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'She'll always be there': Cardinals punter Lee honors late daughter with cleats

USA TODAY SPORTS logo USA TODAY SPORTS 12/8/2019 Katherine Fitzgerald, Arizona Republic

a toy sitting on top of a grass covered field: Andy Lee's cleats honor Madelyn Lee, his late daughter, who passed away in February 2015 at just 8 days old.

Andy Lee's cleats honor Madelyn Lee, his late daughter, who passed away in February 2015 at just 8 days old.
© Derrick Spencer/The Arizona Cardinals

Andy Lee likes his cleats tight, really tight.

The cleat on his planting foot is half a size smaller than his normal shoes. For the soccer cleat on his punting foot, he goes a size and a half down. It is certainly effective, but not exactly comfortable. 

"When the defense is on the field, I sit down and untie it, so my foot doesn't go to sleep," Lee said.

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So throughout every game, the Cardinals veteran punter will tie and untie his right cleat, in sync with the ups and downs of the game.

And on Sunday, each time he looks down, bends down and reties his shoe, Lee will be reminded both of the darkest day of his life and of the good that has since come from it.

'Something positive for other people'

The NFL's My Cause My Cleats campaign allows players across the league to decorate their footwear for charitable causes. Twenty-four Cardinals players are participating this weekend, and the organizations they represent are as varied as the players themselves. 

But three sets of cleats are notable instead for their shared cause and the reason behind them. 

Punter Andy Lee, kicker Zane Gonzalez and long snapper Aaron Brewer will take the field Sunday all donning cleats for Madelyn's Fund, a non-profit started by Lee and his wife, Rachel, in November 2016.

Madelyn's Fund provides support to infant and pediatric patients in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) and their families, particularly those who experience the trauma of infant loss. It is named in honor of Madelyn Lee, Andy and Rachel's late daughter, who passed away in February 2015 at just 8 days old.

"Doing this and going through all this, it's just really helped us kind of heal from that loss," Lee said. "I mean, obviously, it is still ... I mean it sucks. It's horrible. There's not a day goes by — I still sleep with her blanket, her baby blanket, every night.

"She'll always be there, but doing this, it's just helped us to be able to turn the worst thing that's ever happened to us into something positive for other people."

Currently, they work with two hospitals in Charlotte, near where Lee grew up: Levine Children's Hospital and Novant Presbyterian Medical Center, where Madelyn was born. They hope to add one more in 2020. At Levine, they are also able to work within the Cardiovascular Intensive Care Unit, or CV ICU. 

To date, they have helped more than 700 families. Recently, they funded their 100th funeral. There's no pride in knowing that 100 other families have gone through the same gut-wrenching pain of losing an infant, but there is solace for the Lees in knowing that they can first empathize with and then financially assist other grieving families. 

"Nobody plans for that," Rachel Lee said. "That was what started our whole visions for this. When we got our bills from the funeral home. We were like 'Oh my gosh.' ... It was just another reminder. While how awful it is to actually plan something like that, we knew there were so many other families who were not like, 'Oh okay, we can pay this right now.' "

There are many organizations that do important and powerful work with pediatric hospitals in other ways. There is fundraising for research and cures. There are preventive measures. Some of the other Cardinals are raising awareness for those causes, like Christian Kirk's cleats for the Children's Cancer Network or J.R. Sweezy's for Johns Hopkins Children's Hospital.

But losing a child, and the logistical aftermath that builds on the emotional trauma, can devastate a family. That's where the Lees come in. 

They find they are able to meet almost any need with Rachel adding that they're now meeting around 50 requests each month. It can vary from covering major bills to helping with gas to drive to and from the hospital: things that no family wants to think about and needs that are not always met. 

"From what I've heard from the social workers (at the hospitals), there's not a lot of resources," Rachel said. "They're like, 'Oh my gosh, you wouldn't even believe it. I just couldn't help people before, and now I can,' and so that's a really encouraging thing to hear, because we wanted to fill a need."

Transforming a tradition 

Wearing cleats once a year in honor of Madelyn and the foundation is not new for Lee, but this year, for the first time, it spread to his teammates. During training camp, Lee floated the idea out there to Gonzalez, a kicker in his second year with the Cardinals, and Brewer, an eight-year veteran long snapper who arrived in 2016.

The cleats, designed by Charlotte-based artist Neely Purcell, all have similar colors, styles and symbols, but are not exact matches. Purcell is involved with Madelyn's Fund and designed Lee's cleats last year as well. All three sets featuring a looping pink bow. 

The bow, the foundation's logo, stems from a pattern on the bedding the family had in Madelyn's would-be nursery at their home. Madelyn, who had fluid in her lungs, and later, an infection, never made it home.

On Lee's kicking foot is a pink butterfly. After the family lost Madelyn, Rachel received a short poem in a care package.

