CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Just above the orange lettering that spells "Illinois" on Vederian Lowe's blue, long-sleeve shirt is a photo printed on a silver dog tag that hangs around his neck.
Lowe believes it's the best place to keep a reminder of his mother, Veneka Cockrell, who died July 16 — less than a month before the Illinois football team began its summer training camp. She's his motivation to do well in school and continue his pursuit of a college degree, something Cockrell longed to see her son, a 6-foot-6, 320-pound junior on the Illinois football team, achieve.
After his mother's death, Lowe struggled to check back into football mode on the cusp of his junior season as the team's starting left tackle. In the midst of a sadness that was overtaking Lowe, there was extra motivation: In June, Lowe's now-fiancée Haylee Luttrell gave birth to their first son, Kingston.
“When I look at my son, I’m never sad," Lowe said this week. "When I think about my mom and I look at my son, it brings a smile to my face and makes everything better."
Having a family has changed Lowe's perspective. Those tough days in training camp suddenly came with an added reason to keep pushing forward in hopes of getting to the NFL and providing a better life for his family.
"Between the time I met him last year and the time we found out we were pregnant and he lost his mom, I’ve seen him change so much into a better man," Luttrell said. "He’s focused more on the field and off the field. It’s been amazing seeing what he’s able to accomplish."
Lowe said he remembers one day in particular this past training camp. He woke up with a headache, and as he sat under the giant tent at the Campus Park and Rec Field alongside linemen Alex Palczewski and Kendrick Green, admitted he was struggling to find the necessary push.
Then he thought about Luttrell and Kingston and by the time team drills rolled around in the second part of practice, Lowe was all-in again.
“Before he had other responsibilities, other obligations, he showed up every day," Illinois coach Lovie Smith said. "You know what you’re going to get out of him. Just a great guy to have in your program, on the team, a great teammate, all of that. He’s an outstanding father. I can talk about him an awful lot. I believe in him. He’s a good football player."
Lowe admitted he was "lackadaisical" at times early in his career, and was thrown into the fire almost immediately. He started seven games as a freshman against bigger, more seasoned Big Ten opponents. In fact, there are times that Lowe sees film of himself from that time and wonders why he was out there.
That version of Lowe is in the past. He's dialed in and has the ambition to better his family.
“Usually when I wouldn’t have anything to keep me going and I’m going to practice, everybody has those days where it’s just like, man, I don’t know if I have the will to go today. I’m really tired," Lowe said. "I think about my family and the position I want to put them in. That gives me the extra strength to keep pushing, to get through practice, dominate practice and be coachable."
Lowe said he wasn't prepared for fatherhood when they found out Luttrell was pregnant. He was 19 years old and focused on college football and finding a path to the NFL. He said it was Luttrell who has made it possible for him to keep that focus and continue to follow his dream.
“She’s my rock. She’s my backbone," Lowe said. "I couldn’t do this without her."
Luttrell said she remembers one night in particular that embodied Lowe's dedication to his family. She says he had to work out on a Saturday but stayed up all night with Kingston the night before.
"He didn't get any sleep," Luttrell recalled.
Lowe left the house Saturday morning and turned his focus to football. After the workout, he had to get formula from the store and returned home to watch Kingston so Luttrell could get extra rest. There was no break.
“Whenever there are nights — and my baby is usually a really good sleeper — and (Kingston) can’t sleep and (Lowe is over here like, ‘Hand him to me,’" Luttrell said. "Then he gets up at 5:45 in the morning right after that, goes all day with school, then has meetings at night, and he comes home and he’s still a dad.
"It’s amazing everything that’s on his shoulders, but he doesn’t complain. He doesn’t sit here and go, ‘This is why I didn’t turn my homework in,’ or, ‘This is why I wasn’t doing good on the field.’ He does everything he needs to do."
Cockrell never met Kingston, but Lowe was able to share the news of Luttrell's pregnancy with his mother. She's always nearby in his heart. He said he remembers the patience and calm demeanor that Cockrell had with her two sons, and draws from those memories in his experiences as a father.
She prepared him for this.
“I feel like I’m a natural-born father," he said. "It’s easy. I love every second of it. I can do that in my sleep. I can be a father in my sleep."