DeAndre Hopkins, NFL wide receiver for the Houston Texans, credits his success in life to his mother Sabrina Greenlee. Here, the pair attends the NFL draft on April 26, 2013. (Photo: AP)
22-year-old DeAndre Hopkins was a star football player at Clemson University before getting drafted into the NFL by the Houston Texans in 2013 where he’s now a wide receiver with a multimillion-dollar contract. It’s a different reality for Hopkins, who endured a tough childhood in the small town of Central, South Carolina, one marred by poverty and multiple family tragedies.
When Hopkins was a baby, his father died in a car accident, leaving his mother, Sabrina Greenlee, to raise him and his siblings alone. Over the years, as his mom quietly struggled to support her family, more heartbreak came their way as Hopkins’ uncle Terry Smith, also a one-time pro-football player, was killed by police during a domestic disturbance call and two years later, Hopkins’ 21-year-old cousin attempted suicide. But the family tragedy that upended Hopkins’ entire world occurred weeks after his 10th birthday on a hot summer day when the girlfriend of the man his mother was dating doused her with a mix of boiling chemicals. The act burned more than 17 percent of Greenlee’s body leaving her blind in one eye and partially blind in the other. Still, Greenlee was determined to give her children the best life she could.
It’s through these tragedies that Hopkins and his mother grew closer than ever. In an exclusive interview with Yahoo Parenting’s Lizbeth Scordo, Hopkins shares how the lessons she’s imparted have allowed him to succeed and help him raise his own 1-year-old daughter.
How would I describe my mom? She’s very motivated and she’s very motivational. She raised me and my three siblings but we always had friends staying with us so it seemed like she was raising more than just four of us. We grew up in Section 8 housing in South Carolina and we didn’t really have much. We got what we needed, not what we wanted.
(Photo: DeAndre Hopkins)
My mom had two jobs most of the time. She worked at a mill, she worked plant jobs, she worked at a place where they made rubber for tires. She worked as much as she could trying to raise us on her own. We always had babysitters and we wouldn’t really see her during the day, only when she got off work later at night. At the time we didn’t understand, but as you get older you understand the sacrifices that she made. She tried to shelter us from her problems and we grew up playing sports to escape our environment.
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Her accident changed our lives drastically. I didn’t understand what was going on at the time and [afterward] I didn’t see her for a few months. She was in the hospital and her face was wrapped up. They didn’t explain to me what had happened. I just knew she was in a bad accident. Even after she came home, me and my younger sister didn’t see her for a few weeks because they didn’t know if we’d be able to handle the circumstances. After we saw how bad it was, I was scared and sad, but I just wanted to be with her and help.
It took her a long time to recover but we were in a small town where everyone is close and our family made sure she had what she needed and motivated her to get up and keep living. Something like that takes a lot from you, but she still had food on the table, even if that meant going to the food bank.
(Photo: DeAndre Hopkins)
Nobody had a situation like our family’s so it made me and my siblings much closer to my mom than other kids. She’s my mother and my father. Because I don’t have a dad, I have an unbreakable relationship with my mom. But I don’t think a lot about the fact that I didn’t have a dad. It’s life, things happen. It was a freak car accident. But my mom filled that void. When I was young she would let me cry, but when I was done she’d say, ‘Crying isn’t going to help anything.’ She taught me to be tough. I miss [my dad] but it’s not something I’m depressed about or think about all the time.
Looking back, I guess my favorite memory is Christmas. Being a parent now, and buying gifts for my daughter, I don’t know how [my mom] did it with four kids. Even after she got hurt, she found a way for us to have a Christmas and gifts. If we didn’t get anything all year, she’d still make sure we had a good Christmas.
I stayed out of trouble as a kid and part of it was because of sports, really. There wasn’t a time during the year where I wasn’t playing a sport. When my mom got hurt and I wouldn’t want to leave, she would make me go to tournaments. She knew sports was keeping me out of trouble.
I feel like I was born an athlete thanks to my mother and my father, but my mom’s uncle, Louis, encouraged me [to play] football. When I was a kid he said, ‘You have a lot of anger and you need to take it out somewhere.’ He taught me a lot of things a father would teach his son, and his wife — my godmother —they both really encouraged me.
My mom’s brother, Terry, died when I was younger so I really didn’t get to know him, but knowing that he played at Clemson influenced me. Having family talking about him and the things he did — that motivated me. When I was young, one of my teachers asked me, ‘What do you want to be?’ and I said, ‘A professional football player.’ I’ve always had that mindset that nothing was going to stop me despite my challenges. And that comes from my mom, her teaching me to have that willpower.
We’ve always been able to talk about anything – from God to women – and she’s always motivated me. Every time I call her we talk for at least an hour. We don’t have to say, ‘I love you’ before we get off the phone. We just know it’s there. It’s an appreciation we have for each other from what we went through together. She’s in South Carolina and I’m in Texas but, even with her eyesight, which makes it hard to fly, she still wants to come to my games. Last year she was at almost every home game and came to some away games. She’s always trying to support me even if she’s in the stands and can’t see exactly what’s going on. She’s unbelievable.
My siblings and I grew up as a tight family in a small house so to take care of our mother is not a burden; it’s something we want to do. I do think I’ve been a good son, but we have a long road ahead of us. I’m not there with her but I go home a lot during the offseason and hopefully I’ll eventually be able to move her to Houston and be a better son and do more things with her.
My mom is proud of me but she also tells me to be humble and stay grounded and to not let anything change me. And I won’t. Seeing her is always a key reminder to stay humble. She’s the one who holds her composure best out of everyone in the family. When I got drafted into the NFL, other family members — who have never been there for me — were jumping up and down and screaming — and my mom is over there [happy but] calm and chill. That’s how she’s been her whole life.
But what I’ve learned most from my mom is to wake up happy every day. People say I don’t let little things bother me and that’s because of my background. At this point I’m immune to getting angry or mad over little stuff. My mom is the same way — she laughs, she jokes, and she’s one of the happiest people I know. She doesn’t complain.
Now my mom is my role model for being a parent. She tries to tell me stuff that my dad would have. She gives me lessons about stuff I need to do as a dad and stuff I don’t need to do. I learn a lot from her as someone who raised four kids on her own. She always says that it’s not what you spend on your child or what kind of clothes she has, but the time you spend with her. She preaches to me a lot.
I know I probably won’t want to leave my daughter’s side. She might get annoyed at me, but I’m always going to be in her life and I’ll just appreciate the little things that she does and that she’s going through. I want to be an understanding parent and a loving parent and be the best role model I can be, like my mom was for me.