When you listen to Jonathan Bullard talk about Joyce Robbs, his voice conveys just how important his grandmother was, and is, to him.
Joyce played an influential role in the man Bullard became and ultimately helped him reach the pinnacle of his career.
Though Joyce wasn't there to see his hard work pay off — she sadly passed away in 2012 after a battle with cancer — Bullard will honor her memory Sunday with custom-pained cleats. His kicks will represent the American Cancer Society as part of the NFL's My Cause My Cleats initiative.
Bullard's deep connection with his grandmother started at a young age in Shelby, North Carolina, when his parents went through a divorce. To make ends meet, Bullard's mother worked long hours to support her sons, and it was Joyce who stepped in to help watch and raise the siblings.
"She kept our family together," the Vikings defensive lineman said.
Joyce was also a huge football (Cowboys) and basketball (Lakers) fan. A "hollering at the TV" type of fan, as Bullard called her.
Growing up, Bullard's grandparents attended all his games and nearly every one of his practices.
"She was always a positive person," Bullard said. "No matter what it was. Wins, losses, she was always pretty positive. And telling me how good I did and stuff like that."
After an impressive four-year career at Crest Senior High School, Bullard had his choice to play pretty much wherever he wanted at the collegiate level. He initially gravitated toward Clemson, less than a two-hour drive from Shelby.
The reason? To remain close with his family, most notably Joyce.
After more offers came in, including the opportunity to play for the Florida Gators (which was 490 miles away), Joyce offered her grandson some advice.
"She was basically just telling me, 'I've lived my life; you need to live yours. And where you want to go, you should go. I'll still find a way to be there and support you from here' – and stuff like that," Bullard said. "She told me to do what I truly want to do. She felt like I was staying closer to home because of her, and she didn't want me to do that."
To Florida he went. But during that time, Joyce's health rapidly declined.
As Bullard's freshman year advanced, so did the cancer. So much so that he traveled back home to see her in what would turn out to be their last visit.
Bullard was prepared to miss Florida's game against Louisiana to spend time with Joyce in her final moments.
"[But] my grandpa told me that she would want me to play, and I flew back that Friday night," Bullard said. "She passed Saturday morning, and I didn't know until after the game that she had passed."
Joyce was just 65 years old.
She was a huge sports fan, but mostly, she was a Jonathan fan. And that's something that he's always carried with him. Bullard has her image tattooed on his chest and now will have the opportunity to have her name on his cleats.
"I think about that all the time, you know. It's just one of those things where someone supports you so much … just wanting to be able to say that she's seen me do it. She never got to, but I know she smiled and she's super excited," Bullard said. "It'd probably mean the world to her, honestly, just to see it.
"Not even the football, but just seeing me and my two brothers, all successful and doing well. Both of my brothers are successful in doing their things in their own ways, too," he added. "I know she's proud of all of us."