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As many football fans will know, DeAndre Hopkins is one of the brightest stars of the NFL. The wide receiver for the Houston Texans was voted the 13th best player by his peers in a 2018 NFL Network poll. Hopkins joined the team in 2013, and since then he has become a popular fixture.

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But just as familiar as Hopkins holding the ball in the end zone has been the sight of the player celebrating his most iconic moments with a special person in the crowd. He often trots over to the rafters behind the end zone and seeks out a lady who has done more than anyone to shape the man he is today: his mother Sabrina Greenlee.

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Greenlee always sits in the same seat at the Texans’ NRG Stadium, and if Hopkins scores at that end he presents his mom with the ball. The gesture has become prominent after big wins by the Houston Texans, as well as special moments for the player himself. It is an endearing sight, but it’s one that also contains way more emotional symbolism that any unknowing witness could imagine.

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Hopkins naturally speaks of his mother in glowing terms. He told Yahoo Parenting in 2015, “How would I describe my mom? She’s very motivated and she’s very motivational. She raised me and my three siblings but we always had friends staying with us so it seemed like she was raising more than just four of us. We grew up in Section 8 housing in South Carolina and we didn’t really have much. We got what we needed, not what we wanted.”

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Of course, the NFL is full of larger-than-life characters and colorful touchdown celebrations that fill almost as many video montages as the plays themselves. But as we’ll explore later, there’s a particularly poignant reason behind why Hopkins gives his mother an embrace during a game.

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Hopkins may be a monster of the sport now, but like so many of his fellow players, he emerged from difficult beginnings. Born in Central, South Carolina, Hopkins’ parents were not wealthy – although sporting prowess did run in the family. Hopkins’ uncle Terry Smith had briefly played for the Indianapolis Colts, and he had been a star performer at nearby Clemson University.

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Sadly, Hopkins’ life has been marred by more than its fair share of tragedy – with the first instance occurring not long after the youngster’s birth. The football star lost his father, Harris Steve Hopkins, when he was just five months old in November 1992. His dad died in hospital eight days after a car accident which occurred when he and Greenlee were returning from visiting family members in Atlanta.

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Harris’ Ford Mustang GTS lost control when it skidded on a rain-soaked road while turning a corner. The car reportedly overturned three times and finally came to rest after the driver’s side hit a guardrail. As the driver, Harris bore the brunt of the collision, while Greenlee escaped with concussion and a few other smaller injuries.

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Tragically, Harris was just 25 years old when he died. And Greenlee was now a young woman who was faced with the prospect of raising three children – the youngest of whom was a mere baby – on her own. But Hopkins’ mom took it in her stride and would later welcome another girl into the family.

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Greenlee faced her reality by working hard, according to her son Hopkins. He told Yahoo Parenting, “My mom had two jobs most of the time. She worked at a mill, she worked plant jobs, she worked at a place where they made rubber for tires. [Greenlee] worked as much as she could trying to raise us on her own.”

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In the interview, Hopkins then gave a little more of an insight into what it was like for him and his siblings having a mom who was working to raise them all as a single parent. He said, “We always had babysitters and we wouldn’t really see her during the day, only when she got off work later at night. At the time we didn’t understand, but as you get older you understand the sacrifices that she made.”

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Sport, as it turned out, was the salvation for Greenlee’s four children. Hopkins’ path is well known, but his elder brother, Marcus Greenlee, was also a talented high school football and basketball player. Meanwhile, his elder sister Kesha Smith plays in the Independent Women’s Football League for the Houston Wildcats and is also a basketball trainer. Furthermore, Hopkins’ younger sister Shanterria Cobb signed a letter of intent to play the sport at Texas Southern University in 2016.

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And then, of course, there was Hopkins’ uncle Terry Smith, who as we mentioned earlier had briefly played football professionally. Yet Smith’s life would also be cut short in another tragedy which hit the family in 1997. That year, he was killed by Atlanta police officers after breaking into his estranged wife’s home and stabbing her.

