It all started with Sunday dinners.
Actually, it started a little earlier than that. It started when Brandon Betancourt got a scholarship offer to play running back for the New Mexico State Aggies. That was when the relationship, and the Sunday dinners that went with it, began.
"Real quick after [Brandon']s moving in, we discovered he and his buddies were looking for a place to go and hang out and chill," said Lori Paulson, Brandon's aunt. "So we started hosting Sunday night dinner at our house. And it went from two guys to four, to eight, to 'ok, no more than two linemen at the dinner table because I can't keep up with all the food.'"
Lori built up a strong bond with her nephew and his teammates, both out of a natural desire to provide a safe haven for them to be able to relax, as well as the slightly more selfish opportunity to cook with the 'good stuff."
"So I have a real love for food and cooking," Lori said. "Which is awesome, because with football players I get to use cream and butter and all those fattening things you would normally use, and I got to flex my culinary muscles, and we kept doing that for a while and life was normal."
You'll note the verb tense there. Was normal.
That all changed in February of 2014, whenever Lori was diagnosed with Stage IV pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors. That means that the cancer began in her neuroendicrine cells but has now since advanced and has already metastasized to her liver.
Despite the diagnosis, though, Lori wasn't really thinking about herself in the early going.
"It was most of their senior years, the kids I had gotten to know over the years. At first I was worried about how it was going to be on them, and they were really torn up about it. After I told them that, I felt like I needed to keep the Sunday night dinners going because they needed it and I needed them around me. So my family and friends stepped up and cooked the Sunday night dinners for us until I was feeling better."
That football offseason was the first full one for Aggies head coach Doug Martin, and it became the first of many interactions between him and Lori.
"It was senior year (for Brandon and the kids I knew) and they were taking some pictures," Lori said. "I thought 'I want to get some, because I've known these guys for so long, and all I have are terrible selfies around my dinner table with bad lighting.' I showed up that day and had texted (Coach Martin) "Do you mind if at the end of your pictures I grab some pictures with some of the guys I know."
"He said 'no problem, anytime.' And then that day he surprised me with (being named an honorary captain, he said that he wanted me there and that I had a relationship with those players. He knew how tough I was, having been through four or five months of chemo by then. I had kept getting knocked down and getting back up and they were impressed by that. He said I'd be a great burst of strength because he wanted them to be as tough as me."
Honorary captain, doing her job
Like any big supporter of a program, Lori cherished the special opportunity she was given. She loved being able to share those in-game moments with the entire team, not just the players she knew, and the feeling was mutual. At the end of the season, she went to visit Coach Martin in order to express her sincerest gratitude.
"Doug said 'Paulson, if I'm here you're with me." So I've been the captain again this year. It was really neat after the (win over Idaho) that he sought me out, gave me the game ball and said 'I've waited way too long to give you this.'"
In her role as an honorary captain, Lori said that she obviously doesn't give them advice on how to play the sport, but instead focuses on positive reinforcement I give a lot of positive reinforcement and hugs. Having that someone who really cares about and loves them despite a win or a loss (especially a lot of losses) means a lot to the players.
"Yeah, especially when you going up against, like, Ole Miss," Lori said. "What do you say? 'Don't get hurt, I love you, see you on the other end.' (The players) are just so kind, with the things they've messaged and said, before or during or after the games. They'll go on the field and crush somebody and then come off and give me a hug. One of the kids got a pick six and then brought it and said 'that's for you.'"
Lori pointed out that such a loving message is really crucial for them, to remember that deep down they're still just human beings like you or I.
"I think the guys appreciate it because I mean it and it needs to be said. Just because you lose on Saturday doesn't mean you're the scum of the earth on Sunday. It's really something else to hear 'you know Miss Lori I've only said this a handful of times, but I pray for you every night" out of the mouth of a 6'2 310-pound kid.
Another unique aspect of this relationship is that many things have changed, from the athletic director (Mario Moccia came on board from Southern Illinois University in December of 2014) to the players on the team, but the relationship between Lori and her Aggies has not. And that's in part because of the great caliber of not just player but person that Doug Martin brings onto the NMSU team.
"There's still all the other kids who are (not starting and) just sitting watching for whatever reasons," Lori said. "Reminding them that their brain is important whenever they want to try and go back in after a concussion. And I get just the sweetest words in return from these men who have a persona of being really aggressive.
"One of the players that I met last year during the season, I got to know his mom because she had cancer and then she passed away earlier this season. We have a closer relationship because of what he's gone through. He tells me advice like 'say everything you need to say now because there's no guarantee of tomorrow' and to be getting advice from a 20-year-old is cute. And I do, I take it to heart."
