Stepping out from beneath the tunnel to the Georgia Dome field, Cody Core was struck by the intense brightness emanating from above.
From the time he started playing sports, Core never started a game without first scouring the stadium bleachers for his parents.
“Our joy came from when we saw him come out, look up in the stands, see us and he was on his merry way,” his father, Thad Core, said. “We knew then that he was comfortable, he was in his comfort zone.
“You could see the eye contact, you could see it and know (he was thinking), ‘Alright, I found you.’”
Only this time was different.
Cody’s dark eyes remained taut, looking straight ahead and never venturing into the still-sparse crowd. Instead, Ole Miss’ 20-year-old junior receiver was focused solely on what was directly in front of him.
Cody knew who was there — and who wasn’t.
Several of hours before the Rebels were set to open the 2014 season against Boise State in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic on Aug. 28, people were slowly filling the Georgia Dome stands, including a group of roughly 20-plus members of Cody’s closest family and friends.
“It felt good, it was an amazing feeling just to have a lot of people there supporting me, knowing what I’ve been through,” Cody said. “It was just a great feeling.”
His sister, 13-year-old Casey, held up a sign expressing her love and support for the former Auburn High product set to make his first career start for the Rebels.
Thad, at 6-foot-4 and somewhere south of 300 pounds, stood proud as those around cheered, all the while trying his best — and at times failing — to contain the intense sadness he felt for the one person who wasn’t by his side.
“I know my wife was watching over, but I wanted her there with me to experience that,” Thad said.
It was just over a month and a week since the Cores buried the heart and soul of their family circle — Amy Core — after the 37-year-old mother of two and beloved teacher to hundreds died July 18, roughly 14 hours after suffering a brain aneurism.
Despite his recent personal tragedy, Cody shined on the nationally televised stage, posting a career-best 110-yard performance on four catches — which equaled his season total a year ago — to go along with his first two collegiate touchdowns in Ole Miss’ 35-13 victory.
With nothing but the end zone ahead of him — the closest Boise State player 5 to 6 yards behind — Cody extended his left index finger into the air as he crossed the goal line to complete a 76-yard catch-and-run score to effectively put the Broncos to bed, 28-6, with less than 8 minutes remaining in the game.
Following a commercial break, ESPN’s cameras caught Core on the bench and his lips seem to mouth: “That was for you mama” before signaling “3-3-4” — Auburn’s area code — with his fingers.
It was a bittersweet moment for everyone involved.
“We’ve been waiting two years for him to breakout like that, because we knew he had the ability to do it, it was just him wanting to do it,” Thad said. “And when he finally wanted to do it, for him to succeed and her not being there to see it, it was overwhelming.”
In the midst of a morning workout on July 18, Cody’s position coach — Ole Miss receivers coach Grant Heard — had a message from his father: You need to come home.
As more cryptic messages and calls came in other relatives rolled in, Cody began to realize something was wrong with his mother.
It wasn’t until he arrived at the University of Alabama-Birmingham Hospital shortly after noon that his father filled him in.
By that point, Amy had already undergone emergency brain surgery after awaking early Friday with a large mass on the right side of her brain and the “prognosis was bleak,” Thad said.
Amy Core died shortly after 5 p.m. Friday, but not before each member of the family got to say their goodbyes.
“All I can remember is holding her hand — and whenever I held her hand she’d always squeeze my hand (hard) because we didn’t hold hands very often,” Thad said. “And when she was in the hospital, and I had my hand in there and she wasn’t squeezing my hand, I thought, ‘I think my baby’s gone.’ That’s all I can remember.”
The quick turnaround between the time he discovered his mother’s condition to the funeral was a five-day whirlwind for Cody, who returned to Oxford to finish up his summer classes two days after the service.
“He was just talking about because it happened so fast, and how he didn’t have a lot of time to process, at first he wasn’t in himself — it was really surreal to him,” said Cody’s cousin, 19-year-old Jakeyah Gadson, a sophomore at Florida State who spent a week with Cody in Oxford before the start of fall camp. “And he felt like he was on the outside looking in, and it never really hit him until the wake. … But at the time in the hospital, he kind of felt numb to it.”
Nevertheless, Cody made sure to honor his mother in the only way knew how: with a new suit.
Sporting a clean, white sports coat over a royal blue dress shirt and khaki slacks, Cody tied his funeral ensemble together with a pink and blue bowtie and white TOMS boat shoes.
“Him and his mom were dressers, he definitely got that from his mom,” Thad said. “He said his mom would want style, and that’s what he (brought).”
By all accounts, it was the perfect outfit for what turned out to be an overflowing celebration of Amy’s life.
“It was obviously very difficult to see one of your kids you love and care for hurting, and his family, but at the same time to see the outpouring of love and support from that community gave me great insight into the testimony that his mother lived,” Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze said. “That’s something that you can celebrate even amid difficult times.”
