— Virginia Football (@UVAFootball) October 4, 2023
By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — At the end of practice Thursday morning, University of Virginia football players gathered around head coach Tony Elliott in the George Welsh Indoor Practice Facility. Elliott reminded his team that this is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, a cause that will be highlighted Saturday at Scott Stadium.
“So we’re playing for something bigger than ourselves,” Elliott said.
UVA linebacker Stevie Bracey understands that better than most. His mother, Erica Wright Bracey, has had breast cancer twice. She’s healthy now and has been in remission since July 2021, but her son knows her story might have unfolded differently.
“If we’re being honest, I could have lost my mom to that,” said Stevie, a sophomore from Atlanta, where he graduated from The Lovett School. “I can’t imagine a world without her, because that’s my mom, that’s my rock. She does everything for me, and not having my mom in my life because of cancer could have been tough. I know that’s some people’s reality.”
Erica and her husband, Steve Bracey, are regulars at UVA home games. She’ll be speaking a breast cancer fundraiser this weekend, though, and they won’t be at Scott Stadium to see Virginia take on William & Mary in a noon game that will air on ACC Network.
“But I will be in front of TV wearing the pink jersey I made,” said Erica, who’s the student business incubator manager at Georgia State University’s Entrepreneurship and Innovation Institute. “We will be glued to the television.”
Stevie was a student at Imhotep Academy in Atlanta in 2014 when his mother was first diagnosed with breast cancer. “It was stage zero,” she said, “so in the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t terribly scary to him, because he really didn’t see anything. There was no chemo, it was just radiation. I say ‘just’ loosely, but it was no chemo.”
She went into her treatments with her trademark positive attitude. “There absolutely was no doom and gloom,” Erica said. “It’s stage zero. They caught it super, super early. I only have some extra doctor appointments, and we’re going to get through this.”
Stevie remembers when his mother shared her diagnosis with the family, but he was young “and didn’t really know what that meant,” he said.
Once their mom recovered, Stevie and his brother, Brandon Wright, didn’t give much thought to the disease. That changed in February 2021, when cancer returned.
On Christmas morning in 2020, not long after Erica’s father arrived at the Braceys’ home, Stevie informed his parents that his throat hurt. This was before COVID-19 vaccinations were available, and Erica was worried about her father, who was then 86 (and has since passed away).
“So of course I start panicking,” she recalled. “Stevie ate Christmas dinner in his room, and then he was sick all weekend.”
That Monday, Stevie tested positive for COVID-19, as did his father. “I was negative,” Erica said, “so I played nurse and masked up. Stevie was in his room. My husband was in another room. I was in my office trying not to get it. So I did some deep cleaning, keeping myself busy in the office when I wasn’t waiting on them hand and foot.”
She was cleaning under her desk when she stretched out her arm and felt a sharp pain on her right side. “It happened again,” Erica said, “and that’s when I reached over with my left hand and found a lump under my breast. If it was not for Stevie getting COVID and me being sequestered in my office, I don’t know when we would have found it.”
She’d been having mammograms twice a year, but the machines hadn’t detected the lump, because of its location. Tests revealed that Erica had stage 2 breast cancer. She brought her family together and shared the news with them.
“Second time, we were a little bit scared,” Stevie recalled, “because the first time she caught it really early. It was a little bit scarier because it came back again, and when it comes back, it comes back stronger. So that was nerve-wracking.”
Stevie was then a junior at Lovett, no longer too young to grasp the significance of the diagnosis.
“There’s no sugarcoating,” Erica said. “I told him, ‘It’s back, I have amazing doctors, I believe in my doctors, we beat this thing once, we’re going to beat it again, it’ll just look a little different. I’m going to lose all my hair, but I’m OK.’ ”
Her treatment this time was more aggressive. She underwent chemotherapy, whose many unpleasant side effects include hair loss, nausea and fatigue, and she later had a double mastectomy.
“It’s weird seeing your mom with no hair,” Stevie said. “But she was in very high spirits the whole time.”
He smiled. “It was never a dull moment with her. Obviously, you knew she had cancer, but at the same time you’d have had no idea if you didn’t know her. She wore a little head wrap. You would have had no idea if you didn’t know her or didn’t follow her on Facebook that she was battling through something.”
Erica said she recently had her strengths assessed, “and my No. 1 is positivity. My glass is always half-full. That’s simply how I prefer to look at life. I’m positive. We’re gonna whatever it takes. This time I did require chemotherapy, so I told my doctors to bring it on, because I was ready. I fed off Stevie’s vibe. He didn’t want to make a big deal out of it at school. So we didn’t, and that was fine. It wasn’t really anyone else’s business, and then we went into the summer, and he wasn’t around his friends as much.”
When he returned to Lovett for his senior year, however, Stevie told his mom it was OK for her to share the news of her illness. “So I did,” Erica said, “and the moms at the school, the coaches and his teammates wrapped their arms around me and our family.”
She wasn’t a fan of wigs, so she started wearing colorful head wraps. Determined to keep things as normal as possible, she missed only one of Stevie’s games in the fall of 2021.
“I knew we were going to beat this,” Erica said. “I was not changing our schedule or living for cancer. Cancer did not rule our lives.”
Head wraps are no longer a big part of Erica’s wardrobe—“She’s got a head full of hair now, doing her little curls and all that stuff,” Stevie said with a smile—but the resilience she displayed during her battles with cancer continues to inspire her family.
Stevie remembers a workout he had one night in Atlanta with his friend Ed Curney, who like Wright played football at Georgia State.
“This is when my mom was going through chemo,” Stevie said. “and I’m dying on the field, on all fours. Mind you, it’s an empty stadium. There was nobody in there. And he pulls my head up, grabs me by my neck, and he points. There was nothing there, but he goes, ‘There’s you mom right there, watching your last practice,’ and I broke down.”
Stevie said he’s used that moment as motivation. Whenever he takes the field, he said, he wants to play in a way that would make his mother proud if she were watching him for the last time.
Erica attended last year’s Breast Cancer Awareness game at Scott Stadium, and she made a pink jersey she likes to wear in October. It’s similar to one she made to wear during Breast Cancer Awareness Month when Stevie’s brother played at Georgia State.
Stevie, whose jersey number recently changed from 2 to 19, usually wears a wristband with this message: Real Men Wear Pink. His roommates at UVA include safety Davis Lane Jr., whose family also has been touched by breast cancer. There will be plenty of pink in the stands at Scott Stadium on Saturday, and on the sidelines and the field.
“I’ll definitely try to get an arm band or arm sleeve,” Stevie said.
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