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Smith had defied orders from police officers to give himself up on multiple occasions on the night he was killed. Yet he had also been a football star, especially at Clemson University, where he was named as the most valuable player at the end of the 1993 season. In playing for the Clemson Tigers, furthermore, Smith finished as all-time leader in receiving yards and catches. Interestingly, Smith also played in the same position as his nephew.

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In his interview with Yahoo Parenting, Hopkins talked about how Smith had influenced his chosen career. He said, “My mom’s brother… died when I was younger so I really didn’t get to know him, but knowing that he played at Clemson influenced me. Having family talking about him and the things he did – that motivated me. When I was young, one of my teachers asked me, ‘What do you want to be?’ and I said, ‘A professional football player.’”

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Football continued to play an important role in the life of young Hopkins when his cousin, Javis Austin, went on to play for the Tigers. But the latter had also experienced tragedy himself when his brother died during a basketball game. Austin had enjoyed an incredibly successful high school football career as well and had also gone on to play for Clemson.

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But at the age of just 21 years old, Austin attempted suicide by shooting himself in the head. And though he survived, the football player was left nearly completely blinded as his right eye was removed and his left was badly damaged. Sadly, the incident ended Austin’s football career, although he now works as a special educator at an elementary school in South Carolina.

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Hopkins was just eight years old when his cousin Austin had attempted to take his own life. As a star footballer, the latter was a hero to the young boy and the event came as a shock to the entire family. In Hopkins’ short time on the planet, he had lost his father in an automobile accident, an uncle in a violent crime episode, a cousin on the basketball court and another cousin had attempted to take his own life.

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But there were two other things in Hopkins’ young life which helped him get through the hard times: football and his mother. At D.W. Daniel High School in Central, S.C., Hopkins was a talent not just on the football field but also on the basketball court and in track and field events, too.

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Hopkins finished his high school career with some stand-out stats as a wide receiver; he got an impressive 57 receptions for 1,266 yards and 18 touchdowns. In defense, meanwhile, he added a further five touchdowns and a commendable 28 interceptions. And for the icing on the cake, Hopkins was named basketball player of the year by the Independent Mail in his senior season.

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When it was time to go to college, Clemson was the natural choice for Hopkins. Not only was it local to him, but it was the school at which both his uncle and cousin had played for the football team: the Clemson Tigers. Hopkins too would become a Tiger between 2010 and 2012 – playing under coach Dabo Swinney.

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Hopkins subsequently had a stellar freshman season for the Tigers. He finished that period as the team’s leading receiver – pulling off four touchdowns, along with 52 receptions for 637 receiving yards. He also carried that form into his sophomore year, when he scored a touchdown and had ten receptions for 107 yards in an Orange Bowl loss to West Virginia.

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Hopkins’ junior season, meanwhile, was something special. In fact, his receiving record was one of the best that the Atlantic Coast Conference has ever seen. Hopkins’ 18 touchdowns that year was a Clemson school record that still stands, and it ranked second in the whole of the United States. Naturally, it was these numbers that persuaded Hopkins to put himself forward for the NFL draft instead of completing his senior year at college.

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Hopkins was considered a top prospect thanks to the numbers he had been posting at Clemson. He was picked up by the Houston Texans as the 27th overall pick and was the second wide receiver selected after Tavon Austin. Hopkins’ life then changed forever in July 2013 when the then-21-year-old signed a four-year contract with the Texans. This guaranteed an impressive $6.18 million as well as a signing bonus of nearly $4 million.

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Hopkins then hit the ground running after finally entering the NFL. Almost year on year his receiving statistics have grown to rival the league’s leading talents, while the team’s results have improved too – despite a poor 2017 campaign. The Texans have won the AFC South Division in five of Hopkins’ seven seasons to date and have reached the post-season on four of those occasions.

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Hopkins gleefully holding the ball in the endzone has become a common enough sight in the NFL in recent seasons. Scenes showing the player trotting over to the stands to present his mother with the ball have become a regular fixture for those familiar with Houston Texan games. But it is much more than just a caring moment between mother and son. That’s because Sabrina Greenlee, Hopkins’ mother, is totally blind.

