By J. BRADY McCOLLOUGH
The Kansas City Star
Sitting in a booth at their favorite breakfast place, Eddie and Shimika Kennison could be flagged for excessive doting.
He orders her a hot chocolate without even asking her; she loves it when he does that, especially when it comes with all of that whipped cream and syrup.
Eddie considers ordering a sausage, egg, biscuit and gravy concoction, one of his guilty pleasures. No, Shimika says, get something healthier. The couple opts for egg whites and English muffins instead.
This September morning could just as easily be a scene from nine years ago, when the first-round NFL draft pick and the college cheerleader started dating.
On the surface, they look the same. Eddie, 32, is as fit as he's been since 1996, his first year in the league. Shimika, 28, looks the part of the perfect NFL wife.
Inside, Eddie and Shimika are different.
A disease is eating away at Shimika. It's called lupus, and it has no cure.
Eddie's life, up to this point, has been built on the notion that he is always in control. But Eddie can't control lupus.
"I don't want to call it pride," Eddie says, "because it's not pride, but it has to do with not taking what God has given us in everyday life for granted. People just want to be able to walk, write, see, brush their hair. We take those things for granted."
Kennison could have had any girl in Lake Charles, La., in the winter of '96 as he finished his first season in the league as a receiver with the St. Louis Rams.
He was back in his hometown on Christmas Eve, and friends had thrown a party. It was his best friend, Shannon Jenkins, who spotted Shimika across the room. He knew that she was a cheerleader at McNeese State, and he challenged Eddie to talk to her.
"He was pretty much whipped when he saw her," Jenkins says.
Things moved quickly from there. A week later, Shimika met Eddie's mom. After getting her approval, there was one more thing Kennison needed to do.
"He did a background check on me," Shimika says. "I couldn't believe that."
Eddie always had trust issues, and they only intensified as he played for four teams in his first six seasons. That instability was hard on Shimika, who didn't get close to finishing school before moving to St. Louis with Eddie. She became the lonely NFL girlfriend, unable to make friends and pursue her own dreams.
Shimika didn't blame Eddie, though. She loved Eddie, and boy, could he make her laugh.
"He was so funny," Shimika says. "He was genuinely fun. Sometimes, too much fun."
Shimika is referring to the fun Eddie had away from her. He'd go on lots of trips, whether it was to the Pro Bowl or the Super Bowl or just back to Houston with his buddies. Shimika, a pleaser by nature, didn't speak up.
"I was always intimidated by his career," Shimika says.
The boy from an underprivileged home in south Louisiana suddenly had fame and deep pockets. Kennison began to drive way off his intended path.
"I probably went off-roading," Kennison says. "Going out and drinking with the boys, having fun nights out."
Meanwhile, Shimika was trying to have a child. She had miscarriages three times before finally succeeding with their son, Karrington, in 1998.
St. Louis traded Eddie to New Orleans before the '99 season, and the Saints traded him to the Bears one year later. He then signed a three-year deal to play for Denver, starting in 2001. Eddie and Shimika had done so much together in a short time, but there was still something missing.
"It took them time to grow into their relationship and communicate with one another," says Yolanda Banks, Shimika's best friend and the wife of Texans quarterback Tony Banks. "They were both trying to get to know someone who was still getting to know themselves."
Eddie and Shimika married in 2001. With a new contract and a second child on the way, they thought Denver was supposed to be the place where they could start their new life.
But there were problems from the start. Kennison struggled in relief of injured Broncos receiver Ed McCaffrey. Then, on a Wednesday in November, Shimika passed out in the parking lot of a Denver grocery store.
Six months pregnant, she was rushed to the hospital. A few days passed, and the doctors had no idea what was wrong. She passed in and out of consciousness as they did test after test, which all came back negative. Eddie began to panic.
By Saturday, the day before a Broncos home game, the combined stress of a disappointing season with the Broncos and Shimika's mystery illness had stripped him bare.
"He called me and said, `Man, I'm thinking about retiring,' " his friend Jenkins says. "He didn't know what to do. It just shook him, rattled him a lot."
There are many renditions of what happened after that. On Saturday night, 16 hours before kickoff, Eddie pulled Denver coach Mike Shanahan aside and told him that he wanted to retire from football, that he'd lost his love for the game. He offered to play on Sunday, because he had taken all the snaps in practice that week, but Shanahan would later decide that Eddie should leave the team hotel and never return.
