The party could wait. First, Mama C had some coaching to do. Around her, there was the pleasant roar of football players laughing, as if her home had turned into a giant end zone celebration. There were quarterbacks in the living room watching basketball. There were receivers on the pool deck watching football. There were players in the rec room shooting billiards. Carol Canales didn't seem to hear any of it. Her eyebrows had narrowed, and her voice was stern, and her pointing finger was extended. She was in the middle of a timeout with USF quarterback B.J. Daniels, chastising him about being late for dinner, and her voice sounded something like an offensive coordinator's, if that offensive coordinator happened to be your mother. "If I don't get a win on Saturday, I will be your worst nightmare," Carol said. "Now, how much film did you watch today?"
"A lot," Daniels said, grinning shyly. "A lot."
"And how do you define 'a lot'?" Carol asked, her voice more demanding.
"A lot," Daniels repeated. "Last night and tonight. Don't worry; we'll get it done."
"Okay," Carol said. "The food is over there. But from now on, you need to be on time. That's a quirk of mine."
With that, Daniels moved away, the look on his face resembling that of a quarterback who had just been scolded for calling the wrong play. Which, in a way, he had been.
Welcome to Casa Canales, the home of Mama C. Canales, 51, is the wife of USF offensive coordinator Mike Canales, but if you spend some time at their house, it isn't hard to figure out who is really in charge.
The athletes in the house may be Canales' players, but they're Mama C's "peeps." The quarterbacks are her "step-peeps." The receivers are her "real peeps." And every now and then, a player like receiver A.J. Love will become one of her "special peeps."
There is a warmth there, a bond. The players have come to the Canales home for dinner, but to tell the truth, they seemed more intent on brushing past their coach to get to Carol, to embrace her, to make her smile.
From the look on her face, it isn't hard.
For a few minutes, as the receivers huddle around her with warmth and concern, Carol Canales can think about something other than the disease inside of her.
• • •
Even the sound of it — multiple sclerosis — is forboding. As diseases go, it is vicious, merciless and, worst of all, incurable.
Carol Canales wants you to know all of this. She talks about the pain, about the problems, about her prognosis. She talks about the numbness in her legs, about the constant ringing in her ears, about her left eye that doesn't always synchronize with her right.
It is important to her, she said, to bring awareness to MS. And because she is Mama C, it has become important to her players. When USF plays Miami on Saturday, the Bulls will wear orange tape as a tribute to her.
"Whether it's MS or any other disease," Carol said, "there are so many people who will have some symptoms and ignore them until it gets to the point where their options for being treated are limited."
As for her, the disease came quickly. One night, she went to bed as a strong, healthy woman. When she woke the next morning, she was not.
It was May 8, 2008, at 6:32 in the morning. Some things a person does not forget. The vice president of a pharmaceutical company, Carol was in Raleigh, N.C., on business. She woke with that sharp, piercing ring in her ears. Her head ached as if it were being crushed. Maybe she had overdone her running, she thought. Maybe she hadn't eaten properly.
She flew home, and although she had never been airsick in all her years of travel, she vomited all the way. She felt awful. Maybe she had an ear infection, she thought. Maybe she needed an antibiotic.
Instead, her doctor examined her, and that night, he called her to say he thought she was on the verge of a stroke. She should get to the emergency room. Mike was in Tallahassee recruiting, so USF head coach Jim Leavitt and his wife, Jody, drove to the Canales home and took her, calling Mike and telling him to come home and meet them at the hospital.
"It was the first time I was ever scared in my life," Mike said.
As it turned out, it wasn't a stroke, though her MRI showed four lesions on her brain. That began a six-month odyssey to discover what was wrong with her. She estimates she saw 40 doctors. Maybe it was lupus. Or lyme disease. Or mercury poisoning. Maybe it was cardiovascular. Maybe, someone said, it might be MS.
"No," Canales' neurologist assured her. "It isn't MS."
Eventually, her symptoms worsened. Her legs became so numb they seemed to belong to someone else. She had double vision. Her left eye stopped aligning with her right. She began to forget things.
"I was scared," Carol said. "I was in search of an answer for what had taken over my body."
In September 2008, 14 months ago, her doctor finally discovered the truth. She had MS after all.
"The worst case is that I end up in a wheelchair and unable to care for myself," Carol said matter-of-factly. "The best case is that the lesions don't multiply and they don't come down on my spine. I hope the injections (three a week) and the vitamins (32 a day) will slow the progression. Ideally, that's what will happen."
She pauses. She smiles.
"I never thought (God) would take me, because I have 500 pair of shoes, and I don't think he has the closet space."
• • •
It took Mike and Carol Canales a long time to discover they were perfect for each other.
He had been married twice. She had, too. He was going through a divorce, and she wasn't looking to get remarried.
Then, on a night in Raleigh in April 2001, they happened to be at the 42nd Street Oyster Bar. He was in his first season at North Carolina State, living in a sparse apartment with a borrowed bed and a broken sofa. She was with two friends. Eventually, Canales walked across the room … and asked one of Carol's friends to dance.
"I wore glasses then, and I didn't have them on," he said.
Eventually, however, Mike came back, and this time, he audibled. Carol asked if he liked football. "A little," he said, grinning.
They discovered they liked each other. He thought she was gorgeous. She thought he was sexy. Their first date was in Jacksonville because he was on a recruiting trip. They saw A Knight's Tale. They talked about life and what they wanted from it.
So what did Carol see in Mike?
"Free football tickets are nice," she said, laughing.
"We had a No. 1 draft choice in Philip Rivers," he said, laughing along. "What's not to like?"
In July 2005, they married. They both played golf. They both liked movies. Most of all, they liked being together. They seemed to fit. They still do.
"I told her, 'You're not alone,' " Mike said. " Regardless of what happens, we're in this together. We're going to find a cure. We're going to find a way to battle this thing.' "
Mike admits it took awhile before the gravity of the disease hit him. It came when he was watching former talk show host Montel Williams talk about his MS on Oprah Winfrey's show.
"When they did it, I broke down and cried," Mike said. "I could never grasp what the doctors were saying to me. I was like, 'She's healthy. How could she be in a wheelchair and not able to walk in a week?' I couldn't understand it.
"At that point, I realized what my wife had, and I could do nothing to help. I know how to get third and 3. I know how to fix things and make things right. But here is my wife, and I couldn't protect her, and I couldn't help her. I didn't know how to make it better."
The players help. On the day she was finally diagnosed, for instance, USF was in Raleigh to play N.C. State. It was the town where they met, the school where Canales once worked, the place where the symptoms first occurred.
As word spread through the team about Mama C, the players began to show up. Eventually, there were eight or nine of them in the hotel room.
"I've never seen 18- and 19-year-old kids cry," said Mike, 48. "I told the players, and they all wanted to come with me. 'Coach, we want to see Mama C right now.' That's when you know that you've touched kids' lives."
The next day, with "Mama C" written on their gloves, the Bulls beat N.C. State 41-10.
It is when Carol talked about the players, her players, that her voice finally cracked.
"They make me proud," she said. "I've been around a lot of young kids in the last eight seasons, but none like these. … I'll be at their weddings. A couple of them are almost in my will."
And so she struggles on. Some days are better than others. The ringing in her ears is constant, but her legs have improved enough that she can run again. She believes she is on the right treatment. Whatever tomorrow holds, she said, she is ready for it.
First, though, she has a little coaching to do.
For goodness' sake, who else is going to make sure the players show up on time?