Lions' Kevin Strong Jr., cancer-stricken father inspire each other
Houston — When undrafted rookie Kevin Strong Jr. straps on the shoulder pads and takes the practice field for the Detroit Lions, he isn't just fighting for the unlikely dream of making an NFL roster, he's fighting for a promise he made his father.
Kevin Strong Sr. is more than two years into his own battle, but it's not one he's taking on alone. Initially diagnosed in January 2017, he's continuing to undergo treatment for Stage-4 lung cancer.
Now, the family that's anchored by their faith, are leaning on each other as daily motivation in their different, yet similar uphill struggles.
"As long as he keeps pushing, I’m going to keep pushing," Kevin Strong Jr. said. "I'm going to push all day and I know he will, too. It’s battle for battle. We’ll just keep going, going through the process.
"We’ve all been in the fight, my dad, my mom, my whole family," Strong Jr. said. "We’ve been step by step, side by side since day one," Strong Jr. said. "We ain’t going to stop any time soon."
The younger Strong's path has taken him far away from his family for the first time in his life. Born and raised in Texas, Strong Jr. played collegiately at the University of Texas San Antonio.
Last season, his parents made the four-hour trek from Cleveland, Texas, for nearly every home game, as well as quite a few road games, including last year's season opener against Arizona State.
"We thought it was important to be their for the first game of his senior season," said his mother, Tanisha.
While in Detroit, there's communication nearly every day, whether it's a phone call or a video chat through FaceTime. Strong Jr. is finally starting to get comfortable being so far from home, but he admits he still worries about his dad, certainly more than he lets him know.
"I worry more than you think, man," Strong Jr. said. "I never show them I’ll full-out worrying, but I do worry a lot. But at the end of the day, if you have faith in God and what his plan is, you’ve just got to pray and let him handle the rest."
This week, the Strong family received a gift courtesy of the NFL's schedule makers, Lions coach Matt Patricia and his counterpart in Houston, Bill O'Brien. The pre-existing relationship between the former colleagues resulted in the two teams conducting joint practices in Houston, unexpectedly bringing the Strongs together for a few days.
They were out in full force for the first joint practice on Wednesday, making the 45-minute commute south from Cleveland. More than a dozen family member and friends came out to watch Strong Jr. chasing his dream.
"We’re all about family, so obviously we’re obviously thinking about him, and just glad that he can get out here and see his son," Patricia said.
Strong Sr., a day removed from finishing up his recent round of radiation, spent most of the morning taking the practice in from a folding chair. He's scheduled to begin chemotherapy next week.
Despite that, he couldn't stop smiling. That's something Strong Jr. has grown to expect.
"Every time I see him, he’s always smiling," Strong Jr. said. "He’s never down, he’s never upset or mad about anything. He stays positive. Seeing him push through one of the hardest things you can go through in life, me coming out here every day and playing football, why not keep pushing with him? I shouldn’t have any problems. He’s fighting with his health and all I’ve got to do is get up and go play football and keep him excited."
After practice it was all hugs and smiles. The family will get an opportunity soak in a few more moments together before Strong Jr. heads back to Detroit with the team, continuing his push for a roster spot.
So far, he's made a good impression with his increased practice reps with the first- and second-string defenses, thanks to a number of injuries to players ahead of him on the depth chart. That's included flashes of impressive pass-rushing ability in practice and two tackles and a quarterback pressure in his preseason debut.
And if Strong Jr. does defy the odds, earning a spot on Detroit's 53-man roster, you better believe his parents will be there for his first game, which like last year, will be in Arizona. Only this time it will be against the Cardinals instead of the Sun Devils.
With that accomplishment would also come a pay bump, which would allow Strong Jr. to add financial support to the inspirational one he's already providing his father.
"It stirs up all kinds of emotions," Strong Sr. said as his son competed in drills no more than 50 feet away. "Enough to bring tears to your eyes, just knowing he’s fighting for me and I’m fighting for him."