-- Jennifer Martinsen visits the cemetery nearly every day. It's quiet, peaceful. She knows her daughter isn't really there, but she feels a connection. It's a chance for the two of them to be alone together, apart from the noise of the outside world. Every few days, though, the bass from a car stereo hums in the distance, and Jennifer knows her regular graveside companion has arrived. The car pulls to a stop not far from where Molly Martinsen is buried, and Baylor running back Lache Seastrunk pops out to greet Jennifer.
"Hi Mom," he says to the woman he met just seven months ago.
Last summer, Seastrunk was enrolled in a course that examined issues associated with death and dying. A cemetery visit was a requirement, but he couldn't bring himself to go. The tombstones terrified him until he met Jennifer, a Waco, Texas, resident, and heard Molly's story. Now he visits Oakwood Cemetery in Waco a few times a week, squeezing in a trip before class or spending a few hours there after practice. It's his time to escape from the world and connect with a little girl he misses desperately, too.
"I can hear her speak to me," Seastrunk said. "I hear her very clearly."
On his wrist, Seastrunk wears an orange band with Molly's name on it. On his backpack, he pins a picture of her. He has a necklace with a pendant of his uniform number on one side and Molly's name on the other. Before every game, he writes "Molly" in bright orange letters on his wrist tape and says a prayer for her in the end zone. His season and his life are dedicated to the 11-year-old girl he never met.
• • •
Molly Martinsen was an athlete, too. She played sports with her older brother and his friends, and she fit in perfectly. For her fifth birthday, she asked for golf clubs. For her sixth, she wanted an Iron Gym workout bar. She did pull-ups in her bedroom door frame. She practiced volleyball with a local high school team.
Those were the details Jennifer wanted to remember when a friend asked her to speak to a group of students at Baylor last summer about Molly's battle with cancer and the family's grief after she died in May 2012.
Jennifer hadn't talked publicly about Molly since the funeral, and she stood outside the classroom for what seemed an eternity wondering if she could summon the strength to walk inside. When she finally made it through the door, sitting in the front row was Seastrunk. She recognized him immediately. She'd seen one of his games the previous season, when he'd broken a long run but tweaked a hamstring 40 yards from the end zone. He still outran the defense, dragging one leg over the goal line. Jennifer loved the determination. "That's a Molly move," she thought. She was relieved to see someone in the class who reminded her of her daughter.
Jennifer showed the class pictures of the little girl with the blond hair and the infectious smile. She told them about Molly's love for sports and her unwavering work ethic. She told them about the 11-hour operation to remove a brain tumor that took away Molly's ability to speak and walk and eat, and she told them how her daughter fought to regain everything she'd lost. She told them how Molly endured grueling chemotherapy treatments then begged to go to Baylor basketball games on the way home. She told them how the physical therapists said they'd never seen anyone work so hard, how the doctors marveled at Molly's recovery. She told them how, nine months after the initial diagnoses, an MRI showed the cancer had returned. She told them how Molly planned to keep fighting, to enter a new clinical trial. She told them how Molly died the day the trial was set to begin. She told them how she goes to Molly's grave every day, and how she can still hear her daughter's voice.
When she was done talking, Jennifer asked if there were questions. Seastrunk raised his hand, but before he could say a word, he began sobbing. For nearly five minutes, surrounded by classmates, the 210-pound star running back wept and shook and wailed uncontrollably. Jennifer put an arm around him, told him it was OK. Seastrunk finally regained his composure and mustered the strength to ask his question.
"Can I go with you to see Molly's grave?" he asked.
• • •
Seastrunk's first trip to Molly's grave wasn't scary or awkward or uncomfortable. He went with Jennifer on a bright summer afternoon. He walked to the gravesite and said hello. He kissed her headstone. He told her how much her story had affected him. He talked to her like they'd been friends for years.
Afterward, Seastrunk asked Jennifer if she understood why he'd cried so much the day they'd met, why he wanted so desperately to come with her to visit Molly.
"I felt that burden you carry in your heart," he told her. "I felt that weight, and we have to get it off you or it's going to kill you."
