Texans receiver DeAndre Hopkins says he owes his career to his mom. When you hear her remarkable story of survival you’ll understand his devotion.
Every time the Houston Texans play at home, DeAndre Hopkins’ mother, Sabrina Greenlee, sits in the same spot in the end zone, close enough to the field to hear the ball smack against the turf. It’s Week 2, and Houston is playing the Jacksonville Jaguars; she’s flanked by her two daughters, sitting perfectly still as the countdown clock ticks down to zero. When it’s time for the home team to run through the gate, a massive flamethrower erupts nearby. Greenlee recoils, and her eyes, which are the same cloudy shade of white as an overcast sky, glisten from the heat. A few minutes later, Hopkins emerges from the tunnel — he’s always the last player on offense to come out, Greenlee explains — and she smiles.
She can’t see her son, but she knows he’s there.
Seventeen years. That’s how long it has been since she lost her vision when a woman she didn’t know threw acid at her face, blinding and disfiguring her in a bout of jealous rage. Greenlee was a single mother of four in South Carolina, caught up in abusive relationships, hustling to survive. DeAndre was 10 years old. Over time, she regained her sight in spurts, but it disappeared completely a few years ago, just as her son was emerging as one of the NFL’s brightest stars. Since then, millions of people have watched the Texans wide receiver dive for otherworldly catches on the national stage, racking up more receptions through the first six seasons of a career than any other player in NFL history. Greenlee sees Hopkins’ highlights only in her mind. “I visualize everything that he does,” she says. “The dreads, the body movement.”
Before the Jaguars’ offense trots out, she drops a hand into her purse, fingers grazing the various objects in the bag until she finds a tube of lipstick. She applies it slowly, painting a perfect pout. Next to the scar tissue on her neck, Maya Angelou’s words “Still I Rise” are tattooed in cursive. As the crowd noise builds, she folds her hands in her lap, listening to the announcer call out down and distance. “I’m alone a lot, so it helps to be in a peaceful state,” she says. “It can get overwhelming.”
After the Texans snuff out the Jaguars’ first drive and the offense takes the field, Greenlee’s younger daughter, Shanterria, pulls up her hood and leans closer to her mother, whispering descriptions of the game — color commentary, essentially — into her ear. Early in the series, Deshaun Watson hits Hopkins out of bounds on a short pass. “Tippy-toes and then out,” she tells Greenlee. “Third-and-4.”
“Do it again,” her mother says.
Watson obliges, and Hopkins catches the ball, but he’s tackled just short of the sticks. When the announcer breaks the news, Greenlee sighs.
“The commentator’s talking is not enough — she wants to know what kind of route he ran,” says Kesha, her older daughter who is sitting behind her. “‘Did he catch it?’ ‘No.’ ‘Why didn’t he catch it?’ ‘I don’t know, Mom.'”
Later in the quarter, when the Texans near the end zone, Greenlee sits up a little straighter, squeezing Shanterria’s arm as the crowd hums with anticipation, setting off her sensory triggers. If her son scores, she explains, her daughter will help her stand up and lean over the barrier so she can accept the football from Hopkins. This ritual serves as a reminder that, while she can’t see her son, he still sees her — and he wants the world to see her too. “I’ve not always been your typical role-model mother, and he still respects me enough to let everybody see him give me that ball,” she says. “That ball symbolizes so much more than people ever could understand.”
Read more: ESPN