The bond between Devon Cajuste and his father was as moving as Hard Knocks storylines get.
The HBO show cast a spotlight on the backup Browns tight end and his dad, Gregory, who has battled through an inventory of serious medical problems over the years. As Devon fights for a spot on Cleveland’s active roster, he’s drawn strength from his father’s never-say-die attitude.
“This man has literally flat-lined several times,” Cajuste said, “and then he comes back.”
While Cajuste has yet to watch Tuesday night’s stirring episode, he’s more than willing to talk about his dad and share how his experience has influenced his approach both on and off the field.
Since Devon was a teenager, Gregory has had a stroke, a tracheotomy and three heart attacks, the most recent of which the younger Cajuste learned as the pair was being filmed by Hard Knocks.
Earlier this month, Devon — who missed part of training camp while being evaluated for a concussion — invited Gregory to practice. As the two bonded in his hotel room, Devon said his father went into Atrial fibrillation (AFib) at least once without a moment’s notice. AFib is defined as a quivering or irregular heartbeat that can lead to blood clots, stroke, heart failure and other heart-related complications.
“I’m just looking at him, like, bro,” Devon said. “You never know if he's going to go right in front of you. So it was really hard to hear him out here and see him. You'd never know something’s wrong with him, but everything is wrong with him.”
He added: “That’s the hardest thing, whenever I had pains or issues, it was really hard to talk to him about it. I always talked to my mom or something like that. Because it’s like, bro, I’ve got bumps and bruises and your heart’s failing. And he would try to tell me it’s OK to talk about. Pain is subjective to the individual so I try to talk about it a little bit … Just to see him on a day when I want to quit or when I’m feeling low, he would literally say, ‘Dev, me too sometimes.’ And I know exactly what he was talking about. And I lose sight of that sometimes. I'm out here dealing with whatever I’m dealing with and I lose sight of that my dad is fighting like every 30 minutes with his life.”
It’s a difficult burden to carry, but Devon doesn’t see it that way. His father’s courage and resolve to live is a well of inspiration. When things get tough, Devon thinks of Gregory.
That approach was underscored in Thursday's preseason opener against the Giants at MetLife Stadium in which Cajuste battled through a painful shoulder injury, a dynamic caught by the omnipresent Hard Knocks cameras.
Roughly an hour’s drive from his hometown of Seaford, New York, Devon’s family — Gregory, his mother, Andrea, three siblings and hometown friends — made the trek to East Rutherford to watch him play. For Cajuste, a third-year player out of Stanford hoping to make his first active roster following stints with the 49ers and Packers, the preseason is a critical juncture in that quest. Any thought of removing himself from the Thursday’s game was duly met by the thought of his father’s ongoing fight.
“I literally said, ‘Don't quit.’ I'm not the first do it either,” he said, pointing to teammates who regularly play through injuries. “I can't complain. And knowing my dad at the game as well, whatever I felt, I immediately felt him as well being like, ‘Don’t quit.’”
Before professional sports, Cajuste was a three-year starter at Stanford and helped the Cardinal win a pair of Rose Bowls in that span. The decision to attend college across the country, however, had little to do with football. Cajuste has had a passion for science as long as he can remember. In high school, a teacher replaced homework with mandatory assignments to learn more about Stanford. He found a webpage detailing the school’s stem-cell biology and regenerative medicine program and was hooked, watching a two-hour lecture featuring Dr. Irving Weissman, widely considered one of most brilliant minds in the field.
Cajuste spent his summers at Stanford researching at the school’s Lorry I. Lokey Stem Cell Research Building, focusing on lung cancer and autoimmune diseases. “The direction that it’s headed, it’s kind of curing a lot of things,” he said. “I just want to be a part of it.” Football, he said, was a way to connect with his father as a youngster. Cajuste said the two weren’t as close then but describes their relationship as best friends, sometimes passing as brothers.
In a heartwarming Hard Knocks scene, Cajuste told the film crew doctors once informed his family Gregory only had a short time left to live. More than a decade since that harrowing moment, Devon continues to look up to his father, cherishing every day they have together.
“I’m still trying be as strong as him,” Devon said. “His mentality is something I search for and I see a lot of guys here that have and it’s something that I aspire to every day.”