Nomiki Vavlas slowly makes her way along the bleachers at Tarpon Springs High School's football stadium.
When she reaches her usual spot, a few rows up in front of the cheerleaders, she folds up her walker and settles in, her eyes bright with excitement, for yet another night of sitting just beyond the gridiron.
"I just love them all," Vavlas, 43, said of Tarpon's football players. "Some of these boys I've driven to and from practice and games since they were really young. They come to my house. I just really feel like they are family, and their futures are so bright!"
One player stands out. It's her son, Kosta Vavlas, a senior middle linebacker. He hears his mother's words about bright futures and overcoming adversity all the time.
While he internalizes her words, simply witnessing her daily journey is what gives him the most strength. In 1999, Nomiki Vavlas' vision became blurred and she had some body pains. She went to a doctor. She was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
"Whenever I'm going through something, I stop and I hear my mom's voice," said Kosta Vavlas, 17. " 'Keep your head up. Not even the sky is the limit. You can do anything. Continue to work hard.' … Those words make me strong."
Kosta was 7 years old when his mother was diagnosed. His brother, Bobby, was 9.
"I was just relieved that I knew what it was," Nomiki Vavlas said. "But I knew I wasn't going to give up. I had a great husband and sons to raise. I accepted it. I took it. I wear it. I carry it. I feel great."
Her sons became her crutches. She used their shoulders to help her get around. Many times in pain, Nomiki Vavlas would drive them and their friends to play football or to fight paintball wars at a local arcade.
"I've never missed a football game and never stopped the boys from doing sports," she said. "Just because I have MS, it doesn't mean they have to stop for me. They have a life ahead of them."
Nomiki and her husband, Michael Vavlas, met in Kalymnos, Greece. She moved to Tarpon Springs, he soon followed and they were later married.
Their sons are first-generation Americans. The Vavlases now have a successful bridge-painting business. The company just recently completed painting the Sunshine Skyway.
Bobby Vavlas, Tarpon Springs' leading receiver last season, is now a 19-year-old freshman at Elmhurst College in Elmhurst, Ill. He still plays football. Kosta is now the only child at home.
"I'm so proud of him because he stays with his mom," said Michael Vavlas, 45, who came to the United States when he was 21 years old. "A lot of times, I am out of town, and he's there to help. As the kids grew up, they saw Mom suffering, but this makes them more strong and more quality boys."
Like his mother, Kosta has a bright outlook on life. Like his mother, he shuttles friends home from football practice. When the National Honor Society student isn't at practice, he's usually at home, making sure that his mother is okay.
"He's just a good guy," said Brodrick Lee, 17, a junior defensive lineman and one of the players Kosta drives home from practice. "He's a good person and friend."
George Kotis, head football coach, said Kosta Vavlas is the kind of player any coach would want.
"He's truly caring about others. At the same time, he's a beast on the field," Kotis said. "He handles the whole life scenario with great maturity."
Brother Bobby calls him a "guardian angel."
"He's straightforward," Bobby said in a phone interview from Elmhurst. "He goes to church. He never curses and never, ever touches drugs."
Kosta said he's just doing the things that his mother taught him.
But the essence of Kosta Vavlas, who stands 6 feet tall and weighs 235 pounds, is his gentle spirit. Named this year's Mr. Sponger during homecoming, Kosta says it's a spirit that comes from never wanting to disappoint his parents.
"I'm very blessed to have the mom and dad I have," Kosta said. "They had nothing. I want them to see that hard work pays off. I take nothing for granted."
Demorris A. Lee can be reached at (727) 445-4174 or [email protected]