Muhammad Wilkerson honors his mom, a breast cancer survivor

Jets defensive lineman Muhammad Wilkerson during training camp. Jets defensive lineman Muhammad Wilkerson during training camp. (July 29, 2012) Photo Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams, Jr.

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Janice Wilkerson barely got the words out.

Without warning, the memories -- all of them so vivid and cruel -- came flooding back, transporting her in time to her darkest hour. Tears welled in her eyes as she tried in vain to steady her quivering voice. But each word she spoke was wrought with pained emotion.

"Trying to explain to [my kids] that I really needed them to behave," she said, her voice cracking over the phone, "and to listen to whoever takes care of them if something were to happen, and to just be good . . . I just remember being so emotional."

The mother of four, including Jets star defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson, thought she had been handed a death sentence in 2000.

Breast cancer.

"I just thought she was going to die," Muhammad Wilkerson, 23, said quietly as he sat in front of his locker this past week.

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He was only 10 years old when his mother was diagnosed, and the thought of not having her beside him was too painful to comprehend. "I thought I was going to grow up and not have a mom," he said.

On Sunday, Wilkerson will step onto the MetLife Stadium field and scan the crowd for his mother -- just as he did while playing for Linden High School in New Jersey and Temple University.

The pink gloves and cleats he'll wear for the entire month of October, including the Jets' 1 p.m. game against the Steelers on Sunday, are more than just league-mandated attire during Breast Cancer Awareness month.

The bright pink contrasting with his dark green and white Jets jersey is a symbol of a fighting spirit. And a reminder of how fleeting life can be.

"I'm playing not just for my family but for anybody who may have lost a loved one or for people who have family members who are also survivors," said Wilkerson, drafted 30th overall in 2011. "I'm putting in extra effort because this month is for that type of awareness, that cause. And I'm playing for anybody that was affected by it."

Wilkerson's bare biceps is a testament to his mother's strength. Etched in blue ink on his right arm is a large breast cancer ribbon. Within it is the word "Ka'idah" -- Janice's Arabic name.

At 6-4, 315 pounds, Wilkerson possesses rare gifts -- brute strength mixed with nimble athleticism. He's the catalyst of the Jets' defensive front and a force his fellow D-linemen feed off.

"Mo's our guy," line coach Karl Dunbar said of Wilkerson, who has four sacks this season. "We know that when we need to make something happen, he can make it happen. With the skill-set that Mo has, I think the world's the limit for him."

Quinton Coples realized the same about Wilkerson after they played one year together at Hargrave Military Academy in Virginia. "I already knew that he had the potential to be an elite player," the outside linebacker said. "This is no surprise to me at all."

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Mama's boy

As Wilkerson sat shirtless in the locker room Wednesday, he was happy to divulge a little-known secret.

"I'm about to be 24 in a couple weeks, but I can say I'm a mama's boy," he said, flashing a wide, childlike grin.

Muhammad was the one child who always listened, his mother said, the child who insisted on being her shadow. Her word -- and the teachings of Allah -- was gospel in their devout Muslim household. "Whatever she said, I did it," said Wilkerson, who became a father to a baby girl named Heaven in March 2012.

So when his mother delivered the most important news of her life, he hung on her every word.

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Janice broke the news to her daughter, Zakkiyah, then 5, by reading aloud a book called "My Mommy Has Cancer." She explained the diagnosis to her youngest sons, Muhammad, 10, and Hafeez Brown, 13.

She'd have to undergo surgery, she told them. And she needed them to be strong and pray to Allah to keep her alive.

"They were scared. You could see it in their eyes," said Janice, now 57, who was diagnosed with extensive ductal carcinoma in situ.

She had mistakenly assumed that the painful sensations in her right breast and the secretions coming from her nipple were related to her menstrual cycle. But not until after her diagnosis did she learn of her family's history of breast cancer.

Janice's cancer had surfaced "like millions of grains of popcorn" in her milk duct, she said. But instead of spreading, it remained contained, allowing her to undergo a mastectomy on her right breast without the need for chemotherapy.

Only now has some of the feeling returned to the area under her right arm -- the spot where all of her lymph nodes were removed. But Janice, who has been in remission for 12 years, knows she's blessed.

"She's just a strong woman; a woman who believes in her religion and faith," Wilkerson said of his mom, who stresses the importance of helping others through her social work and caring for her brother with Down syndrome. "And I think that's why I get so much strength from my mom."

Wilkerson's parents are divorced, but he and his father, Alvin, have always been close. Wilkerson said his dad "was always in and out of jail for 20 years," and that absence was felt in the household.

"At a young age, I just knew, when he's not here, I've got to be the man of the house," he said. "And once I got older, playing football, I felt like, this is something that I love and also I know I can take care of my mom."

Fighting for a cure

Wilkerson was one of a handful of players approached by the National Football League Players Association to promote their "One Team For The Cure" T-shirts for Breast Cancer Awareness month. Last Thursday, he and his mother were invited to speak to the Linden (N.J.) football team about breast cancer awareness.

While there, Wilkerson asked the players for a favor: Wear pink proudly on game day.

"I told them, 'Wear it for me, wear it for my mom,' " he said.

A day later, Wilkerson and his mother watched Linden defeat Montgomery, 20-16, in a come-from-behind road win.

Faith is a powerful thing. So, too, is the bond between a mother and son.

The pair text daily, sending along virtual hugs and well wishes for the day ahead. And hours before Sunday's kickoff, Muhammad will send his mother his standard text message for home games: "Where are you, Ma? Are you on your way?"

"She pretty much made me the man I am today," Wilkerson said. "Just growing up and watching the woman that she was, I feed off her."

Janice beamed as she described how proud she is of her youngest son, who achieved his dream of playing NFL football. But she is overjoyed when discussing their bond.

"It just makes my heart flutter at times," she said. "Me and him just have an extra-close relationship. Whatever it is, he says, 'We're going to do this together, Ma. We're going to see this through.' "

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