NEW ORLEANS -- Brendon Ayanbadejo is king of the world -- for a few minutes, anyway.
The 36-year-old linebacker has just won the Super Bowl with the Baltimore Ravens. The confetti is still swirling, the cameras still rolling, and the Lombardi Trophy has just started its first lap of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, carried aloft by a few high-on-life Ravens, who are pausing every few yards to show it to a new section of giddy fans.
In the midst of all this, Ayanbadejo is standing quietly but happily with his longtime partner, Natalee Uzcategui, and their two children, six-year-old daughter, Anaya, and 22-month-old son, Amadeus Prime, both of whom are wearing pint-sized versions of Daddy's No. 51 purple jersey. Ayanbadejo is wearing a single strand of silver beads, given to him by "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" because of his tireless advocacy for marriage equality. Natalee is holding their son, balancing him on her left hip as he sucks on a football-shaped pacifier, when a camera crew approaches and asks Ayanbadejo for an interview.
He holds his daughter's hand as he answers all of the questions, including the one about how sometime this spring Amadeus Prime will likely have surgery to correct a congenital heart condition. Ayanbadejo answers this one instinctually, kind of similar to how he reacts on the field, explaining that he won't be able to fully celebrate this Super Bowl until his son is fully healthy.
Anaya drops her father's hand and turns to her mother. The girl looks crestfallen, confused, and her eyes ask a question that -- right now, right here in this bright moment -- Natalee isn't sure how to answer. So she gently pulls her daughter to her side and shoots Brendon a look that says, What do we do now?
"I'm so sorry," Ayanbadejo says when he has finished the interview. He puts his hand on Ayana's shoulder, brings Natalee near, and gestures to the small circle they've created. "This is our whole world, right here," he says to his family. "See us? Nothing in this life is promised; tomorrow is never promised to us. But being here right now is special. It's one of the greatest things ever."
Brendon and Natalee had agreed to wait until after the Super Bowl to tell Anaya about her brother's health condition. She is strong-willed, just like her father, so they wanted to sit her down and explain what was happening, let her ask all of her questions. They did not, of course, intend for her to find out while standing in the middle of a Super Bowl celebration, late at night, already on sensory overload.
"I just made a mistake," Ayanbadejo says later, shaking his head. "I didn't even think about it. That's an emotional thing for her to hear. She wants to protect her baby brother because she's the big sister."
Anaya wants more information, but that's impossible right now. She keeps looking up at her mother as her father does a few more on-camera interviews. Each time the camera swoops in front of him, Brendon gives Natalee a helpless look. At one point, Olympic champion swimmer Michael Phelps, a Baltimore native, walks up, wraps Ayanbadejo in a hug and whispers into his friend's ear, "That was so sick -- so sick."
Finally, Ayanbadejo starts walking with his family toward the tunnel. But then there is another interview ask, then autograph requests, then picture requests. At first, Ayanbadejo stops for everyone, smiling big on cue. In between the interactions, though, he looks preoccupied. So he starts saying no: "I can't, man. I'm sorry. I'm just trying to be with my family for a second."
They reach the tunnel that leads to the locker room, but only Daddy can enter. He tells them all he loves them, as Natalee says, "I'll text you to figure out where we can meet." He nods, and then he is gone.
Natalee makes her way to a different exit. She has switched Amadeus Prime to her right hip; he seems content, absorbing his surroundings with ocean blue eyes. Anaya, hair bouncing, runs alongside her mom and clasps her left hand. They walk off the turf and into the concrete hallways of the Superdome.
The questions begin immediately.
"Why wouldn't you tell me?" Anaya asks.
"We just wanted to wait until after the game," Natalee says. "We met with some doctors in Baltimore. They're the best in the world, OK?"
"But why wouldn't you tell me? I'm his sister!"
"Daddy didn't mean to," Natalee says. "He didn't realize. He just made a mistake."
And right before that, he won the Super Bowl.