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Playing for Brady: Virginia running back PK Kier keeps his cousin's memory close

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Virginia running back PK Kier has a tattoo on his right arm that says “BRADY” in honor of his cousin, Brady, who died following a battle with leukemia.

Virginia running back PK Kier described his childhood home in Winchester as an “open house.”

His father, Pede, never hesitated to take in a neighbor in need. Whether it was one of his son’s high school teammates who needed a safe place to call home, or his nephew who was getting into trouble, his door was always open.

“My father really molded me into the man I am today,” Kier said. “Watching how open he was to helping people really allowed me to see how strong giving somebody help can be.”

Kier also was molded into the man he is on and off the field by a much younger family member. His cousin, Brayden, who everyone knew as Brady, was diagnosed with stage four leukemia and died when he was three. Their time together was short, but Kier said Brady still impacts his life every day.

“Brady was a ball of happiness. He was so young, but just watching him do what he did and always be happy made you happy,” Kier said. “The feeling you got when you were around him was just different. You could tell he was there for a reason, and I guess that was to bring everybody happiness.”

Kier remembers what felt like hundreds of family members gathered in an uncle’s backyard one Thanksgiving and everyone smiling and laughing as Brady danced. He’s often reminded of his cousin’s love of Katie Perry and his fascination with lawn mowers.

“He was doing all this stuff a normal kid would do. It was like he was sick but he didn’t know it,” Kier said. “Watching him fight and be so positive and bring joy to so many people was so inspiring to me.”

As a freshman at Virginia, Kier wore jersey No. 26. But when he got the chance to stand in front of his teammates last fall during the season’s first jersey selection ceremony, he knew he couldn’t pass on the opportunity to honor his cousin.

Brady would have been six last year, so, of course, he chose No. 6.

“That inspires me because when I look down at that number, it reminds me there is a kid who could be here growing up to be something major but he lost his life to cancer,” Kier said. “I’m going to do this for him and I’m going to give it my all every day.”

Kier didn’t explain to his teammates why he chose the number until Virginia Sports TV produced a segment, which began circulating on YouTube and Twitter the week of the Cavaliers’ home game against Pittsburgh. It still resonates with many of his teammates.

“PK is one of the strongest guys and hardest workers on the team,” UVa running back Lamont Atkins said. “To know what really motivates him is his love for his family, that motivates all of us.”

‘Brady Strong’

Brady’s parents, Ryan and Brooke Kier, took him to the doctor because of a persistent fever. He was diagnosed with leukemia on Dec. 20, only a few days after this third birthday.

“That’s when everything flipped, but it didn’t flip the happiness he still had living in him,” Kier said. “He was always doing something. If you saw him, you would never think he had cancer.”

Brady died on June 10, 2016. Kier was in the car with his mother, April, who was on the phone as they drove to Dick’s Sporting Goods to buy equipment for his senior season at Millbrook High School.

“I looked at my mom’s face and knew something wasn’t right. I asked if he was gone, and she said yes,” Kier said. “Just trying to process it was the hardest thing. My biggest question was always why him? Now I think I know why. His purpose was to bring joy to thousands of people and bring awareness to childhood cancer.”

Watching a family member so young go through something so life altering would shake anyone’s foundation, but Kier found that in football, he not only had an outlet for his pain and anger, he had a platform to celebrate Brady’s life and spread awareness of childhood cancer.

The Millbrook football team dedicated Kier’s senior season to Brady. Before every game, he scrawled his cousin’s name on his wrist and ankle tape. He hosted walk-a-thons, “Brady Strong” T-shirts were printed and a golf event was held to raise funds in his honor.

“PK wanted to play hard and be an example for him,” Millbrook football coach Josh Haymore said. “He always believed he was going to pull through, and he wanted to show him how he was supposed to work, how he was supped to play and how to be a teammate.”

Unite and fight

Haymore was a long snapper on James Madison University’s 2004 FCS national championship team, and he was an assistant coach at his alma mater for five years. He first heard about Kier from former JMU running backs coach Ulrick Edmonds, who saw the young back in camp several years in a row and each time came away impressed.

“Even when he was young, he was an athlete and a big kid who could move side to side,” Haymore said. “He started for me as a freshman, but I wish I would have given him more carries. I didn’t realize what I had until a year later when, heading into his sophomore year, he’s in the weight room benching 275 pounds and squatting over 400.”

