Saints' Bresee has heavy heart almost year after sister's death

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Just keep moving.

It's one of the first things athletes learn in their careers: Move on to the next play, shake off the last game, focus on next week.

These life lessons have kept New Orleans Saints rookie defensive tackle Bryan Bresee going following the death of his younger sister.

Bresee's sister, Ella, died Sept. 15, 2022 at the age of 15 after a 17-month battle with brain cancer. In the 368 days that have followed, the Bresee family has kept moving, sometimes stumbling, but always picking themselves back up.

For Bresee, the second game of his NFL career will be on "Monday Night Football" (7:15 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN2) against the Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Bank of America Stadium is about two hours north of Clemson, where Bresee played college ball. It's where he helped his team win two ACC championships and where Clemson lost to Georgia in the 2021 season opener.

"The whole family is super excited for Bryan and obviously the experience the Saints have given him," Bresee's father, Richie, said. " ... We're kind of dealing with a lot of emotions over the next couple of weeks. But although it's obviously a very rough time, I feel like there's not a day that's not a tough time. It's obviously going to be an extremely emotional day for us. "

Emotions have fueled Bresee in his first year without his little sister. She didn't get to see him get drafted by the Saints No. 29 overall in April. Nor did she get to see his NFL debut last week.

Bresee got his first NFL sack in the Week 1 home win against the Tennessee Titans at the Caesars Superdome, with his parents and Ella's godparents there to cheer him on.

Bank of America Stadium and the Superdome are also the last two venues Bresee played in before his sister got sick. He keeps a piece of Ella wherever he goes: a tattoo on his forearm in memory of Ella.

Each member of his family has their own unique tattoo. Bresee's is a ribbon wrapped around a rose with the Roman numerals for her birthday, and the words "Ella Strong" in the middle.

"It's just something to look down [at] and always keep her in my mind," Bresee said.

It helps him remember her generous smile and love for life, her taste for Big Macs and Starbucks. He'll picture her up in the stands, screaming his name.

And then he'll move.

"Ella was at every one of my football games," Bresee Ah said. "She just loved it. She loved everything about it, loved the atmosphere, and then, especially, she loved Clemson because of how good everyone was to her there. She loved coming to games and she was the superstar around town.

"She was probably the main supporter of my family."

IT ALWAYS STARTED with a simple question.

"Do you like football?" Ella would ask friends, family and strangers on the street, just waiting for an opening.

If they said yes, she would launch into her spiel about her big brother, who was the nation's consensus No. 1 high school recruit in the class of 2020. Ella was tremendously proud of him, talking him up at every turn.

Ella was loving and sweet, an optimist that always made the best of her situation. She was the youngest of the Bresee siblings that include Bailey (27), Kendall (25) and Bryan (21).

But there was a fierce side to Ella, the one that stood up at her brother's games and screamed at calls that didn't go his way. Her parents would tug at her sleeves, telling her to calm down.

Bresee may have been five years older than her, but she had appointed herself as his protector.

"God forbid, a referee didn't make a call [she wanted], she would be yelling and screaming from the sidelines at the refs and everyone," Richie said. "We'd have to tell her to sit down and everybody would be looking at her like she was crazy."

Ella held her own in a loud, chaotic family of athletes. Bresee's mom, Meghan, played basketball for Frederick Community College. Richie was a football player at James Madison. Kendall recently finished her basketball career at Mount St. Mary's.

"Everyone was playing sports in my family, so we all got along pretty well, but I may have gotten picked on by my two older sisters," Bresee said with a smile. "But that's all I really knew, I didn't know having a brother. But it was great. Not a moment there wasn't something going on."

Ella liked basketball, but she had her own dreams that didn't involve college athletics. She wanted to follow Bryan to Clemson and join a sorority.

But prior to Ella's freshman year in high school, she began experiencing severe headaches. She was diagnosed with medulloblastoma, a malignant tumor of the central nervous system, on April 21, 2021.

Ella's general subtype (Sonic hedgehog medulloblastoma) has a 51% survival rate among children, but her particular case was difficult to treat. Ella underwent surgery, 30 rounds of radiation and four months of chemotherapy between April and November of that year. She lost a significant amount of weight and hair and had to relearn to walk.

She also had to watch basketball from afar, shifting to being Kendall's cheerleader instead of playing herself.

The thought of a healthy Ella playing high school basketball was bittersweet.

"She loved her friends and she would've continued to play in high school," Richie started, before Meghan quickly interjected.

"If she didn't get kicked off the team [first]," she said, laughing.

"Physical," they chimed in at the same time when asked of the reasoning. Richie recalled some quick escapes at the end of middle school basketball games, noting that Ella was "a little bit rough" with her opponents sometimes.

"Prior to getting sick, she was just a bigger, more physical person," he said.

Ella never backed down from anything, on or off the court.

"My little sister has been my motivation ever since she started her battle with brain cancer," Bresee said after he was drafted. "Watching her battle every single day and always keep a smile on her face, just staying so positive through all that ... It honestly was just amazing to see."

THERE WERE TIMES when Bresee wondered if he should continue playing football. It took him away from his family when his sister was at her sickest, but it also provided her with the greatest joy.

Even though Ella couldn't attend Bresee's football games or Kendall's basketball games in person because of her treatment, she would watch from home or from her hospital room.

"She was just so excited to tell everybody in the hospital or everybody around that her big brother was playing on TV," Richie said. "I think it was a distraction for just such a miserable time in our lives. But most importantly, it brought joy to Ella, it brought happiness.

"It put a big smile on her face. That was the biggest thing sports did for me -- the way it helped Ella through that very, very bad time."

