CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Carolina Panthers defensive end Mario Addison had two Jeep Wranglers, an orange one and a red one, built for his younger brothers as incentives to succeed in life. To earn them, each had to get a job and hold it down for a few months to prove he was becoming responsible.
Addison recently gave the red one to the youngest of the two, 27-year-old Gjamal Antonio Rodriqcus.
Twelve days ago, in Addison’s hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, Rodriqcus was shot and killed in that Jeep. Addison missed Sunday’s game against the Tennessee Titans because he was grieving his brother’s death after laying him to rest in a shiny red casket.
He’s still grieving.
“Red was his favorite color,” Addison said Thursday as he sat in front of his locker.
A few minutes later, he stood and talked to a large group of reporters for the first time since he rejoined his teammates at Bank of America Stadium on Monday.
His words were raw.
“I’m fair,” Addison said when asked how he was holding up. “I would say I’m fair. I can’t say I feel good. I can’t say I’m happy. I can’t say I’m sad. Angry. I’m all of them at once. It can change every two minutes. I’m fair.”
Athletes often don’t have the luxury of grieving in private, especially during their seasons. There’s no better example of that than the former quarterback of the team the Panthers (5-3) will face on Sunday in Green Bay, Wisconsin.
On Dec. 22, 2003, the day after Packers quarterback Brett Favre lost his father to a heart attack in Mississippi, he threw for 399 yards and four touchdowns in a Monday Night Football game in Oakland. He didn’t have to play, but he did because he didn’t want to let his teammates down.
And he believed that perhaps the best way he could honor his father was to be the best he could possibly be that night.
Addison, 32, feels that way about playing on Sunday. Carolina’s sacks leader (6.5) has a celebration planned in which he will mimic his brother’s favorite pose if he sacks Aaron Rodgers.
“It’s going to be phenomenal,” Addison said, anticipating what might happen on the “frozen tundra” at Lambeau Field, where cold temperatures are in the forecast. “I might get stuck in the pose, it’s so cold out there.”
Addison left his family in Birmingham on Monday because he needed to get away from the memories of Rodriqcus, whom he refers to as “G” or “Geeski.” He wanted to get back to his football family in Charlotte.
“I was having a whole lot of mixed emotions while I was there,” Addison said. “I just wanted to get away and be back with these guys and actually use football to clear my mind. I think I’m ready to be back on the field.”
The decision on whether Addison is ready to play falls to Panthers coach Ron Rivera, who has spent time talking with Addison about what has happened to make sure he’s mentally ready.
The Panthers also have the benefit of one of the league’s first full-time, in-house mental health clinicians. Owner David Tepper approved the hiring of Tish Guerin last year, shortly after he purchased the team.
Guerin helped when two players witnessed a fatal car crash outside Bank of America Stadium last year. She has been working with Addison this week.
“Tish, she’s amazing,” Addison said. “I actually talked to her while I was on the field. I know I’m going to spend a lot of time talking to her to try to clear my head and try to get the right advice that I need to go forward to start back dominating on the field.
“The mind is a powerful thing. It can be your downfall. My main focus is to try my best to block out all the negative things and just think about the positive things.”
‘Win this for Mario’
On Oct. 27, before boarding the plane in California after a 51-13 loss to the San Francisco 49ers, Addison learned via text message that his brother had been shot. He didn’t get the news that Rodriqcus had died until he was in the air.
One of the first people he told was fellow edge rusher Bruce Irvin.
“I ain’t cried in five years,” Irvin shared. “When he found out, I was crying like a baby on the plane.”
Addison’s teammates and coaches stayed in touch with him throughout the week. The messages were most powerful before Sunday’s game.
It began with defensive lineman Gerald McCoy gathering everyone to deliver a simple message: “Let’s go win this for Mario.”
Addison wasn’t on the sideline for the 30-20 victory, but he was there in every other way. His No. 97 jersey was on the bench, and McCoy wore his hoodie during warm-ups.
Linebacker Marquis Haynes promised Addison that he would get a sack for him, and he did. It was the first of his two-year career.
After the game, Rivera put aside a game ball for Addison. That meant a lot.
“It felt almost like I was there,” he said. “I had shown my mom that picture they had posted, and she started crying. She was like, ‘We’re going to get through this.’”
Addison knows he’ll get through it in large part because of football. An unrestricted free agent after this season, he was already motivated to get a new deal. Now he’ll also be inspired by his brother.
“The thing that hurt me the most about my little brother getting killed, he was getting his life together,” Addison said.
A 22-year-old Birmingham man was charged with capital murder in the shooting, which escalated from what police believe was an ongoing argument.
“It’s going to add fuel to the fire,” Addison said. “It’s going to make me turn up even more. I’m playing for a higher cause, which I was from the get-go. Now I’m playing with a chip on my shoulder, and the chip is G.”