||12-31-2013 11:30 AM
Brian Cushing & Wife play Santa on Christmas
The car is parked. His wife waits in the back seat, nervous but excited. His 14-month-old son is strapped into a child's seat, hands twirling away.
Brian Cushing pauses and waits. The Texans linebacker then slowly picks up his head and stares at a small, broken-down house in southeast Houston.
"Oh, babe," Cushing says to his wife, Megan. "Look at this. Oh, wow."
A woman walks through the front door. She has no idea who's waiting outside. She doesn't know what's about to happen or why what began as just another dragged-out Thursday during another cruel year will turn into two hours that at least temporarily will change her life completely.
But Evelyn Smith needs Brian Cushing. And Brian Cushing needs Evelyn Smith.
Their separated lives are about to connect. When the convergence is over, all of Smith's hurt and pain and the lack of almost everything will have been wrapped in an early Christmas.
A $1,000 gift card for groceries, two $250 cards for bus rides. January through March rent taken care of, a three-month past-due gas bill paid off and so many new gifts placed near a once-barren, badly leaning plastic tree that Smith's tiny living room will run out of space.
When Cushing and his family drive back to their safe, near-perfect world, a 26-year-old man whose life is no longer solely being defined by the game of football will have discovered what he began looking for after his powerful body failed him again.
"It's incredible," Cushing says. "Because you see a family that's struggling and doesn't know what to do for Christmas. You bring them stuff that they couldn't even dream of really having. To bring it in and give them all that and to see the looks on their faces is priceless.
To bring it in and give them all that and to see the looks on their faces is priceless.
"They can really just enjoy an incredible day and just be stress-free for a little bit. That's important: To get that burden off them and just let them enjoy their lives for a little bit."
Smith is shaking. This doesn't happen to anyone. It definitely doesn't happen to her.
But, somehow, it is. So she lets go of the life and the world that have let her down, finds her best natural smile and warmly welcomes in complete strangers.
"Hi. How you doing?" says Smith, inviting in a family led by a 6-foot-3, 249-pound man who signed a six-year contract extension for $55.6 million less than four months ago.
The Cushings and a small group of Texans employees gradually make their way into a darkened, cramped house. There's a tiny kitchen. A narrow, darker hallway. An old television topped by a youth football trophy. Two walls lined with tilted pictures, including a graduation photo and a family prayer.
Two other walls barely decorated, but featuring stock images normally found inside office buildings or a doctor's waiting room: a jagged cliff with "Risk" printed above and "Give every challenge your best shot" below; on the opposing wall, "Determination" and an idyllic picture of a clean fairway green and a faraway mountain.
Smith picks up her cellphone. The call is brief.
"Um, one of the Texans' players, Brian Cushing, is at my house," she says. "Gotta go."
Soon, presents are piling in. An in-the-box high-definition television. Stacks of new shoes, clothes and DVDs.
A PS3 for Smith's 8-year-old son, Darius. A 21-piece teether set for Smith's 9-month granddaughter, Siyah. Piles of food line a back table. Laughter and warmth color the living room. Together, it's hope, recognition, possibility.
All the things Smith canceled out when her back went bad and her job went away. Everything the holidays are supposed to reinforce but Smith privately knew were going to be coldly missing on Christmas Day before the Cushings arrived last Thursday.
"It's the greatest thing ever because I didn't know what my kids were going to get for Christmas," Smith says. "I didn't even know what I was going to have for Christmas dinner."
She worked 18 years as a nurse. She'd work again if she had a new job. But her bad back is only getting worse - one surgery is supposed to be followed by a second - and Smith hasn't met anyone who's been better after their back has been opened. She also can't forget what happened to the woman who brought her into the world.
"My mom had back surgery, and she never got out of the wheelchair until she passed away," Smith said. "I'm very scared, because I have to take care of my son and my grandbaby."
Five children and a granddaughter live inside the house. The father has disappeared, Smith says. Her oldest daughter, 26-year-old Savannah Wesley, dropped out of high school during her senior year, when her mother was injured during a fall. Wesley initially did the work Smith no longer could. Then the oldest daughter of the family joined the mother in frustration and pain after being diagnosed with ovarian cancer in September 2010.
"It's a struggle. … But as a family, a unit, we're trying," said Wesley, who's unemployed but actively seeking work. "We try. But we try not to talk about it, because we don't want the sadness to outnumber the positive that could come out of it."
Darius has a learning disability that stems from being born two weeks late. Wesley's cancer was in remission but recently returned and moved to her kidneys.
Smith holds on to an idea of working from home, but she's not sure if her back will let her do anything for extended periods. The $771 a month she receives in combined disability and child-support payments barely meets the family's rent.
Smith is holding on. But she's still slipping away.
"I'm not giving up," she said. "I think God is going to find a way. And he did bless me with Brian."
Continued on the next page.