Ella had a relapse in June 2022 and was airlifted to the hospital Sept. 9 after she had seizure. Bresee stayed with the team until the next day to play in Clemson's 35-12 win against Furman.

Ella was mostly sleeping by this point, but her sisters put the game on a laptop near her bed. For the first time since she had been brought to the hospital, she opened her eyes so she could watch.

Ella died six days later.

"They had a special relationship. She was Bryan's biggest fan," said quarterback DJ Uiagalelei, Bresee's former Clemson teammate and roommate. "She was just a true blessing man. The whole time she was battling, she was just a pure joy and light. Bryan loved her a lot."

IN THE WEEKS after Ella died, the outpouring of love and support was constant. Louisiana Tech players wrote handwritten condolence notes. Florida State had painted "Ella Strong" on the wall of its stadium. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney flew 40 players and coaches to Ella's funeral Sept. 20, four days before the Tigers' game against Wake Forest.

"I don't know how many coaches would have done everything that [Sweeney] did through that time with her," Bresee said. " ... The moment that Ella had to go to the hospital, him and his wife were the first people there with our family. Just things like that, that we'll never forget."

At the front of the Bresees' neighborhood, an impromptu shrine to Ella -- with flowers and stuffed animals -- appeared. Eventually a plaque was placed there instead.

Bresee needed his sense of normalcy after his life had been upended. He missed the game against Louisiana Tech and returned to play in a 51-45 double overtime win against Wake Forest the next week.

Bresee said he didn't realize at the time that he had the beginning of a kidney infection that would keep him out of the next two games.

"I was getting pretty sick up to that game and my family was there," he said. "There was a lot going on. It was real emotional. Just thinking about how my whole life, Ella has been there in the stands, supporting me, watching the game.

"That game, her not being there, it was just different. It was a different feeling."

As life resumed, and the attention shifted, things got quieter. It was those times that hit Bresee the hardest.

"Those moments, like when I would go home or when at games and that kind of stuff, when I'd expect her to be there and she wasn't, that kind of hit me a little," Bresee said.

With Kendall and Bresee'a college careers over, they all needed an outlet. When the Saints selected Bresee, the family gathered together at their house, all wearing "Ella Strong" shirts.

"The longest night of my life," Bresee said, laughing. "Just sitting there. Man. Stressful. I couldn't stay in one seat."

Bresee had dreamed of a moment like this since he was 5 years old. He had all his favorite people around to support him.

Everyone but Ella.

When asked what Ella would have thought of that moment, her parents had to pause for a long moment to collect themselves.

"Just extremely proud," Richie said, his voice breaking. "It would have been like drafting Ella as well because she just would've been over the moon and just so proud of her brother."

One day after Bresee was drafted, the Saints had spruced up their draft headquarters, placing visible signs all around the room on Day 2.

They all read "Ella Strong."

THE SAINTS MADE it clear from Day 1 that, much like his Clemson family, they're available to Bresee for whatever he needs.

Saints coach Dennis Allen has seen a lot of powerful performances from players dealing with outside circumstances. Saints linebacker Demario Davis led the team in tackles in the season opener two days after his 4-year-old daughter, Carly-Faith, was hospitalized for a seizure.

"They're human beings just like everybody else, and they go through the same trials and tribulations of life just like everybody else does," Allen said. "And yet, every Sunday, they go out and live their livelihoods out in front of 70,000 people in a stadium or millions of people on the TV audience, and are judged on how they do their job on a daily basis.

"It's incredible that these guys are able to do what they're able to do, at the level at which they're able to do it, dealing with all the other things that everybody else has to deal with and still try to do their job in a very public forum."

Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan said every player deals with their emotions in different ways. Some bottle it up and use football as an outlet.

"You completely go get this out of my system, like, I need to hit somebody," he said.

Jordan said he's had conversations with Bresee about Ella, and he's always available.

In the meantime, the team captain is keeping a watchful eye on the rookie.

"The closer we get, hopefully, he'll let me know," Jordan said. "I feel like, I don't even know if I'm a big brother, I feel like a freaking mother hen. But he'll let me know, we'll talk about it, and process how we can."

Bresee recently posted a story on Instagram about September being Childhood Cancer Awareness month. Jordan immediately reached out to make sure he was OK.

"[Cam is] somebody who you can tell cares. It's not a show with him. It's all genuine," Bresee said. "Having someone like that, who will answer my call whenever, is awesome."

For Meghan and Richie, who plan to come to all of Bresee's games, football will be a distraction.

"It's a nice break, and by the time you get back, you get settled, you catch your breath, it's time to go again," Richie said. "So I think the distraction is more just being away from the house and not walking by El's room."

Meghan also keeps herself busy by raising awareness for the limited treatment options in pediatric cancer.

"My goal is hopefully in the next five years is that every single NFL team will wear gold for at least one game in the month of September, just like they do for breast cancer," Meghan said. "That's my goal for childhood cancer. Hopefully we can get there."

Life will never be the same, but Ella will never be forgotten.

"The big thing is how much she loved her family, how much she loved her friends, how outgoing she was, how independent she was," Richie said. "Extremely strong, independent, even being as young as she was. What a bright light she was for our family."

The message of "Ella Strong" and "Live Like Ella," will carry on.

"I would just say live every day like it's your last is kind of the main thing I get from that phase," Bresee said. "Just living life, enjoying life and just bringing everything you can every day. Because you never know."

That's a lesson that applies to sports as well.

"With football, you never know when your last play is going to be," Bresee said. "I think in that kind of aspect, in the middle of the dog days of camp, just waking up every day and some days you're like, 'Ah, I've got to go practice,' but I think about her and what she went through and you're just like ... 'I'm lucky.'"