‘Ella Strong’: How the Saints rallied around the death of the sister of top-pick Bresee during draft

METAIRIE, La. — New Orleans Saints rookie defensive tackle Bryan Bresee and his family sat on their couch in Maryland on the first night of the NFL draft last month.

Almost everyone in the room sported a pink sweatshirt with the words on “Ella Strong.”

Across the country in California, former Notre Dame defensive end Isaiah Foskey and his childhood friend Gunnar Rask waited out the first round with Foskey’s friends and family, some of whom had flown in from New York in anticipation of his selection in the draft.

It would become an emotional 24 hours for both players.

Bresee came off the board first when the Saints took him with the 29th pick in the first round. But as Foskey waited to hear his name called, Bresee was doing a round of media interviews, explaining the significance behind the sweatshirts, which had been worn to honor his late sister, Ella — who died of brain cancer last September at age 15.

“I’ve gone through a lot the past year,” he said on draft night. “Illnesses, the loss of my little sister, a lot of things that make you grow up very quickly. Just a lot of things that mature you pretty fast, a lot of young people don’t grow through them and shouldn’t have to. That’s definitely something that’s made me more mature.”

His baby sister had been one of his biggest supporters and inspiration behind his NFL dream, and over the past year, “Ella Strong” had become a rallying cry for the Bresee family, resonating throughout the college football world.

A picture of the big screen at the NFL draft in Kansas City, Missouri, shows Bryan Bresee hugging his family in their

Waves of support came from not only Clemson, where Bresee played, but other schools as well.

“Just all the support that we’ve gotten all around football in general, all the college teams that have reached out during the time, it’s just been a tremendous amount of support from everyone,” Bresee said. “[My family] is super appreciative of it.”

Foskey, on the other hand, had hoped for a shot at being a Day 1 draftee, and he had particularly wanted to end up in New Orleans with a team he already felt comfortable with after some positive pre-draft visits.

But when that didn’t happen, Foskey and Rask said their goodbyes. Rask promised to return for Day 2 despite the fading health of his grandfather, who used to watch their football games when the pair played together at De La Salle High School in California, but when the second round began, Rask wasn’t there. His grandfather, who wanted to hold on until he saw Foskey get drafted, was getting worse. Rask was by his side at the hospital and told Foskey not to come.

As Foskey got a call from the Saints that they were going to select him with the 40th pick, cameras caught a glimpse of New Orleans’ draft room that featured a big sign that read “Ella Strong.”

Bresee had gotten a heads up about the Saints’ plan to put up the sign, but seeing it showed him that his sister’s memory would live on through the next phase of his career. The moment was supposed to be Foskey’s, but it was a spotlight that both men will relish for the rest of their lives.

“They sent me a picture that they were going to put it up for draft night,” Bresee said. “It was really, really, just cool. My family all got to see it and all my neighbors, everyone. It was just a really cool moment.”

The shots of the draft room probably barely entered Foskey’s mind. Foskey was all business for the first part of the night, but once the moment past, he left almost immediately from his own draft party and drove to the hospital to be with Rask and his grandfather in his final hours.

“Watching the screen of all the people getting picked before me, I was thinking about being drafted, in that moment,” Foskey recalled at Saints rookie minicamp last week. “But then right when I got drafted, and that celebration, my mind went straight to Gunnar and his grandpa. And that’s when I just drove straight there.

“It just felt like it was just the right thing to do. I didn’t expect anyone to really know.”

While Bresee and Foskey’s stories showed their character, it likely didn’t surprise any of the Saints staff who scouted them. Maturity and leadership were two characteristics the Saints were looking for.

Foskey, who had been eager to meet and work alongside Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan, already impressed him after former NFL player Justin Tuck, who also went to Notre Dame, connected them over texts.

“These Notre Dame guys, we’ve had some good ones,” Jordan said. “Manti Te’o was a great guy. So I know he’s going to be a phenomenal presence in the locker room just off that.”

While the Saints may have had the luxury of bringing the unit along slowly in the past, that’s not the case this season after a large turnover of both players and coaches in the room. Both rookies will likely be leaned on to play a big role this year, and they seem eager to be apart of “all that new stuff that comes along with it.”

“I can’t wait for everyone to be in the locker room, just because I’m a locker-room type of guy. I try to get into brotherhood, the whole locker room,” Foskey said. “I feel like that’s what the Saints try to embody, and that’s what I wanted to be a part of.”

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How the Saints united in support following the passing of Bresee’s sister, Ella Strong, during the draft.

New Orleans Saints rookie defensive tackle Bryan Bresee and former Notre Dame defensive end Isaiah Foskey recently revealed how their NFL draft experiences were shaped by the memory of Bresee’s late sister, Ella, who died of brain cancer last September at age 15. As the Saints took Bresee with the 29th pick in the first round, he explained the significance behind the “Ella Strong” sweatshirts worn by his family and friends. After Foskey was selected with the 40th pick in the second round of the NFL draft, cameras caught a glimpse of New Orleans’ draft room featuring a big sign that read “Ella Strong”.

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