Jimmy Graham searched for Tim Lelito on the Saints’ team charter home from Atlanta. A star seeking out an undrafted free agent says something alone; this gesture, in the early morning hours after New Orleans’ 17-13 Week 12 Thursday night win against the Falcons meant even more.
“It really took a big man to come back and do what you did and to play tonight,” Graham, the best tight end in the NFL, told Lelito. “I appreciate that.”
There are challenges on the football field, and there are challenges in life. In a span of five days Lelito had prepared to replace four-time All-Pro right guard Jahri Evans on the road against a division rival, and he’d buried his grandmother, the woman who adopted him and raised him, back home in Fowlerville, Mich.
Ardis Lelito is the reason Tim is where he is now, part of a 53-man NFL roster after a standout career at Division II Grand Valley State. The rule of thumb for a rookie undrafted offensive lineman is not to stand out too much, which is why Lelito didn’t tell a single teammate or coach when he received the phone call he’d been dreading. On the Saturday night before the Saints’ Week 11 game against the 49ers, Lelito heard the voicemail from his aunt Amy when he got back to his room after the last meeting at the team hotel.
His grandmother had been fighting cancer for the last year and a half, defying an initial diagnosis that she had four months to live. The disease started in her liver and gall bladder and spread, and her condition began to worsen in September.
She and Tim’s grandfather, also named Tim, had come to New Orleans for the Saints’ Week 3 game. That happened to be Lelito’s first NFL start; Evans’ streak of 122 consecutive starts ended because of a hamstring injury. Lelito struggled in a win over the Cardinals that afternoon, but his grandmother still cried tears of joy and told him again and again how proud she was. She was having trouble eating solid foods by that point but insisted that Tim and his grandfather go out for steaks at Desi Vega’s.
Eight weeks later, when aunt Amy called, Lelito holed up in his hotel room and thought about that day; and about the nights he’d spent in his grandma’s hospital room during the Week 7 bye; and the years growing up on his grandparents’ 100-acre thoroughbred farm, playing in water troughs and cleaning horse stalls. Lelito said that after he and his younger brother, Jeffrey, were born, their mother was not consistently in their life, so their grandparents stepped in as full-time guardians, officially adopting the brothers around the time Tim turned 4.
“They were mom and dad to me,” Lelito says. “My grandma took me to every single sporting event, every single practice. We were in soccer, little league, basketball, cross country, wrestling. My grandpa jokes that the only thing we weren’t in was hockey, because we didn’t have it [where we lived]. We rodeoed for a little bit, too. She used to take us to all these little rodeos all over the place.”
Lelito played in New Orleans’ 23-30 win against the 49ers on Nov. 17, performing well as an extra blocker in an up-back role, without anyone on the team aware of the grief he was enduring. “I didn’t want to be a distraction to anyone,” he says. “But as soon as I walked off the field, the reality struck me that my grandma had passed away the night before.”
Monday morning, Lelito’s coaches had news for him: They needed him to start three days later at Atlanta, because Evans’ ankle injury would sideline him for the short week. Lelito finally told them about his grandmother, and that her funeral was Wednesday morning. He could handle this week if he took it one day at a time—those words not just a cliché in this case—or even one hour, and one minute, at a time.
He was at the Saints’ walkthrough Tuesday afternoon, lining up at right guard. By dinnertime he was on a plane to Michigan via an hour layover in Minneapolis. He finally landed after midnight in Detroit, where his college sweetheart, Lauren, picked him up to make the hour-long drive to Fowlerville.
Some 80 mourners were at St. Agnes Catholic Church Wednesday morning to pay their respects to Ardis Lelito, beloved by her family and the neighborhood kids alike. Her wheat bread won grand champion every year she entered it at the county fair, and the eulogy delivered by Tim’s cousin Kimmy recalled Ardis’s special gift for teaching. “You could ask her anything in the world,” Lelito says.
A few hours later, Lelito was headed back to the airport, bound for Atlanta. He arrived at the team hotel around 9 p.m. Wednesday, scarfed down his first meal in hours, and started watching film. Thursday morning, after a few brief meetings, Lelito sat alone in a conference room with offensive line coach Bret Ingalls. They watched red-zone, short-yardage, goal-line and third-down cut-ups.
Ingalls tells his players that little things can change the course of a game; on this morning, for instance, he showed Lelito how each time the Falcons line up a player as a nine-technique, on the outside shoulder of the tight end, they slant the defensive line that direction. Lelito had to push back his grief enough not just to understand a subtle key like this one, but to be able to recognize it amid the noise of the Georgia Dome, and react in a split-second.
By the time the Saints took the field Thursday night, every player and coach had approached Lelito individually to offer condolences. Lelito said his performance was not perfect—he allowed one sack—but he had more positive plays than negative ones in the victory. For three hours he focused only on the challenges on the football field, and not the pain he was experiencing off of it.
“If I were to think about that stuff during the game, you might as well just put a tackling dummy out there,” Lelito says. “It was just so much to think about, but as soon as I stepped onto that field, you have to get rid of that, so that’s what I did. I knew she was going to be there to help me, but I just couldn’t think about it.”
Inside the visitors’ locker room, Saints coach Sean Payton singled out Lelito in front of the team. Some of us are raised by our moms, he said, and others are raised by our grandmothers. To go through the week Lelito went through, and to play the way he played, Payton continued, was something special. Then Payton presented Lelito with the game ball.
Lelito didn’t have time to rest just yet. Players had to lift, run, and break down film on Friday morning, before they were dismissed for the weekend. Lelito boarded another flight that evening—his fifth in four days—and surprised his family by returning home. Then he slept, really slept, for the first time in a week.