An early Mother's Day gift
It seemed like an effortless gesture, dedicating the season and any honors it would bring him to his mother, but when you look deeper, the statement Longhorns senior All-America cornerback Aaron Ross made was profound. It was a declaration of triumph, a testimony of will and a message of gratitude for her spirit and faith.
"Aaron is such a mature young man who has tremendous character and has grown into great leader," Longhorns head coach Mack Brown said. "He has been through so much and overcome so many obstacles. And the best part is he such a positive person. It's hard to find a time where he's not laughing or smiling. He's a great kid, who obviously his mom did a terrific job raising."
Ross long ago recognized the strength, conviction and determination of Cheryl Ross. That's why as an eighth grader he was in quest of a method to pay tribute to the woman who inspired him. The one of whom he proclaimed, "When we didn't have anything, she gave me everything."
"Me and my mom are really close," Ross said. "Through thick or thin, my mom was always there for me. It didn't matter how tough times were, she always took care of me and kept things positive. No matter what challenge we faced, I knew she could overcome it. That's why I wanted the tattoo, to show her how much she meant to me when I wasn't always saying it."
The cursive script tattoo simply read "Cheryl," but it was the location, just above his heart, that meant the most. That's where Ross, a self-proclaimed "momma's boy," felt her presence most.
As the years went on and Ross blossomed into a three-sport standout and five-star football recruit, the tattoo stretched. It became so obscured, he eventually covered it up, but his bond with his mother only grew stronger.
"My mother is a very spiritual person," Ross said. "She always told me everything happens for a reason. God won't put you through anymore than you can handle, so whatever I go through, I know he'll bring me through it. Something bad happens, and I wait for something good to follow it."
Together, they had overcome every obstacle and navigated many of life's twists and turns, ups and downs. As a rambunctious youngster, she always reeled him in at just the right time. When the wrong crowd came calling on the teenager, she swooped in to the rescue.
"There was plenty of trouble to get into to around where I was growing up," Ross said. "I'm one of the lucky ones. With my mom's prayers and discipline, I made it out. When I think about the group of guys I was hanging out with when I was younger -- two are dead and one is locked up. I could've gone down that same path if I didn't have her."
After finishing middle school in the small town of Brownsboro, Texas, near Tyler, he moved to San Antonio and Fox Tech High School in an attempt to build a relationship with the father he barely knew -- the man whose marriage with Cheryl had split when Ross was just seven. He hoped he could build something special like he had with his mother, but it didn't work out, so he rejoined her in Tyler.
In Tyler, his love for basketball had transferred to football, and he became an all-state defensive back at John Tyler High School. He was a star in the community, speaking to kids around the city as part of a drug awareness campaign, cutting television and radio ads for a "Don't Drink and Drive" promotion and working summers as a counselor and mentor for children at Camp Tyler.
However, just when he thought he had found his way, Ross reached another fork in the road.
Ross had visions of playing college football, and his sights were set on The University of Texas. That dream came true in the spring of 2001 when he signed a National Letter of Intent with the Longhorns. At the time he had no idea the heartache and determination it would take to get there. He enrolled at Texas in August 2001 and, with his football career on the fast track, was dealt an initial blow when the NCAA Clearinghouse sidelined him as a result of a transcript error. Not only did it cost him one year, the issue continued to drag on and forced him out for a second year.
"It was really tough at the time," Ross said. "I'm not going to lie. I broke down and cried in Coach Brown's office. The first year was one thing, but when they told me the second time, I was ready to quit. I could have gone to a junior college, but I wanted to be at Texas. Coach Brown and the staff never gave up on me, so I kept pushing. I had hit another challenge in life, and I was determined to do whatever it took to become a Longhorn. It wasn't easy, but I made it."
It would be two long years of patience and persistence before Ross finally could put down roots in Austin.
Ross hit rock bottom when he returned to John Tyler to retake the sophomore English class that was not on his transcript -- despite the school's attempts to correct it -- while working as an auto detailer. Fortunately for him, he did not have to start the climb alone.
"Those two years I was sitting out, my mom was my backbone, because I didn't have a backbone to be able to stand on my own," Ross said. "She would do anything for me. I got pretty depressed at times, but she was keeping me up, putting money in my pocket when she didn't even have the money. She'd give me the last dime in her pocket. She'd miss work to talk to me when I was down."
For Ross, the struggle built on his character, helping him grow and continue to mature. Finally, in the summer of 2003, after once again earning an "A" in his sophomore English class, his transcript was straightened out and cleared by the NCAA Clearinghouse. He was finally a Longhorn.
"It was a great feeling," Ross said. "I came out of it a stronger person, a better man and with even more love for my mom than ever before. I was grateful to everyone at Texas for being patient, for waiting on me, because they could have easily moved on."
The path was clearer, but Ross said he hadn't quite gotten past his final obstacle. After two years off, he was rusty and had lost some confidence. He played in all 13 games for the 10-3 Horns during his true freshman year, but struggled to find his spark. Ross said he spent many long nights taking in inspiration from his mother.
"When I got back in school and my confidence was pretty low, she'd make sure to tell me don't give up, keep God first, everything will fall into place," Ross said. "If I had a tough day or game, she was always there to encourage me." p>
After "surviving" his freshman year, Ross felt it was time to pay homage to his mother in the same way he had almost eight years earlier. This time, the plan was far more challenging and extensive, once again using his body as his canvas. No name, just a message -- "God's Gift," it read. It was a short, but definitive inscription beneath a meticulously etched portrait tattoo that perfectly replicated the photo he carried with him at all times.
