ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — When Keishawn Bierria was flying home to Carson, California, during his college years for the holidays and school breaks to see his mother, who was fighting leukemia, he couldn't foresee a future where he and his mother would be sharing an NFL field together.
The trips were hard, and looking past the present was impossible. Focusing on one week at a time is a football cliché, but it's a necessity in battles like the one Bierria and his family were fighting.
But five years after Simonne Bierria's 2013 leukemia diagnosis, she and her son took the field — albeit separately — under the bright lights during the Broncos' Week 6 battle with the Rams, making for quite the memorable day for the Bierria family.
"Dreams do come true," Simonne says.
Cancer made its first unwelcome intrusion into the Bierria's lives in 1998, when Lowell Bierria, Keishawn's father, was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer. At first, he fought it off into remission. But it returned in 2003, and this time it took Lowell's life.
Depression hit Simonne hard. Lowell had passed away on Christmas Day in the family home, and she and her four boys moved out of the house as she looked to sell it.
"We had some hard times, very hard times," Simonne says. "I had a very hard time dealing with my husband's death. I went through depression, but my family stepped in. My sister, her and her family were always at the house. And my mother — my mother and my father — we ended up actually moving in with my parents, selling our house, because my husband passed at home."
In time, Simonne and the children regained a sense of normalcy to their lives. She returned to work, heading out on the road, driving trucks. Keishawn prepared to graduate from high school, scholarship to University of Washington in hand.
Then, another health scare. Simonne was working at a family friend's home, when she was racked with pain. She was rushed to the hospital for kidney stones, but doctors caught something even more concerning in their tests. Her white blood cell count was high. Before she left following surgery to alleviate the kidney stones, her doctor instructed her to consult an oncologist.
But she felt fine and after her husband's passing, she was averse to hospital visits. She waited months before getting further examination for her high white blood cell count.
"I kind of, like, separated myself from hospitals after going through that with my husband," Simonne says. "So I didn't feel sick. I didn't have a clue. Basically, it took me three months to have a diagnosis."
It was leukemia, and they hadn't caught it early. Simonne says that in the terminology used with breast cancer, her leukemia could effectively be considered in stage IV. Doctors gave her six months to live, she recalled.
Keishawn was about a week into life on his own as a college freshman when his mother told him the news. The rest of the family had known for a little longer, but it was probably best for Keishawn to get settled a little bit before telling him.
His schedule as a student and as a football player for the Huskies made visiting home difficult — not to mention the thousand miles between them. He flew home when he could, usually during holiday and other breaks in the school year. But these trips were far different than the ones most other students were taking.
"Especially being away, being homesick, being away from my family, and coming home — coming home to an empty house and going straight to the hospital, because that was where my entire family was, supporting my mom," Keishawn says. "So coming home was just kind of like getting a recharge, but also knowing that when you're going home, you've got to be focused. You're going home for a purpose. You're going home because people need you. They need the support, and even though you're away at school and you need support too … this is bigger than just school. This is bigger than just football. My mom is fighting for her life."
Meanwhile, the fight —her chemo, in particular — was taking a toll on Simonne.
"My chemo was nothing I never witnessed before," Simonne says. "I've had my auntie; my grandmother had breast cancer; my husband, even with the osteosarcoma. … I was on the chemo where I would go into the hospital, and I got chemo for two weeks straight, around the clock. Then I would still be there another two weeks and get out. Then I would go in every month for two weeks. Sometimes I would end up staying, because my counts weren't high enough to come back home."
She relied upon her family and her faith during these tough times, and they kept her going. When Keishawn returned home on visits, he brought extra energy and a bit of levity, sharing a bit of his youthful energy and his brilliant smile.
"I would kind of say I was just being myself, but at the same time, I was just trying to make some type of fun out of the moment," Keishawn says. "She spent a lot of hours and days alone and spending time fighting, doing all that chemo and stuff, and that's a draining process — and sometimes very lonely. … Because I was in college most of the time, anytime I showed up, I just made sure I was trying to be myself, make her smile as much as possible, and just show her that I care for her and I love her. As family, that's what we do."
Simonne also possesses an indomitable fight. You can sense it when you talk with her and when you hear her recount her story. It's part personal, part faith, and all Bierria.
"What type of fight? That's kind of hard to explain," Keishawn says. "You could say it's old school. It's the type of fight that really comes from the soul. It's not really something you prepare for. It just comes out when it happens. It's more about the heart, the soul and the mental. … It really just comes from the heart. She's a fighter through and through. … She just shows that special courage just to push through whatever she's going through and makes sure she's doing the best she can do, best she can be to stay here with us."
And Simonne is staying. A few years ago, she underwent a trial bone-marrow transplant and is now leukemia free.
October is a special month in the NFL and for the Broncos. Across the league, the NFL champions Crucial Catch, a campaign that raises awareness and funding for cancer prevention and research. And at home, the Broncos have their Fight Like A Bronco initiative, which continues throughout the year but becomes a central focus during October when it intersects with Crucial Catch.
To recognize those who have fought cancer in any form, the Broncos host an annual Salute to Survivors Game. Every year, the team invites about 100 men, women and children from a pool drawn from submissions from the American Cancer Society, the Broncos' season-ticket holder list, corporate and hospital partnerships and the at-large community through an online referral system. Before the game the guests are treated to a banquet featuring an address from President and CEO Joe Ellis, and at halftime, they are part of a halftime ceremony.
That's why Simonne — and Kimberly Williams, Keishawn's aunt, who is also a cancer survivor — was at the game, in addition to watching Keishawn play. And even though Bierria will undoubtedly have bigger games in his career, that one will have a special place in his heart.
"Really, we understand that football gives you a lot of opportunities to do different things, and me being in the position I'm in has allowed me to amplify my position of me being affected by cancer and other people being affected by it, from a personal standpoint," Keishawn says. "Having my auntie and my mom there supporting me and me supporting them going through their trials was also a great thing. Allowing me to be on a stage to represent them as cancer survivors was also amazing."
This was, as Keishawn puts it, a light at the end of a tunnel he could not see back in 2013 or 2014.
"It was kind of hard, and at first I didn't really see it," Keishawn says. "It wasn't until I was here and that things were happening, and I'm starting to realize, 'Man, I really dreamed about these days and it's happening in front of me.'"