A positive distraction
There’s always another game to prepare for, another practice to go to, another ball to catch, another route to run.
“I just wake up every day, go to school, come in and watch film, practice and get ready for each week — just prepare for the game each and every week,” Cody said. “I just really stay focused on the task.”
And that focus has resulted in unprecedented success on the field, where he leads Rebels receivers with five touchdowns and 390 receiving yards on 26 catches. Cody also has 43 yards rushing on two carries this season.
“I’d like to think it’s been a huge contributor to him returning to some normalcy, and him having success certainly helps putting some joy in his life at a difficult time (after) losing a wonderful mother,” Freeze said. “We’ve never sat down and had that discussion but he sure seems to be enjoying what’s going on with this season.”
That season continues Saturday when No. 7 Ole Miss (7-1, 4-1 SEC) hosts his hometown team, No. 4 Auburn (6-1, 3-1) in a pivotal divisional showdown between two teams still in the thick of the College Football Playoff hunt.
Soft-spoken and dedicated, Cody has routinely refused to speak publically about his mother. The emotions are still too raw, which has turned football into both a saving grace and a cover to pull over his head and keep reality at bay just a little while longer.
“Really, it’s just been all about getting to work, staying focused on the task, I really hadn’t sat down and talked about it,” Cody said.
It’s a reality that he deals with by simply not acknowledging it.
“It’s hard to get words out of him right now,” Thad said. “And I just want him to carry on.”
Of course there’s no denying the facts — when he looks up in the stands at his family, his mother is never going to be there again, at least not physically. He knows this implicitly.
“They have the exact same personality — they’re very introverted people,” Gadson said of Cody and Amy. “They really don’t express their emotions to the public often at all, his little sister’s the same way.”
It’s also why he’s taken on more of an active role in his little sister’s life.
“He’s really much more of a support system than he was,” Gadson said. “But when she does go to Ole Miss, he’s always looking for her and they take pictures at the game. … He makes it more obvious that he’s there for her, which wasn’t something that they did. … They never really expressed it to each other, and now they’re getting good at doing that.”
During the week between burying his mother and beginning fall preseason camp in early August, Cody’s mind often turned to the future. Not his of course, but Casey’s.
“He was wondering about Casey a lot, like a whole lot — about who would take care of her, who would do her hair, who would take her to girl scouts,” Gadson said. “He was concerned about Casey a lot of the days, he just thought about how she would go to prom and get married — he was really concerned with his sister.”
In the right direction
Thad was thinking of staying home for the Texas A&M game Oct. 11 in College Station, Texas.
Thad had discussed midseason road games with Amy before her passing, but hadn’t given it much thought before the week of the game.
And given the 1,500-mile round trip travel, Thad was debating snapping his personal 23-game attendance streak. The last game Thad and Amy missed was at Arkansas (Oct. 27, 2012) during Cody’s freshman season.
But when he called to tell Cody, the first words out of his son’s mouth were: “Who’s coming with you, Daddy? Is Granddaddy going to use Mama’s ticket?”
At that, Thad told his son it’d just be him, then he took out his iPad and started looking for plane fare three days before the game.
“I couldn’t bring myself to … we (he and Amy) didn’t miss one game in three years, so I couldn’t bring it to myself to tell him I wasn’t going to be there,” Thad said.
“That was a hard trip, being by myself, but I couldn’t tell him that I wasn’t coming to that game.”
In the Core household, Thad was always the softie while Amy was the disciplinarian. If either Cody or Casey were ever wearing their clothes the wrong way, like saggy jeans or short shorts, Amy was always the one to scold them.
“She just wanted him to be raised right. She wanted him to be a young man,” Thad said. “I would say, ‘He’s a boy,’ and she’d say, ‘No, I’m not going to let him get away with that.’”
Since her passing, Thad has seen Cody emerge as the young man his mother always believed him to be — on the field, in the classroom and in his personal life. As Thad explained, “she laid that foundation.”
That strong groundwork took hold and showed itself almost immediately after her death. The first time Thad realized Cody was becoming the man his mother always envisioned first emerged as the family was leaving the UAB Hospital after saying final goodbyes.
Thad watched Cody driving the wrong direction out of the hospital parking lot on his way back to Oxford to pick up some clothes before returning to Auburn to help his family prepare for his mother’s funeral.
“I picked up my phone to call him, but then I said ‘Hey, he’s going to have to figure this out on his own,’” Thad said. “So I just let him go, and when I got on the (highway), I called him to check and see if he was on the road and he’d made it to the highway, so I said: ‘He’s going to be OK.’”
Cody eventually found his way back in Oxford, both that night and on the football field. And though the pain of his loss still hangs over Cody — just three months removed from his mother’s passing — he’s now doing what she always knew he could.
“Now, he’s doing it for her, but he’s also doing it for himself," Thad said, "because he knows that’s what his mom would want."