"I was a little worried at first that it might not look right," Ross said of the illustration that took about an hour to complete. "But as it got closer and closer to finishing, it turned out perfect. It looks just like her."
With his inspiration once again carved into his body, life's path became smoother. As a sophomore, Ross had begun to settle in both on and off the field. He had developed a great relationship with his position coach, Duane Akina, UT's defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach. Akina and Brown's enthusiasm and positive disposition had begun to rebuild his confidence. Off the field, his mother continued to be his biggest fan and supporter. He also met then- Longhorns track star Sanya Richards, and the two have been dating for three years.
"Now I look at all the tears and pain as a blessing," Ross says. "I learned a lot, matured, met my girl and was fortunate enough to play behind and learn from two of the best DBs in the country in (Michael) Huff and Ced (Griffin). Plenty of bad things had happened, and I waited, and a bunch of good things started to come through."
Patiently waiting behind Huff and Griffin -- two Longhorns now starting in the NFL -- and sharing a starting role his junior year with close friend Tarell Brown, Ross proved to be an unselfish teammate and epitomized the team spirit of the Longhorns' first National Championship team in 35 years in 2005. p>
"Aaron's one of those guys you can see his personal character," said Longhorn DT Frank Okam. "You see it in the way he treats his girlfriend, the way he works in the weight room, and how he is around other people. He's definitely someone who leads by example."
As a senior, it all came together for Ross. Entrenched as a starter, he became just the third player in UT history to earn a spot among the Thorpe Award finalists and found himself among the candidates for many other individual honors. His patience and persistence began to reap many rewards.
"It's a wonderful story of how hard work pays off," Akina said. "He has overcome so many obstacles in the last six years to get to this point. It's just wonderful to see that he's really developed himself as a football player. Here he is, a senior, still taking coaching, still knowing that he can improve his game every day, and it's wonderful. It's just a great picture for the young players in that (DB) room to see how to become a great football player and person."
And by all measures, he had one of the finest individual seasons a Longhorn could ask for. He earned unanimous first-team All-Big 12 honors, was tabbed first-team All-America and earned Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year by several publications. After registering 77 tackles, five interceptions, 23 passes defended, 18 pass breakups, and 10 takeaways, he was tabbed UT's Defensive MVP and shared team MVP honors with QB Colt McCoy. On the biggest of stages, Ross was at his finest. In Texas' three games against Top 25 opponents, he posted 20 tackles, two interceptions, five pass breakups, a forced fumble and returned a fumble for a TD.
Ross quietly hoped it would all be enough to achieve the 18-inch, 30-pound bronze statuette named for one of the greatest athletes and sports heroes ever, Jim Thorpe. Not for the personal glory of a season of excellence, but for the woman he dedicated the season to. It was a tangible reward of a college legacy that he could have never achieved without the maternal guidance of Cheryl Ross.
"I set my mind on accomplishing something special when I dedicated the season to her, so any honors I received, and especially the Thorpe Award, I wanted to be a tribute to her," Ross said. "She means the world to me."
Last Thursday night (Dec. 7) at the Home Depot College Football Awards show in Orlando, Fla., what once seemed like more of a fantasy than a goal, Ross sat nervously among the studio audience. With the cameras rolling live, in front of ESPN's national television audience and with Richards by his side, Ross' ascent to the college football mountaintop was broadcast loud and clear by 2006 Thorpe Award presenter Tarrell Buckley.
"On behalf of the Jim Thorpe family and the Jim Thorpe Association of Oklahoma, it is my honor to present this year's award to Aaron Ross of The University of Texas."
Anyone watching could see the excitement erupt on both Ross' and Richards' faces. Staggered by the moment, Ross gathered himself long enough to take the stage and gratefully accept the trophy.
"I was stunned," Ross said. "When I heard them say 'Aaron,' I was overwhelmed. So many emotions were rushing through my body. Fortunately, I didn't have to much time to think because I probably would have cried."
Ross eventually did cry, but it was several hours later when the gravity of the moment finally sunk in.
"When I laid down that night, I couldn't stop thinking about it," Ross said. "I actually cried. All I could think about was everything I had been through to get there and everyone that had helped me along the way, especially my mom. It was pretty emotional thinking about everything she had done for me to be in a position like this."
From Orlando to San Antonio, the moment was magnified even more when mother and son spoke by phone.
"That may have been the greatest phone call of my life," Ross said. "The first thing I said was, 'Mom, we did it.' She had told me all along that she had faith I could do it. She said 'I told you!' I couldn't stop thanking her for everything she had done for me. We were both really emotional."
But in the end, mom was, as always, providing her motherly advice.
"She told me, 'Stay focused, stay humble, keep God first,'" Ross said.
With another game on the horizon against Iowa at the Alamo Bowl in his hometown of San Antonio, that was sound advice. But, now as a member of the prestigious club of Thorpe Award winners, Ross has more challenges ahead.
For mom, she will enjoy her son's final college football game in her own backyard in San Antonio. It will be Ross' final tribute in a season of dedication.
It was a season where a son's allegiance, loyalty and perseverance garnered great achievement. Mother and son will together share in a tribute of that when Ross is officially honored as the 20th winner of the Jim Thorpe Award at the award's annual banquet in Oklahoma City on Feb. 12.
"That's going to be a special night," Ross said. "I'm sure it will be really emotional. I'm really looking forward to it."