Shanahan even asked Kennison if it was because of his family. Eddie elected not to say.
"I didn't want to give an excuse," Kennison says. "I just said I'm not going to be able to play. Nobody knew she was in the hospital dealing with this issue, pregnant and unconscious."
"Oh my God, Eddie," is what Eddie's agent, John Hamilton, said when he found out Kennison didn't divulge everything to Shanahan. Even Shimika didn't understand what Eddie was doing.
"I felt bad," Shimika says. "I said, `Please go and play.' I didn't want to be a hindrance to his career. I was in the hospital. There was nothing he could do."
With the people close to him telling him to play football again, he went back to Shanahan the following Monday and told him he was "unretiring." But with a locker room full of fuming teammates who viewed him as a quitter, Eddie had no chance. The Broncos released Eddie, who suddenly had a sick wife and no job. The Denver media sent the parting blows. A Denver Post column seethed that Eddie was a "loser."
"I've never seen him as depressed," Hamilton says. "I've never seen him not have that love for the game. Other things were taking precedence."
Eddie's attempt to be there for Shimika landed their family back in their Houston home. It was there that they received the diagnosis that Shimika, who miraculously had a healthy pregnancy, had lupus.
Lupus is a chronic disease that, for unknown reasons, causes the body's immune system to attack its own tissue and organs. The immune system loses its ability to tell the difference between foreign substances, like viruses and bacteria, and its own cells and tissue. Shimika experienced achy joints, but her most frequent symptom was intense fatigue.
In Houston, Kennison got the call from Chiefs coach Dick Vermeil, who was Eddie's coach for two seasons in St. Louis. Vermeil might have been the only coach in the NFL who would give Eddie a second chance. Eddie played for the Chiefs in the last few games of 2001, and Shimika joined him in Kansas City, where at times, she felt like she was fighting the lupus alone.
"I used to think that he doesn't know what I'm going through," Shimika says. "Nobody knows what I'm going through. I did that internally for a little while, and that's when the complaining started. Imagine wanting to do something so badly, but you don't have the energy to do it."
Shimika was on all kinds of medication, including steroids, and she needed medication for the side effects of the original medication. She was constantly fatigued and would pass out often.
Three seasons passed in Kansas City. They were the most consistent of Eddie's career, and he did something he'd never done before: He stayed put. Kennison had fixed himself on the field, but off of it, he still needed to make progress.
A little over a year ago, Shimika and Eddie's marital problems came to a head. Eddie had thrown a party in Houston that had gotten out of hand. Shimika found out about it and finally snapped.
"She said grow up or live without her," his friend Jenkins recalls. "It was an ultimatum."
The ultimatum included a brief separation. Banks, who admits she wasn't Eddie's biggest fan at that time, was proud of Shimika for standing up for herself.
"She just wants to please everyone," Banks says. "It's hard when you're that kind of person. People just walk all over you. It's never been about what she wants first."
Kennison was scared again. He imagined life without his wife and kids. The thought of some other man raising his kids repulsed him. He wouldn't take Shimika for granted any longer.
In late September during the separation, the Chiefs were host to the Texans, and Banks was in town, staying with Shimika. Eddie knew that Banks was Shimika's most valued friend, so he came to the house to talk to her.
Banks remembers that Kennison looked as if he had reached at his breaking point. His eyes were weary.
"Do you think people can change?" Eddie asked her.
"I think that you can't change you," Banks said, "but I think if you allow God to change you, you can absolutely change."
"Well, good," Eddie said, "because I'm not the same person you've known me as."
Banks had been waiting to see this side of Eddie for 10 years. She always knew it was there.
"He stood before me humble," Banks says, "and I had never seen him that way. I finally saw inside the real Eddie. For years, he had been this facade. He was someone who finally realized he would be nothing without his family. It was a very humbling place to be."
During the first part of October, Chiefs team chaplain Greg Tyler prayed with Eddie to receive Jesus Christ into his heart. On that day, Eddie relinquished control.
"When you're backed in a corner and all the doors are closing," Kennison explains, "you have nowhere else to go but to him. When you openly admit to him that you've done wrong, eventually, the doors start opening, and you see the light."
His newfound faith was tested this August.
