Tina Ham is with her son for every Vikings game.
Before each game’s kickoff, Vikings fullback C.J. Ham writes “Mom” on his taped left wrist and the initials of his wife, Stephanie, and their two daughters, Skylar and Stella, above that.
But when Tina’s stress peaks from watching her only son play, she can’t watch anymore. She steps away to the bathroom and prays; from there she took credit for praying for the “Minneapolis Miracle,” the walkoff, 61-yard touchdown vaulting the 2017 Vikings to an NFC divisional playoff victory over the Saints.
“That’s probably the best one,” C.J. Ham said of games she has left her seat to pray. “She was not watching.”
The hits delivered and taken by Ham can be too much for Tina, who conversely is fighting a battle strengthening C.J.’s resolve and faith.
In March, Tina visited the emergency room for severe abdominal pain. She was told she had Stage 4 pancreatic cancer — one of the most difficult cancers to detect — that had metastasized into her liver. Doctors said she had 12 months to live.
Nine months later, Tina’s positivity through grueling chemotherapy inspires Cortez Ham Jr., the “mama’s boy” who leaned on her love and lessons throughout his unlikely path to the NFL from Duluth Denfeld High School to Augustana University to the Vikings.
“A lot of ups and downs. I call her every single day asking how she’s doing,” Ham said. “I can always tell in her voice how she’s really feeling.”
“Sometimes three times a day,” Tina said.
Ham, the younger of two children to Tina and Cortez Sr. — a licensed minister — found solace in his family’s devout Christian faith. They believe prayer can bring another miracle to Minnesota.
“Prayer has really brought us together,” Tina said. “Believing in the Lord that he’s going to heal me and bring us up out of this.”
Over the Vikings’ November bye week, C.J. Ham rallied the family for its first-ever vacation. On sandy beaches of Panama City, Fla., Ham watched his father play in the ocean for the first time in his life and his mother glow on the sand with her six grandkids, including his older sister’s four children.
“You could see she was taking it all in,” Ham said. “She’s doing great. We’re just going day by day. We’re keeping our faith. We pray every single day. We know that God is going to do a miracle regardless of what his plan is.”
With age and fatherhood, Ham has a greater appreciation for his childhood that started on the south side of Chicago. Before Ham could walk into any trouble, his parents — together since they were 16 years old — moved the family to Duluth.
The Hams rented, changing addresses every other year while Ham grew attached to sports at the local Boys & Girls Club. To get by, Cortez Sr. worked up to three jobs, including night shifts, while Tina was a nurse.
“Looking back at it now, yeah, we were poor,” Ham said. “We didn’t have a lot of money. My parents were so great, I never felt that. I always felt like I was good. I really appreciate that from them now.”
Lessons transfer as Ham and his wife, a former Augustana soccer player, raise two young daughters. But Tina is still the first to hear C.J.’s news — good or bad.
Devastated, he phoned her after the 2016 NFL draft when no teams called offering him a free-agent contract.
“She’s my rock, really,” Ham said. “I was crying about it, really. It was a dream. I knew it was still far-fetched, but I’d gotten so close in my eyes.”
After 10 minutes in a church pew, where Tina’s instructions led him, Ham received a call with a Vikings tryout offer. Two congratulatory calls to Tina followed, including the next Sunday when the Vikings signed Ham to the 90-man roster.
“When he got out of college, I thought he was done,” Tina said. “He was like, ‘No, Mom, I’m not done. I’m going to the NFL.’ I was like, oh wow, I guess that means more praying.”
She has remained Ham’s rock through unsettled NFL life.
“Mom wouldn’t have been any different had C.J. been a musician,” said Frank Huie, C.J.’s football coach and gym teacher at Denfeld. “Mom was there for the long haul for everything.”
Rise of an NFL fullback
Fighting runs in the Ham family.
Ham’s grandfather and uncle were amateur boxers; Cortez Sr. practiced karate. Around the sixth grade, C.J. was drawn to football, where he settled when he “stopped growing” and his basketball dreams faded.
He was a multi-position star for Denfeld, once intercepting two screen passes as a defensive tackle in a win against Grand Rapids. His athletic range flashed as the star running back, housing a 70-yarder against Detroit Lakes (the year after Adam Thielen graduated).
But no college outside Division II Augustana, according to Huie, wanted Ham in the backfield. After he rushed for a team-high 774 yards as a college redshirt junior, four NFL teams — including the Vikings, Broncos and Cowboys — requested Ham’s film be sent weekly.
Scouts told Augustana head coach Jerry Olszewski his star runner could only make it as an NFL fullback, but the league’s interest was minimal.
“To be honest, Division II level and great numbers, they’re skeptical about the level of competition you’d faced, and I understand,” Olszewski said. “The big thing was getting the opportunity to show his skills and willing to compete against other [NFL-caliber] guys.”
Ham needed just the one tryout. He parlayed three Vikings practices into what is now a four-year-and-counting NFL career.
“He finally got a chance to see those people in person,” Huie said. “You can’t help but fall in love with the guy. He’s an infectious personality and can do anything you ask him to do.”
Ham is the ideal modern NFL fullback, according to former Vikings fullback Jerome Felton, a one-time Pro Bowl selection. For what Ham surrenders in size to Felton, he’s “more versatile.”
He’s played every position for the Vikings except “offensive line and quarterback,” said running backs coach Kennedy Polamalu.
Knowing how to move from the backfield is big, too.
“That’s why I hate watching tight ends play fullback,” Felton said. “As a running back, you kind of know how to set the blocks up. You know how to insert. You know how to wind your way around and still have thump when you get there.”
‘Strongest person in the world’
Ham delivered a little extra during the Vikings’ Dec. 8 victory over the Lions. He left the locker room early at halftime to join his family on the field for an emotional ceremony honoring Tina as part of the NFL’s “My Cause, My Cleats” weekend.
A tribute video detailed Tina’s perseverance to an announced 66,776 at U.S. Bank Stadium.
“It really sunk in, all that she’s really been through this past year,” Ham said, “the strength she’s shown.”
A portrait of Tina, the words “You are the strongest person in the world” and a purple ribbon for the National Pancreatic Cancer Foundation were painted on Ham’s cleats.
“I’m a proud mama,” Tina said. “Very proud to know that throughout the rest of his life, he’s going to use prayer in his walk with the Lord. I don’t have to worry that once I’m gone, I know that the Lord is going to be on his side.”
But Ham has not missed a practice, or a phone call or FaceTime with Mom. Polamalu checks in throughout the week, because Ham’s focus somehow rarely wavers.
As Ham has grown into an indispensable part of the Vikings offense, there’s no NFL defender who can shake a foundation formed by the strongest person he’s ever known.
“I can go through anything if she can go through this,” Ham said. “Fight this and have a good attitude about it. There’s not much in my life that is going to make me feel that way. The way that she fights, which is going to make me better in all aspects of life. She’s never given up, so I’m never going to give up.”