Whether it was a playoff game his junior year against Liberty Christian Academy, where Kier ran through a defense full of Division I prospects and scored almost every time he touched the ball, or a long touchdown run out of a wildcat set his freshman year, Kier has no shortage of high school highlights. He did, after all, graduate from Millbrook as its all-time leader in rushing yards (3,582), rushing touchdowns (43) and points (300).

But ask Haymore what he most remembers about Kier and he’ll say it’s how he practiced.

“How hard he went all the time was amazing. When it was time to go, he would run people over and make people miss,” Haymore said. “On the field, because he practiced so hard, everybody knew that’s how you’re supposed to practice. People knew you had to play fast with him and play fast against him or you’re going to get hurt.”

Kier said he has Brady to thank for that.

“He became my inspiration to go hard every day because what he was going through was way different than what I was going through,” Kier said. “So, any time I thought something was hard, I would think that every day he’s fighting for his life and I’m just fighting to catch my breath.”

Kier has the iconic cancer ribbon tattooed on the inside of each bicep. Above the ribbon on the right is Brady’s name in all capital letters. On the left, the word strong in the same flowing, handwritten type.

He still wears a brightly colored rubber bracelet, which reads “Brady strong to the core. Unite and fight 4 more than 4.” This year, he added one that says Silky Strong in honor of Scott Jackson, who Kier said is like an uncle to him and was recently diagnosed with cancer.

“To see them fight every day, that just tells me I have to fight, too,” Kier said. “They can’t afford to have a bad day, so neither can I.”

More than a number

When Mendenhall and his staff landed in Charlottesville before the 2016 season, Kier was verbally committed to JMU.

He heard plenty of stories about Haymore’s days as a Duke, and made trips to Harrisonburg with his sisters for basketball camps and state tournament games. JMU began recruiting him when he was in middle school, and Kier committed when he was a sophomore.

Virginia’s staff quickly made it clear, though, that flipping him was very high on its priority list.

“I was honest with JMU and said if Virginia offers, you guys can’t beat that,” Haymore said. “They understood and even though they were banking on him, they were glad to know they were at least onto the right kind of guy.”

Over the next several weeks, several UVa coaches made the two-hour trip from Charlottesville to Winchester, including wide receivers coach Marques Hagans and co-defensive coordinator Kelly Poppinga. Running backs coach Mark Atuaia watched Kier compete in the wrestling room in unorthodox mat drills similar to the “gator rolls” the Cavaliers do in practice. Former defensive assistant Ruffin McNeill even made an appearance at Millbrook.

“You’re looking at a guy who was in-state, fit academically, wanted to be at UVa and was a good player,” Poppinga said. “He was a no-brainer for us, in my opinion.”

Kier got the news of his scholarship offer from UVa during a Skype conversation with Mendenhall, and he committed on June 17, 2016 – just seven days after Brady’s death.

“They felt like family right away, and committing to Virginia was the best decision of my life,” Kier said. “From the academics to the football program, there’s nothing that beats it.”

Kier knew he’d arrived at the correct decision during Brady’s celebration of life ceremony. That’s where he met former Virginia quarterback Matt Johns, who, through the Cavaliers’ “Thursday’s Heroes” program, befriended another young cancer patient named Caleb Gibson. Brady and Caleb grew close while receiving treatment at the University of Virginia Children’s Hospital.

Each Thursday during the season, the Cavaliers host a child with special needs or one battling illness. Sometimes a superhero makes an appearance, and the kids are plied with gifts and made to feel like a part of the team. Understandably, it hits home for Kier, who hasn’t had a chance to don a superhero costume yet but said it isn’t out of the question.

“It doesn’t have to be an athlete. Anybody can be somebody’s hero,” Kier said. “Even the smallest things can have a huge impact on someone’s life.”

This season, Kier is the favorite among a long list of running backs competing to replace leading rusher Jordan Ellis. He has only carried the ball 32 times in his UVa career, but Mendenhall isn’t concerned about his lack of experience.

“PK knows who he is and who and what he’s playing for,” Mendenhall said. “He doesn’t say much, but he just does things the right way. He works relentlessly and never gives up, and that’s important in life, much more so than on the football field.”

In high school, Kier wore No. 1 – the jersey usually reserved for the most respected player on the team. People have asked if he got the chance would he be tempted to switch? His response is always the same. Not a chance.

“It’s more than a number to me,” Kier said. “I’ll be No. 6 for the rest of my career.”

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