"My son Jeremiah is nine and had a game, and some of the NMSU guys showed up to watch their little game, and it's genuine. You don't get that at... I mean, how many Ole Miss players are doing that? Maybe not a lot."
Lori said that she is continuously noticing parallels between her situation and that of the team, one that recently turned a 17-game losing streak into a three-game winning streak.
"I'm now on my fourth type of chemo totaling 18 rounds since my cancer is so rare," Lori said. "So each time, I have to know what are its side effects, how does it affect me and knock me down, how do I deal with it. And they're like that. They go play a team and get knocked down, but how do we get back up, how do we put ourselves back together, how do we recover."
Those parallels make for a very close bond that offers support in both directions. Lori provides a genuine support for the players that they really can't get from anyone else, and Lori gets the same in return.
"I believe in them the same way they believe in me, it goes both ways. I'm honest, I've told the team my story twice now - they know more about my medical condition than most. And those relationships keep on going, we had one guy who headed into the summer trying to make it with the Falcons and he was just back to visit me a few weeks back.
One time a player bobbled a ball in the end zone and everyone was just booing and riding him. Everyone else on the sidelines is so positive and talking to him like 'you'll get the next one.' I went to talk to him and he told me he was struggling through a bout of food poisoning but 'Miss Lori you are much tougher than I'll ever be. I don't want to complain around you. This is no big deal, I'm fine.'"
I mentioned Aggie athletic director Mario Moccia earlier, and that lightning-in-a-bottle type connection cannot go unmentioned either because it has been equally valuable to both individuals in their respective struggles. He was nothing shy of effusive in his praise of Lori, whom he first met mere days after he was hired as the new athletic director of New Mexico State.
"I was in Carbondale (for an SIU basketball game) and the Aggies were playing Arkansas State which was in Jonesboro, only a few hours away," Moccia said. "I went there and met Lori on the sideline. She was the very first Aggie fan and donor that I had met other than flying in for the press conference.
Once I got to know her as a person, she’s just a fun personality and it clicked. I told her that there’s a seat on the plane for you every single away game that you want to attend or can make. And she’s there on the sidelines at the home games, an honorary captain. It’s a boost to everybody that she has such an infectious personality.
When you get to know Lori, she brightens up the room. She’s quick witted, and we just laugh our heads off when we are together. To see somebody who is struggling with something serious and still makes all the games and everything else is such a motivator. She came to the UTEP game - she was at the hospital that morning and showed up on the sidelines with her hospital bracelet still on. I think it inspires people to see her putting up such a great fight and a great attitude."Miss Lori you are much tougher than I'll ever be. Don't worry, I'll be fine"
It’s kind of confounding because – I say this with all sincerity – if you lined up fifty people and had a one-minute conversation with them, she would be the last person you would think has any health issues because she is so vibrant and appears so healthy.
She’s a big supporter of all the athletic programs and a big part of the community. A lot of people have jumped or would jump off the bandwagon after the series of close losses and lost leads we’ve had this season, but Lori’s been that constant support, we’re going to get it done. And when you come from behind to win and then win again on the road, it’s hard not to attribute some of that success to her. I think it’s a real boost for everybody for her to be dealing with what she is doing but to choose to show up and support the football team instead.
We rip on each other like you wouldn’t believe, like brother and sister. She’s just a phenomenal person. Whenever she travels I make it a point that she sits right next to me on the plane. Initially on the trip back from the Florida game where all our stuff got stolen, myself and the deputy AD were trying to recreate our work and she’s doing some sort of adult coloring book. Instead, I call her over we’re flying over the country at 3 AM laughing and joking about everything."
Recently, Lori learned that due to the nature of her cancer, none of the more targeted treatment options that are out there (aside from bombardments of chemotherapy) are considered appropriate for her, which makes for a potentially less rosy outlook. But she is rolling with this punch well, just like she has every other punch that has been thrown her way in the nearly two years since her diagnosis.
"It's been one bad news after the next with some little good news in between. But I kind of crash through that and move on because if I got caught up on all the ups and the downs of that roller coaster then I would probably just be down all the time, and that's just not me. I was down for a few days, ad then I just kind of got over it. Because it was time to get over it, and move on."
Much like Lori, that's what the Aggies seem to be doing. They were down, but now they're over it and moving on, because that's just how things are done in Las Cruces.
You can follow Lori's story, for however many years it may continue, on her blog at thebigcinlc.wordpress.com. Thanks again to her for taking the time to share of herself with me, and thanks to New Mexico State athletic director Mario Moccia for his time as well.