Eagles rookie JJ Arcega-Whiteside and his guardian angels

Eagles rookie wide receiver JJ Arcega-Whiteside has always had a supportive family, including his parents Valorie and Joaquin, his brother Keenan and his grandparents Lonnie and Walter Means. Courtesy Valorie Whiteside

PHILADELPHIA -- When the camera cut to Stanford Cardinal wide receiver JJ Arcega-Whiteside during the 2019 NFL draft, he was sitting on the couch hip-to-hip with his mother, Valorie, in their South Carolina home, friends and family all around them.

Valorie intended to burst off the couch and break into a celebratory dance when her boy was selected. But when the call came from the Philadelphia Eagles in the second round that Friday night in April, JJ unexpectedly broke down -- so his mom did, too.

"There's been a few times I've seen JJ cry. That was when my mom died, when I found out I had cancer, and one other time -- he had a little brother that passed during childbirth," Valorie said. "That's the three times in my life that I have seen him cry. So when he got emotional and cried, my happy celebration turned ... I just went from laughing and screaming to crying right there with him.

"It was a feeling of so many emotions all at once. How can you be happy and crying and ecstatic and nostalgic and all of these things all at the same time? That's what it was like, just a big kaleidoscope of emotions."

The son of two former professional basketball players, it was a moment that JJ, 23, seemed predestined for -- even if his sport of choice was a surprise. His gifts were obvious from a very early age. But there was no shortage of loss and heartache between the points of potential discovered and dream realized.

Fortunately for JJ, he had more than one guardian angel to help shepherd him through.

Born to play

Valorie, a three-time All-American at Appalachian State, knew what she believed to be two Spanish words when she went overseas to begin her career as a professional basketball player: "Hola" and "Comme ci, comme ça." Turns out the latter, meaning "so-so," isn't even Spanish, so she was down to one word. No worries, her teammates helped guide her in her new world.

She was up to about 40 or 50 Spanish words when she met Joaquin Arcega, a fellow pro ballplayer for a club in A Coruña, Spain. He didn't speak any English. But the attraction was clear, and the communication breakdowns led to laughter along the way.

They married and had a boy named Jose Joaquin in December 1996. JJ was born in Zaragoza, Spain, a city of more than half a million people that lies three hours west of Barcelona. Valorie returned to playing hoops eight months after JJ was born. She brought her son to work with her every day.

"I was the mother, so I kept him with me as opposed to him going with his dad," she explained.

For practices, she might set up a play pack for him a little ways from the court. On game days, he sat at the end of the bench, strapped into his stroller.

"He just sat and kicked his legs happily while watching the game," Valorie said. "JJ, it was like he had 11 aunts around him all the time. Whenever I was practicing or playing, there was always two or three other women on each side entertaining him, talking to him, taking care of him."

JJ was never a distraction for Valorie at work -- until one day when he unbuckled himself from the stroller and came charging out onto the court in her defense during a game in Santarém, Portugal.

"I saw my mom get elbowed [in the chest] and thought it was a cheap shot, and I ran out on the court," JJ said.

He yelled, "You hit my mommy!" Valorie added with a laugh. "He's always been protective of his mom."

JJ was a natural athlete himself. The first hint was when he skipped crawling and went right to walking as a baby, according to Valorie. She didn't think much of the dribbling and ballhandling skills JJ was picking up until she saw how he compared to other kids his age. Same with soccer. Whereas other children might score a goal or two in a game, JJ might score a dozen.

"His footwork with soccer [combined] with his handwork with basketball, it actually created a football player," she said.

Though Valorie referred to their time overseas as a "perfect life," her boy constantly by her side as her young family moved all over Europe -- from Spain to Portugal to Italy to France to Andorra -- she wanted JJ to experience the country upbringing she enjoyed as a child while giving him an opportunity to make the most of his athletic gifts, so they moved back to South Carolina when he was about 7 years old.

Learning from loss

It was then that JJ became close with a woman he described as his guardian angel: his grandmother Lonnie Means. "It was like JJ had two moms instead of a mom and a grandmom," said Valorie, who intentionally bought a house close to her mom in Roebuck, South Carolina. "They were just stuck together like glue."

JJ experienced grief from an early age. When he was 9, Valorie lost a baby during childbirth.

"JJ took that tough. Really, really tough," Valorie said. "He was excited and he wanted a sibling, and I don't know, it just really hurt him. But then Keenan [JJ's younger brother] came along and made everything brighter for all of us.

"He learned at an early age that we're not going to roll up in a big old ball and have a pity party when things don't go our way. We're going to find a way to go over the obstacle, go under it, go around it, something, but we're not going to get stuck in that."

The bond between JJ and his grandmom was strengthened after Valorie was diagnosed with breast cancer when JJ was a high school freshman. Means helped Joaquin and JJ with looking after Keenan during Valorie's fight with cancer, which extended through all of JJ's high school years. Valorie is now cancer-free.

Every morning, JJ and Keenan would go to their grandmom's house, where a "big old country breakfast" awaited, complete with grits, bacon, sausage and hot gravy. "Even when she's not right down the road, she's always been there," JJ said.

