m one of the few privileged people that gets to cover an NFL team 365-days a year. Without my dad, I’m not in Cleveland reporting on the Browns. Without my dad’s guidance through the years, my purpose in life wouldn’t be clear.

This will be my first Father’s Day without mine. But it’ll be a day when the good memories seep through.

Love you, dad.