JERSEY CITY - She was his everything, his rock, his inspiration and his world.
And then, just like that, she was gone.
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Mike Adams' mother had been his safe haven in a gang-infested neighborhood, the one who always encouraged him to seek a way out of Paterson, N.J. And although he occasionally veered off course, he found a way to escape in time.
And now, the Broncos' starting free safety is one victory away from being a Super Bowl champion.
"There's no place like home,'' Adams said in a phone interview. "You dream about playing at home and having everybody come see you. And I've got that opportunity on the big stage.
" . . . I'm just going to ride it until the wheels fall off. I'm going to enjoy every moment and try to bring it home for Paterson.''
After years of heartache and professional uncertainty, his journey has come full circle. An undrafted free agent out of Delaware, Adams has managed to last 10 years in the NFL. A victory Sunday night against Seattle would prove what he believed all along: that he could achieve anything. And he's determined to get a 'W' for himself and his community, but most importantly, for his mother.
On May 24, 2004, a few days before her son's college graduation, Sharon Adams, 37, passed away from ovarian cancer.
"She'd be most proud of me just making it, period,'' said Mike, the 32-year-old engaged father of two. "Making it, as in being successful, not being in trouble, making a living for myself and my family. I think she'd just be proud of me because I went to college.
"Yeah, she'd be proud of me in all aspects,'' added Adams, who was one of seven children who grew up in a loving but cramped house at 89 Godwin Ave. in Paterson. To this day, he doesn't know his father.
"But I know the cherry on top, for me and her, would be that Super Bowl.''
At every stage of life, he essentially bet on himself and won. Adams wasn't the smartest student, but he was diligent in the classroom. He wasn't the greatest athlete, but he became one of the best on Passaic County Technical Institute's football team because he outworked those around him. And while other kids talked about one day escaping Paterson, Adams put his plan into action.
"I think a lot of them believe [they can make it out],'' said John Iurato, Adams' football coach at Passaic Tech. "The difference between them and Mike is, Mike actually did it.''
Adams' first taste of a championship came in the 1998 Group IV North, Section I final at Giants Stadium when the Bulldogs completed a perfect season.
"There's a lot of guys walking around the neighborhood that are great athletes -- probably better than Mike,'' said Iurato, who now is retired. "But they didn't have the drive, perseverance, the ability to do the things that Mike did to keep himself on the straight and narrow.''
But it wasn't easy.
As a senior at Delaware in 2002, Adams suffered a "Bo Jackson-type'' hip injury in the season opener, and doctors said he would never play again.
But they were wrong. Adams returned in 2003 for a fifth year of eligibility, but he had another setback: a broken leg that forced him to miss a month. Delaware went 15-1 and won the Division I-AA national title. But tragedies soon struck Adams' family. His uncle, Sammy Ray Roberts, passed away, followed by his great-uncle. Soon after, Adams' mother's house burned down. Then came her cancer diagnosis and death.
Around the same time, Adams was still searching for direction and trying to establish a foothold in the NFL. After a disappointing showing at the Combine, he was undrafted and later signed with the 49ers. But Sharon's death weighed heavily.
"The impact of his mother on his life was great,'' Iurato said. "Here he is, 22 years old, he's a long shot to make the NFL, a long shot to make the team, and then his mom gets sick and dies unexpectedly. So it was another thing that was against him, so to speak.''
Adams worked his way off the 49ers' practice squad, playing three seasons for them before spending five years with the Browns, starting in 2007. But it wasn't until he signed with the Broncos as an unrestricted free agent in 2012 that he got a taste of sustained NFL success.
"I won more games in two years here [Denver] than I did in my whole career,'' he joked.
Now Adams, the guy with the bright eyes and infectious smile, has returned home for the biggest game of his life.
"Mike's been through [a lot],'' said 15-year veteran Champ Bailey, Adams' close friend and teammate who also will make his Super Bowl debut. "If there's one guy who's had a rough career as far as his teams, it would be Mike Adams. And he definitely deserves this one.''
The weight of an entire city can be a burden. But it also can be a blessing, said Adams.
Lesser men might have crumbled under the pressure of always being that bright light in a sea of despair. But Adams -- who was nicknamed "Pops'' by his grandmother for his love of spinach and Popeye cartoons -- is determined to be an example to those who come after him.
"I can name on one hand how many people have really made it out of Paterson. And I can name on one hand how many people came back to support and to do good things for the community . . . And that's sad,'' said Adams, who bought his grandmother a house in Paterson and is building another in Parsippany, N.J. "Not a lot of positive stories come out of Paterson, so I try to keep that relationship.''
"Pops'' remains the pride of Paterson, a city of 145,000 located about 12 miles from MetLife Stadium. If all goes according to his plan, he said he'll celebrate a Super Bowl win by walking home to Paterson in his helmet and pads. It was a promise he initially made in jest. But with Adams, you never know. He has a way of surprising people.
Said Iurato: "Instead of Disney World, maybe he'll go to Route 3.''