When JJ left South Carolina to attend and play football at Stanford, Means would stay up late to watch his games. She had a tradition of calling JJ pregame to give him a last-minute pep talk.

Dealing with leg issues, she called him from the hospital this past September before Stanford's game against Oregon. JJ was in pregame prep and did not answer, so she and Valorie sent him a video message.

JJ received the message before kickoff and, as requested in the video, scored two touchdowns in a 38-31 Stanford win in overtime. Means unexpectedly died that day of congestive heart failure, hours after sending the video.

"That was very difficult," JJ said. "I didn't find out until after the game, and I got to score two touchdowns for her. So that was like -- I was like, 'Dang, Grandma, that would happen to us.'"

Football star and Condoleeza's 'first body of defense'

Valorie was convinced JJ was going to be a basketball player, like she and her husband had been. The sport was in his blood and then some. Two of his uncles, Fernando and Jose Arcega, also played professionally and represented Spain in the Olympics, sharing the same court as Michael Jordan.

JJ thrived in basketball and track in high school, but it was apparent football was where his greatness lay. He was named South Carolina's Gatorade Player of the Year as a senior after catching 108 balls for more than 1,800 yards with 20 touchdowns for Dorman High School.

One of his biggest influences was Carolina Panthers great Steve Smith Sr. The two connected at a football camp in North Carolina when JJ was in high school. Smith gave him "a bunch of advice and like 10 pairs of gloves, and I was instantly -- I was already a fan before, but he became my favorite then," he said. Those gloves are now "torn and beaten," as JJ wore them out. He remains in contact with Smith and tries to play with his competitive fire.

JJ excelled in the classroom as well. A National Honor Society member, he chose to attend Stanford, calling it "the best combination of academics and sports." Fluent in three languages (Spanish, Portuguese, English), he majored in international relations. Last summer, he scored an internship working with former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

"I like to say I was her first body of defense," JJ said with a smile. "Anybody who wanted to contact her, meet with her, they had to go through me first, which was cool, because I got to meet some extraordinary people from around the world."

JJ hopes to open football camps in Spain to promote the sport and deliver the message that "it doesn't matter if you're Spanish, American, Brazilian, whatever, if you really want to play football, you can do it."

At 6-foot-2, 225 pounds, JJ came into his own as a senior at Stanford, tying a school record with 14 touchdowns while catching 63 balls for 1,059 yards, cementing his status as a high-draft pick (No. 57 overall).

"He's big. He's tall. He's athletic. Good speed. Good hands," Eagles coach Doug Pederson said. "All the things you see on film just kind of catch your eye."

Thanks in large part to his basketball background, JJ excels at 50-50 balls, adept at boxing out his opponent. He's expected to be featured in the Eagles' red zone packages his rookie season, giving quarterback Carson Wentz another big, athletic target along with tight ends Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert and receiver Alshon Jeffery.

A dream realized

With JJ playing college ball out west, Valorie couldn't be at every Stanford game. Prior to that, she had a near-perfect attendance record. Whether it was soccer, baseball, football or basketball, she was there for JJ from age 6 on up.

The one exception came in high school, when a double mastectomy to remove the cancer on a Wednesday prevented her from being at a Friday night game.

"I was supposed to be in for 30 days without going out, but that very next Friday I made them bundle me up, roll me into the field house, and from the press box I watched his game. I never missed another one until he went to Stanford," she said.

The return to the East Coast for JJ's professional career is a welcome development. Plans are already in the works for Valorie, Joaquin and the family -- a group as large as 60 people -- to come up from South Carolina to attend his pro games.

Neither of his parents knew much about football at the onset, but that didn't stop them from lending advice on what it takes to be a professional athlete. His dad speaks decent English (just as Valorie has become fluent in Spanish) and is a "football fanatic," according to JJ.

"I've probably got like five missed calls from them right now, checking in to see how the day went," JJ said after his first day of Eagles rookie minicamp. "They're always supportive of me and my brother [who plays AAU basketball], and me and my brother are always supportive of each other."

Though there were dozens of people packed into the living room on draft night, JJ said he forgot he was in the presence of others because he was so locked into his conversation with the Philly brass: "Dang, I'm going to be an Eagle."

When it set in that he had achieved his goal of becoming a professional football player, he began to cry before quickly becoming aware of his surroundings.

"My mom started crying, which made me want to cry even more, and then my dad started crying. I was like, 'Dang, guys, I'm trying not to cry, I'm trying to look tough on TV,' " he said, drawing laughter.

"At first, my whole thought was I was going to be doing the happy dance, tap dancing, because I want to be happy," Valorie said. "But when it happened and I saw how he became overwhelmed with emotion ...

"People say, 'You must be so proud.' No. 1, I don't believe in that. For me, pride is one of the seven deadly sins. So I wouldn't use pride as a word because I'm not like, 'Ooh, wow, look at my son.' No. What I am is extremely happy and content for him because I know what he's done all of his life. I know what he has put in, how he's worked, how he's stayed diligent, how he's sacrificed all of his life for this moment, to become a professional football player. And it's so good to see someone actually make their dreams come true."