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Hopkins enjoys his mom’s presence at his games, telling Yahoo Parenting, “Last year she was at almost every home game and came to some away games. She’s always trying to support me even if she’s in the stands and can’t see exactly what’s going on – she’s unbelievable.” But how did Greenlee end up losing her sight?

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Well, Greenlee’s blindness is not the result of a birth defect or an unfortunate accident. It occurred in July 2002 when his mom was having an argument with her boyfriend outside of the house of another woman who he was seeing – a woman called Savannah Grant.

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Grant approached Greenlee and threw a hot mixture of bleach and lye on her face. Hopkins’ mom told ESPN in October 2019, “The first thing I’m thinking is ‘why would someone pour warm water on me?’ But a couple of seconds later I realized that it wasn’t warm water because my skin is nearly falling off of my face, my neck, my chest and my back. A white curtain comes over my eyes and I’m going blind.”

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The result of Grant’s attack was horrific burns to Greenlee’s face which left her in a medically induced coma for three weeks. Hopkins’ mother received skin grafts and had experienced burns to nearly a fifth of her body. She lost total vision in both of her eyes and remained in hospital, away from her four children, for around six weeks.

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Savannah Grant was arrested and charged with assault and battery with intent to kill. She was subsequently convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison. But the family was now faced with the major breadwinner and primary carer of the household unable to see.

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However, sport played a large part in helping the family fight against adversity, especially for DeAndre Hopkins. His older sister Kesha Smith told ESPN, “Football for him was an escape. And he was completely unstoppable.” And the rest, as they say, is history.

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Hopkins has also spoken candidly about what happened to his mother and the impact that it had on him. The star explained to Yahoo Parenting, “Her accident changed our lives drastically. I didn’t understand what was going on at the time and [afterward] I didn’t see her for a few months. She was in the hospital and her face was wrapped up. They didn’t explain to me what had happened. I just knew she [had been] in a bad accident.”

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When Greenlee eventually left hospital, Hopkins remembered the effect that her appearance had on him. He continued, “Even after she came home, me and my younger sister didn’t see her for a few weeks because they didn’t know if we’d be able to handle the circumstances. After we saw how bad it was, I was scared and sad, but I just wanted to be with her and help.”

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But in an act of profound courage, Hopkins used his mother’s devastating injuries as the added fuel he needed to make something of himself. In a poignant interview with ESPN, Greenlee said, “He told me a few years ago, he said ‘I didn’t want what happened to you to happen, but because it did happen, it motivated me.’”

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Hopkins told Yahoo Parenting, “Nobody had a situation like our family’s so it made me and my siblings much closer to my mom than other kids. She’s my mother and my father. Because I don’t have a dad, I have an unbreakable relationship with my mom.”

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Elsewhere, the wide receiver has acknowledged that things could have been very different without football. Hopkins added to Yahoo Parenting, “I stayed out of trouble as a kid and part of it was because of sports, really. There wasn’t a time during the year where I wasn’t playing a sport. When my mom got hurt and I wouldn’t want to leave, she would make me go to tournaments. She knew sports was keeping me out of trouble.”

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Now Hopkins is a man, and a remarkably successful one at that. He plays football in front of sell-out crowds at Houston’s NRG Stadium, but there is one person in the audience that he wants there more than anyone else: his mom. Greenlee told ESPN, “He doesn’t care that I can’t see. He just wants me there.”

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So when Hopkins scores a touchdown at the end of the field near where his mom sits, there’s only one thought in his mind as he wheels around to celebrate. And the moment that mother and son share in front of an audience of millions is the expression of a relationship that has been forged through the toughest of adversity.

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The last word on Hopkins’ celebration should rightfully belong to his mother Greenlee – the woman who has inspired so much of the young man’s success. The latter told ESPN, “That ball symbolizes so much more than people could ever understand. It’s like a symbol of a bond that can’t be broken.”

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