Here's to all the caterpillars that never became butterflies; For all the butterflies that never felt the wind in their wings, Rachel recites over the phone from memory.

To the Lees, the butterfly symbolizes transformation and hope, something they've found through the ways Madelyn continues to impact families in need during the most traumatic process they've gone through, and how she continue to impact the Lees themselves. 

"Honestly it was our counseling," Andy Lee said. "It was hard for us to talk about things, especially right after it happened."

There were times when Andy worried that talking about Madelyn with Rachel would upset her, and that was the last thing he wanted. They tried to find a new normal as they raised their two sons. But though the work of the foundation, through even just being reminded to say Madelyn's name every time they talked about Madelyn's Fund, they were better able to reckon with their grief. 

Now, at their annual golf tournament, Lee is candid about the pain he went through. 

"I've had it the past three years, I've spoke all three years, I've cried all three years, in front of everybody," he said.

"I'm not scared to show my emotions. I just feel like at times, I feel like sometimes you're like, 'I shouldn't be sad,' and you kind of almost kind of talk yourself into not (showing it)."

Even when he had tried to suppress his feelings, they were still there. A song could (or still can) bring it all back. There is no cutoff date for grief, but the grieving process often morphs as time passes. 

"It's slow," Lee said. "And I think the thing that's hard about that is everybody thinks you're normal. So everybody stops asking how you're doing.

"It is not that everybody stops caring. They just think you're OK. So I think that can be a hard thing, too. It's a tough process, and it's definitely still there. I don't think it will ever go away."

'Having the support of teammates is really special'

As the years do pass, Lee has found other ways to give small nods to Madelyn, even outside of My Cause My Cleats. 

He wore No. 8 during his time with the Browns and the Panthers as a tribute to the eight days. Nowadays, he wears No. 4; In Arizona, No. 8 is retired in honor of Cardinals Ring of Honor member Larry Wilson.

"That was the only bummer about coming here," he said, smiling.

He often wears a navy blue baseball cap with the same pink bow logo, which led to an initial conversation with Gonzalez about Madelyn. 

Those are ways he keeping her legacy alive, but he reiterates again and again: This is not about him. And it's not about one game, one weekend or one pair of cleats. 

"My biggest thing is, I don't want Madelyn's Fund to be about me or what I've done in my life or the NFL or anything else. I want Madelyn's Fund to be going 20 years from now," he said.

So to keep the mission going, it starts by getting other people involved now, like Gonzalez and Brewer.

The fresh cleats do not present any problems for the three, but changing cleats can take an extra step or two for specialists. 

"My whole thing is like I've wear the same cleats all year," Brewer said. "So that was my deal, but for him, I'll do it."

Gonzalez broke his in earlier in the week. Lee has a specific type of cleat he likes, and a limited supply. But nothing that prevented them from paying homage to a larger cause. 

"Even the cleats I use, they don't make them anymore. So I only have a certain amount. So when I paint one, it's one game and done," Lee said. "I only actually have one more left after this one. ... But yeah, that is something you have to think about, especially with kickers."

It's not superstition-based for any of the players, simply a matter of making sure they're comfortable. And that in turn comforted the Lees. 

"Having Andy wear them is really cool, but having the support of teammates is really special," Rachel said. "So I can't wait. I hope that they're kicking lots of extra points on Sunday."

It's a powerful message, stemming from a close-knit special teams unit. The trio spends downtime at practice together, giving them more time to talk, more time to learn about each other. 

"We're all kind of spaced out evenly age-wise, a little bit. So that's good," Brewer said.

Gonzalez, 24, laughs, as he can't empathize with either about married life or with Lee, 37, in particular when it comes to kids. Their lives are different when they all head home for the day, but they soak it what they can in Tempe every day. 

And there's plenty to learn from Lee. He set franchise single-season records in each of his first two seasons with the Cardinals. Now in his third year in Arizona, he's a Pro Bowl candidate once again, averaging 48.1 yards per punt, good for second in the league. He also has a perfect completion percentage this season, with a 26-yard pass on a fake punt in Tampa. 

"Andy, he's my hero. He's my hero," Brewer said. "I'm trying to be like him. He's played 16 years and he's a frickin' pro and Pro Bowl guy, you know. He's a great mentor, and I look up to him."

But as Brewer looks up, Lee will look down to that cleat, look down to that butterfly, and know that Madelyn is looking down on him. 

"I want people to honor my daughter, like for me to honor my daughter and her life with this, but also to show the good that is coming out of all these people," Lee said.

"It's not the good that's coming out of me and my wife for starting this. It's the good that's coming out of people donating their money to us and allowing us to help families."

Reach the reporter at kfitzgeral@gannett.com or 480-356-6407. Follow her on Twitter @kfitz134.

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: 'She'll always be there': Cardinals punter Andy Lee honors late daughter with cleats

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