Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Special Motivation

Rookie Maurice Stovall lost his mother before his NFL career could begin, but he still feels her presence every time he takes the field

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WR Maurice Stovall keeps his mother in his heart and on his mind every day, even as he's practicing with the Buccaneers

by Joseph Santoliquito, special to NFL.com

Maurice Stovall could always tell where she was. He just followed the booming voice. It never mattered that there were a few hundred people in the stands at a Little League baseball game, or a few thousand at one of his high school football games. Or there in one of the sections of bobbing heads at Notre Dame, where he played his college football. Stovall always knew where to find his mother, Cynthia.

Stovall, the third-round pick of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, still senses that Cynthia is watching him from somewhere. Cynthia died of ovarian cancer on May 24, but not before seeing her son graduate from Notre Dame, though after he fulfilled the life-long dream of playing in the National Football League.

To honor his mother, Stovall has a tattoo of a crucifix, with the name 'Cynthia' spelled across it on his right shoulder. On his left bicep is a tattoo of a black angel with wings.

"My mother is always going to be in my heart," said Stovall, who's caught four passes for 57 yards, including a touchdown, in two preseason games for the Bucs. "I put on the tattoos as a symbol of how much I miss her and how much I appreciate what she did for me. I think about my mother every single day, every morning, every afternoon.

"I think about her all of the time. But it is like anytime my parents went to a game, no matter what I was playing. I can kind of sense my parents in the stands. I could always hear my mom's loud voice, or smell one of my dad's cigars, even at Notre Dame. I could always tell what section they were in. The last two games at Tampa Bay, it just always felt like someone was watching me. Spiritually I feel her."

The Stovall family didn't find out about Cynthia's illness until February. Doctors told Stovall's father, Maurice Sr., that his wife had tumors all over her body. It left him in the unenviable situation of telling both of his children, Maurice and Enonge, a junior on Virginia's women's basketball team, of their mother's situation.

"Doctors told us that there was nothing they could do," said Maurice Sr., a probation officer in Philadelphia who looks like an offensive guard. "But she wasn't going to give up. Not her. Cynthia was going to fight it. I kept thinking 'Why now, why now.' It's what I kept asking God. I cried, I got emotional. But Cynthia wanted aggressive chemo almost immediately."

Typical Cynthia. She was a vibrant woman who defied convention. Cynthia was a heavy equipment engineer, who operated cranes and bulldozers, moving large masses of earth. Often the only woman on the job, her male co-workers never dared question her ability.

Her family was the center of her universe. Cynthia and Maurice Sr. worked exhaustive hours so that their children could have the best of everything, growing up in the Overbrook section of Philadelphia. They went to private schools. No pair of cleats or sneakers were too expensive. Cynthia would often find herself shuttling Maurice Jr. from one practice to another.

"When we first found out about the cancer, it got to the point where I had to tell Maurice, but I beat around the bush for a few weeks; I kept everything in general, because Maurice was in South Bend," Maurice Sr. said.

They didn't want to add to any distractions. Stovall was preparing to graduate. He had the NFL Combine coming up. But he knew something was wrong. He could hear by the tone of his father's voice that his mother was ill. He knew the dangers of cancer. Both his grandmothers passed away due to cancer.

Knowing that time could be limited, Stovall Jr. made it a point to make every moment of his day count. He'd call three, four times a day just to hear her voice, and assurances that she was okay.

"I made a promise to my mother that I would graduate college," said Stovall, who sent his mother a dozen roses on Mother's Day, and whose poignant letter to her still sits on the mantle in the family living room.

"Fulfilling that promise made my mother feel better, and that made me feel better," Stovall said. "In a way, it was a sign of relief when my mom finally passed away. There was no more chemo, no more pain she was living through."

Moving forward without her would be a different task altogether. It was Cynthia that got on Stovall about his diet, his health, about brushing his teeth regularly. More importantly, about constantly setting and attaining goals.

"I feel like I got strength from both my parents in different ways," Stovall said. "With my mother, she was always hard with me about everything; stressing to me the importance of school. I remember a time when I was nine years old and I wanted a pair of Jordans when they first came out. We're standing in line for baseball registration and she gave me a choice: Buy the Jordans or register for baseball, and all of the equipment that came with it. We registered for baseball. She taught me to see the larger picture."

Stovall said he eventually wants to have something in his mother's name, whether it's a scholarship or a foundation. He'll play this season, sometimes with a heavy heart, sometimes wishing he could still her voice imploring him to get down field.

"It is a relief to know that my mother is in a better place," Stovall said. "I know she's probably in a better seat up there that she isn't suffering any more. We don't mourn her death, we celebrate her death and what she gave to all of us. My mother definitely touched me. She taught me a lifetime worth of lessons. I'm proud of her, proud of both of my parents and how productive my life has been because of them and their sacrifices. She's the reason why I'm in the NFL today."

And somewhere, he's thinking, she's still watching.

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