The press release came on Saturday afternoon, two days after Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving – a day for giving thanks. A day to spend with family and friends. A day to count your blessings.
No one should get the news that Bucs veteran cornerback Alterraun Verner got on Friday morning when at 61, his father, Robert Lee Verner passed away suddenly.
With a broken heart, and tears falling, Verner played in Sunday’s shocking 14-5 upset win over the visiting Seattle Seahawks, and played well. Following the game in which he had two tackles, two pass breakups and an interception, Verner tried to choke back the emotions of the past 48 hours, and talked to the media while on the verge of breaking down.
“My dad was my biggest fan,” Verner said. “He made so many sacrifices for me to get where I am today, and I just know he wouldn’t want to be the cause for me not to play. That is why I decided to play, to honor him for all he did to get me to where I am today.
“I didn’t really have any thoughts on if I was going to play well today. All he ever asked for me to do was every game was to play my hardest. Even if I give up three touchdowns or get three interceptions, he loved me just the same. It is a blessing for us to get the win and everything, but all he wanted was for me to play hard and that is what I did for him.”
Following his interception, which came right before halftime with the Seahawks driving for points, Verner went to the sideline and knelt, silently praying. He talked about what was going through his mind.
“I just know what his response would have been that went on out there. He would just be very, very proud and I was just thinking about how he was reacting. So I was just thinking about him.”
Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy led the Bucs in a prayer honoring Verner and his father prior to the game on Sunday. Verner said all the support of the team helped him get through Sunday.
“From Gerald to the whole team, they were all just so supportive,” Verner said. “Just sending texts, condolences to my family, sending flowers and everything. I just can tell they were playing hard and motivated and had my back, and they were supportive of me so from that speech and everybody – I am just so appreciative for this team.”
McCoy talked about it following the win.
“That’s my brother, man,” McCoy said. “Before the game, when I broke it down, I asked the team, ‘Do we break it down to family just to do it? Is it just something we say or do we mean it?’ They said, ‘We mean it.’ Well when you have a family member down, what are you supposed to do for a family member? Everybody said, ‘Pick him up.’ I told them, ‘Don’t be selfish today. Play for the man next to you. We have a brother hurt. Go out there and show him that he does have a family and when he’s hurting he can lean on us.’ Guys when out there and played like that.
“I’ve been there. I’ve lost a parent. I told him, Hey, all you can do is play for your dad. And he did. He played his heart out and everybody around him played for him and we got a big win.”
Underneath his shoulder pads and uniform, Verner had his father close to his heart, wearing a t-shirt with an image of his father and him.
“It was something my wife had made for me,” Verner said. “It was one of my favorite pictures of my father when I was at UCLA. The one thing I don’t want to forget about him was just his smile. And that was one of my favorite smiles. Just to show he is always with me.”
For those who never met Robert Lee Verner, Alterraun Verner did his best to explain the man.
“Everything, everything,” Verner said. “He sacrificed so much for me and not just football, but life goals, advice and just being there for me and just caring for me. He was everything for me. And I am just happy to just try and made him proud.”
No one should have to go through the pain of losing a parent so young, and especially during a holiday like Thanksgiving. But if we all live long enough, and if we haven’t already, we too will share the pain Verner is feeling.
I am lucky. I have my parents still with me. I have no idea how Verner was able to even come to the stadium, much less play. I couldn’t even begin to write this story just 48 hours after losing my hero, my Dad. And to be honest, I’m having trouble now, listening to Verner’s words over and over again on my recorder with his raw emotion as I try and transcribe these quotes.
Maybe we will all take a lesson from this. Hug your loved ones a little longer. Never not tell them you love them. Verner learned on Friday, we won’t always have them around. On my late night drive home from the stadium tonight, I’ll call my parents. I’ll wake them up, and my dad will probably yell at me for doing so.
But that’s okay, he will get over it. Verner summed up my feelings for my dad. And just like Robert Lee Verner, Larry Newton Cook will know how much I love him.
“He was the most caring, loving person you would ever know. He would talk to a stranger just standing next to him at a bus stop, in the stands, he was just so caring and loving,” Verner described standing in front of his locker wiping away the tears. “He cared about everybody. He was willing to take his shirt off and give it to a person he never knew. And that is the man I want to know. And I am going to cherish forever.”
Rest in peace, Mr. Verner. You raised a fine football player, and an even better person.