ROSELLE, N.J. (AP) — Muhammad Wilkerson was 10 when his mother shared the devastating news with him and his siblings.
Janice Wilkerson had breast cancer. Lots of fear, uncertainty and praying followed.
"As a young kid, you watch movies or see stuff on TV and you hear things about cancer and you just hear a lot of negative," the New York Jets defensive end said. "You see a lot of bad. That's what I thought, that I'd never see my mom again and I wondered how life would be without my mom being there."
Ultimately, it was a scenario that Wilkerson feels blessed to have not had to deal with.
The cancer was contained in Janice Wilkerson's right breast, which was removed and she didn't need chemotherapy treatments. She has been in remission for 15 years and Muhammad Wilkerson's grandmother Joanne is at 20-plus years.
They both serve as the inspiration for Wilkerson, who honored 96 — the number of his jersey — breast cancer survivors at a three-course luncheon Tuesday at Central Park restaurant not far from where he grew up.
Muhammad Wilkerson's T.E.A.M. 96 Foundation teamed with Susan G. Komen North Jersey and Sisters Network of Central N.J. to pick the honorees for the second annual event.
His mother and grandmother were in attendance and he took pictures with each of the honorees, many of them thanking him for his work with his foundation while raising awareness for breast cancer.
"Not only are my mother and grandmother survivors, but all of these women here are survivors," Muhammad Wilkerson said. "They're all tough, strong women who are still here."
Wilkerson, in his fifth season with the Jets, leads New York's second-ranked defense with 3 1/2 sacks and is widely recognized as one of the NFL's top players at his position. Sore ribs limited him at practice Monday, but X-rays were negative and he expects to play Sunday against Washington.
And sitting in the stands will be his mother, who attends every home game her son plays in and even some on the road — including the Jets' game against the Miami Dolphins in London on Oct. 4.
"Just to think about him living his dream, it's just a blessing and it's amazing," said Janice Wilkerson, a devout Muslim. "Allah allowed me to live and for me and my son to grow together, and now we can tag-team a lot of things, like this event today."
She recalled the moment she was told she had breast cancer 15 years ago and sat in the doctor's office, feeling helpless.
"I started crying, and my doctor told me to just stay there and cry until I got myself together," she said. "I was like, 'For real?' Then, I just thought about my kids and was like, 'What's going to happen to my babies? Who's going to take care of them?' It was a scary thing. I thought I was going to die."
Janice Wilkerson started putting a game plan together, figuring out what would become of her children if she didn't make it.
"It was important to me to keep talking to them and making sure they always behaved and with whomever they wound up with, to remember the things I told them," she said. "It was rough. Even today, getting dressed, I was thinking back and remembering that it was really just a tough thing for all of us."
Muhammad Wilkerson's father, Alvin, was in and out of prison while he was growing up, and the defensive lineman recalled the strength with which his mother fought her disease while raising her family.
"She had to take care of all of us, work two or three jobs and make sure her household was well taken care of," he said. "A lot of people know I'm kind of a quiet guy, keep to myself, but on Sundays they see me get out on that football field, getting all crazy and excited. She's one of the reasons I play so hard. Without her, I wouldn't be where I am right now."
Wilkerson and his mother still text each other a couple of times a day, speak on the phone often and she helps run his foundation's everyday operations. He's a self-proclaimed mama's boy — and the big, bad heart of the Jets' defensive line remains one to this day.
"I'm so proud of him," Janice Wilkerson said. "He was always that kid who listened, whether he wanted to or not. He was my kid that listened. I have to say he still does. We have such a great relationship where we can talk about anything, and it's really so great we can do things like this together."
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