Everyone should have a cousin Steve.
Stephen Rayford was my first mentor, the first person who chose me and took me under their wing. At ten years old, Steve schooled me in the game of football as we watched Super Bowl XII between the Dallas Cowboys and the Denver Broncos in the winter of 1978. My folks had just bought a new color television in one of those huge wooden cabinets. I was only seven-and-a-half years old, but I was already hooked on both football and my pal Steve.
The seventh of nine children, I think it thrilled Steve to have someone look up to him. In his family, he was a little brother, but to me he was my “big” cousin and his attention and protection have made all the difference. Over the course of almost five decades, we have laughed together, learned together, caught whippings together. And every bit of it has been a joy.
I visited him, his wife Tonya, and his baby boy Justin in Houston this summer. “You know, Nick,” he told me while swigging on a beer, “travel is nice, but give me my backyard, my chair and my grill – and I’m on vacation.” Steve has transplanted the joie de vivre of his native New Orleans. He’s taken on the serious responsibilities of a professional educator, husband and father, while retaining the ebullient spirit of the Crescent City.
During my visit, he pulled out all the stops, cooking with his characteristic flair. No pedestrian hamburgers and hot dogs for Steve. No, ma’am. Top-shelf beef, tuna, and salmon steaks, lobster tails and fresh Brussel sprouts were the order of the day. Steve loves to cook and it was glorious to watch him in his element, grilling and telling stories as only he can do.
Steve carved a place for himself in his large family by becoming a master of entertainment and haver of the last word. Storytelling is his superpower. During a recent visit back home to New Orleans, he had us all in stiches with a childhood memory of learning how to eat boiled crabs while with my dad’s family down in Plaquemines Parish.
“Man, Nick, your daddy and his brothers had tables of crabs and shrimp! I had never seen anything like that. I was trying to eat a crab and I was struggling with it, and Wilfred came over to me and said, ‘Boy, you don’t know how to open that crab by yourself? Shoot! Nicky been eating crabs on her own since she was t’ree years old!’”
When Steve tells a story, he doesn’t just say the words; he captures the accents, the mood, the scene. He’s a natural-born comedian and it’s always a hilarious ride.
I thought of my cousin recently while watching the Kaepernick social justice protests unfold. Football has always been one of Steve’s passions. The NFL is a racial crucible at the moment, but for our family, Sundays in the fall have always been a time to gather around each other and to enjoy the foods we love best. And when Stephen visits New Orleans, we do just that. “I try to make it like a family reunion every time I come home,” he told me recently. “That’s what I want to be remembered for.”
I value my cousin Steve for even more than that. He was my escort on my high-school homecoming court and has always been one of my biggest cheerleaders. To feel seen as someone special, that was his gift to me. He was older, but he never bullied me. My opinion was important. I was important. Our bond is potent as only a cousin relationship can be: unburdened by sibling rivalry, bolstered by mutual respect and admiration, and sealed by a lifetime of growing up together.
Everyone should have a cousin Steve. And if you don’t have one, you should be one.