Jennifer was stunned. In the months since Molly died, she'd seen friends disappear, relationship disintegrate. The weight of her loss had been too much for them to bear, and yet this man she'd just met understood her completely.
There is no way to fill the void left by Molly's death, but Jennifer said talking about her daughter helps. Now she calls or texts Seastrunk five or six times a week, just to talk -- usually about Molly. Seastrunk calls her "Mom," which seems appropriate given how much he reminds her of Molly.
In a team prayer meeting before the season, Seastrunk told his Baylor teammates about Molly's story, and it's inspired them, too. After each of his 11 touchdowns this season, he takes a knee in the end zone and points to the sky, a nod to the little girl who carried him. Jennifer watches Baylor's home games from the stands and the road games on TV and looks for Molly's name on Seastrunk's wrist tape. She knows it will be there, but it's a thrill each time she sees it.
Jennifer was at the cemetery one day this fall when she heard Seastrunk's music in the distance. When the car slid to a halt, Seastrunk bounded up to her with palpable excitement. "You're not going to believe it," he said. He'd just come from practice. In the weight room, he'd been inspired to set a personal record for squats. Teammates taunted him that he'd added too much weight, but he swore it felt as light as a feather. It was Molly who lifted it, he told her.
"I see him, and I can smile," Jennifer said. "And there were times I thought I'd never do that again."
• • •
Seastrunk can't explain why he was so moved by the story, why it resonated so personally for him, but he said his life changed the day he met Jennifer.
"In life, you've got to find that 'why,'" Seastrunk said. "Why did you get up and go to work? What did you do this for? For me, it's Molly. It's to live my life to the fullest like she did."
Seastrunk began this season by predicting he'd win the Heisman Trophy, and for two months, it seemed he might. He ran for more than 100 yards in six of his first seven games, scored 11 touchdowns and was a key player on an explosive Baylor offense.
Against Oklahoma on Nov. 7, however, Seastrunk pulled a groin muscle, and he missed the next two weeks. He hasn't found the end zone since. It's been a difficult conclusion to a season that began with so much optimism, but Seastrunk hasn't complained. He knows how small his problems are.
Before Jennifer could summon the words to tell her daughter that the cancer had returned in the spring of 2012, Molly understood the situation.
"The MRI wasn't good this time, was it?" Molly said.
"It's not what we prayed for," Jennifer told her.
Molly asked about options, promised to fight. Then she asked her mother what would happen if she were too sick to continue treatment.
"I looked at her and her lips are quivering and her eyes were filled with tears," Jennifer said. "I said, 'Mom's never lied to you, and I'm not going to start now. All this means is you're going see Jesus before Momma does.' And she said, 'OK.'"
The doctors predicted she might live another three to six months. Molly died two weeks later.
Seastrunk thinks about that story often, about the strength and faith and courage it must have taken for an 11-year-old girl to accept that she was dying. He's asked Jennifer many times how Molly did it, how she faced mortality without fear. The only answer Jennifer has is that it was God's plan, that Molly's life was meant to inspire others.
Seastrunk's last chance to honor Molly in the end zone comes today, when Baylor takes on UCF in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl. Her name will be etched on his tape and emblazoned on the bracelet around his wrist. He'll say a prayer to her before the game, and he'll think of her with each yard he sprints down the field.
Seastrunk hasn't decided whether he'll return to Baylor next season or enter the NFL draft. Today's game could be his last with the Bears, and he wants to end things with a win. But this season hasn't been about the record or the stats, the injuries or triumphs. It's been about sharing Molly's story.
"There's a reason why I heard that story," he said. "It was meant to be told so people can be inspired like I was inspired. And she inspires me every single day."
And when today's game is over, whether it's a win or a loss, whether he scores or he doesn't, Seastrunk will return to Waco, get into his car and turn his music up loud. He'll drive a few blocks from his home to the cemetery where Molly's buried, and he'll finally take off the bracelet and the necklace and all the mementos he's carried with him this season. He'll leave them at her grave to remind her that she'd been with him the whole time.