Shimika was on her way to Minneapolis with the kids to see Eddie at Chiefs training camp. On that day, driving a car turned into one of the most frightening moments of her life.
She began to lose feeling on her left side, and she stopped every few minutes to stretch on the side of the road. By the time she got to a Minneapolis hospital, her left side was numb, including her mouth, which slumped lazily to her left. For the first two days in the hospital, she couldn't walk.
Just like Denver, Eddie was faced with a family crisis during football season. This time, there were no secrets. This time, Eddie spoke up. His teammates and coaches knew about Shimika's illness, and they understood. Vermeil called Shimika in the hospital; Vermeil's wife, Carol, visited. Teammates and their wives sent flowers.
Kennison missed six days of training camp to be with Shimika and the kids. He went out and bought her real food - she hated the hospital food - and pajamas from Victoria's Secret. He took the boys out during the day to the Mall of America. He spent time on the phone with her friends, keeping them up to date on her condition. He brushed her hair.
The doctors thought Shimika, 28, had a stroke, but all MRIs came up negative. They didn't know what was wrong. The couple worried she wouldn't walk again.
"I just wanted to know what it was and how to fix it," Shimika says. "I remember we were going down the hall, I was using a walker, and there was an old lady in a wheelchair going faster than me. I couldn't believe, I'm 28, and I can't walk."
The doctors continued to do blood work and tests, but eventually, Eddie would tell them to go away. The man who couldn't trust anybody had suddenly turned everything over to a higher power that he couldn't hear, touch or see.
"There are all the tests that were done," he says with authority. "Everything came back negative. They couldn't find a snippet of anything. That's God, man. That's God's way of putting something on her that nobody could find."
See, Eddie explains, Shimika constantly battles fatigue, and she was doing too much, driving 14 hours back and forth to New Orleans to visit her ailing grandmother only a couple of days before the trip to camp.
"God said to her, `Slow down,' " Eddie says.
"God has control over everything," the couple says in unison. "Everything."
Eddie and Shimika believe in an all-loving and forgiving God. The eternal question lingers: Why would God choose to make Shimika suffer?
"We know that our weakness is God's strength," Eddie says. "He's put something into our life to draw us closer to him. He knew it would bring us closer to him."
Says Shimika: "It's hard for me. I'm such a believer in Christ. I believe he can heal me. I look at the research, and I do want it, but I know that if there isn't a cure, I'll be OK."
Eddie Kennison grew up in Kansas City, and for that, he and his family are grateful. Eddie and Shimika are in their fourth year living in KC. This is their home, and if it were up to Shimika, they'd never leave.
"We've just grown roots here," Shimika says. "I've never felt comfortable anywhere else. He's grown, and I've grown, too. I've always been helpless until now. I think if we didn't move here, things would be a lot different than they are now.
"He didn't trust anybody. We have a solid foundation here, and now he's more trusting of other people."
Kennison is in the prime of his career, showing week in and week out that he can be a No. 1 receiver in the NFL. After creating high expectations with a standout rookie season in St. Louis, Eddie is living up to them with 23 catches for 349 yards and one touchdown.
Friends say Eddie has a glow that was never there before. His party scene has turned from clubbing to wine-tasting.
Shimika still hasn't finished school, but she has found a life for herself. She works doing hair and makeup, she has even started doing beauty pageants and won the Mrs. Kansas City pageant.
And somewhere along the way, after years of living together, they've finally found each other.
This month, Eddie and Shimika begin preparing for their third annual charity fashion show. Half of the proceeds go to the Alliance for Lupus Research, the other half toward college scholarships for future doctors. Eddie has indoctrinated himself in the disease, and he wants you to help him find a cure. Ultimately, though, this is Shimika's battle.
"You hate to say someone is a martyr," Banks says, "but I really feel that God putting that illness in Shimika's life is what made Eddie finally come to Christ. Eddie has been very lucky to have her.
"He owes it all to God that she's in his life. And through her, he was saved."
Now, it's Shimika's turn to be saved. It's Shimika's turn to live, whether it's playing tennis every day or pursuing her lifelong dream to be a singer. There is renewed hope.
The same disease that had her temporarily paralyzed two months ago is now in remission. Recent blood work has shown no signs of the disease. They believe she's been healed.
They believe it because they have to believe.
"We don't look at the bad," Eddie says. "We look at all the good. God is placing all good in our life."