As 600 people prepared to gather at the Palmetto Club in FishHawk Ranch last fall to celebrate Leon Brockmeier's life and mourn his surprising death, his wife wondered if it could be possible.
Melanie Brockmeier thought it could be stress. After all, her 33-year-old husband had died in her arms days before. She had lost her best friend and now faced the challenge of raising their two sons without him.
But she needed to be sure.
Leon, a down-to-earth, life-of-the party guy, wouldn't want a sad and somber ceremony. The family and friends who would join her in a few hours really would celebrate the humility and kindness that made him more than a former Northwestern standout who helped the Wildcats win the 2000 Big Ten title.
They would come to salute how their friend fell in love with Melanie the first time he saw her, how he grew into a commercial real estate consultant and how he adored Brodie and Carson.
So before she took one sip of wine, Melanie had to know.
The first test came back positive. So did the second. And the third.
They hadn't planned it. They weren't trying.
But yes, Melanie was pregnant.
"How in the world am I going to not only go on without him but have another child? That was my first response," she explained recently. "When I was finally able to wrap my mind around what was going on, it became such an incredible blessing. I have one more piece of him."
Meet Noah Leon Brockmeier, a 6-pound, 12-ounce miracle born April 30 already strong enough to help a family cope with grief.
He didn't even wait until Mother's Day to give Melanie a gift. Just the other night, as Melanie held Noah before going to sleep, she began sobbing, missing Leon, and Noah opened his eyes and grabbed her finger.
"I really believe in my heart that God gave me this baby to keep me going," Melanie said. "It's almost like I feel Leon's soul has been reborn with Noah. I've never been so excited to meet someone in my life."
Of course, meeting Noah's dad also rates high in Melanie's life. A Durant High graduate, Melanie went on to Florida State and was pursuing a master's degree in mental health counseling when she decided to go to the local TGI Fridays.
Leon, who grew up in Tallahassee, just happened to come home to see his parents after being released by the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Unlucky in love, Melanie didn't go to the restaurant looking to meet someone, but there was something about Leon. She gave him her number, something she rarely did when out on the town.
He saw something in her, too, telling his best friend that night he was going to marry the girl he just met.
"I guess he knew right away. It took me a little longer — three weeks," Melanie says with a laugh.
They married in 2006 and Melanie give birth to Brodie in 2007 and Carson in 2009. Through it all, Leon remained humble. He seldom shared with new friends that he once started 35 games for Northwestern between 1997 and 2001, but he occasionally told folks, "Google me. I used to be a big deal."
Google the name now and you find stories about the outpouring of support Melanie and the kids received. From Northwestern. From the Pittsburgh Steelers. From Tallahassee Lincoln, his old high school. From Plant High, where his brother Cyril is an assistant coach.
Clearly he touched people in a meaningful way, even if he didn't realize it, and his friendly manner made his death all the more difficult to deal with for his old teammates, his seven siblings, and his wife and kids.
Leon and Melanie joined friends to go scalloping in Apalachicola Bay on Labor Day weekend last year. He cut his foot on an anchor and ended up with an infection. That month, he went through minor surgery, spent a few days at the hospital and returned home.
He died suddenly on Sept. 22 at home while still under medical care.
Melanie insists there must be a silver lining to her nightmare.
"I think every day about how Leon would live this if the roles were reverse," Melanie said. "I know he would not cower in a corner or pull the sheets over his head and not face the day. He would come out a better and stronger person because of it, and that's what I try to do every day.
"It's not easy, God knows that."
Although he's gone, Melanie is convinced Leon's spirit remains with her every day. In fact, she will be featured on the season premier of the Learning Channel's Long Island Medium tonight.
She started watching the show after Leon's death, a tad cynical, but eventually became a fan and posted on Facebook that she would like to meet the medium, Theresa Caputo. By chance, a friend of her sister-in-law knew a producer.
She calls her appearance one of the many blessings she has received.
"I wouldn't necessarily say it brought me peace because I don't think I'll ever have peace with this, but it did bring me a lot of comfort and a lot of hope," Melanie said. "I know without a doubt he is with me. Every day I feel him. Some days I feel he's more present than when he was alive.
"It gives me a lot of comfort to know that there's life after death and I will be with him again."
The mourning continues for Melanie, Brodie and Carson. Some days are better than others, she says, but she doesn't shy away from talking to the kids about Leon. Carson, now 4, occasionally will ask if Daddy is coming home from the doctor. Brodie, who turns 6 in two weeks, is far more aware. He goes through bouts of sadness and anger, but he recently said, "Noah, I'm going to tell you so many stories about our dad."
Melanie is considering starting a foundation to help others who have experienced similar losses. She says her goal is to not only let people know who Leon was as a man but to inspire others and let them know something greater awaits.
She tells Leon every day that she won't let him down.
That's all I'm saying.