Vederian Lowe’s wife, Haylee, was caring for their two children when his younger brother, Vydalis, got on the wrong city bus.
Lowe, the former Illini offensive tackle and Vikings sixth-round pick, was on campus at the University of Illinois preparing for fall camp. He’d just been granted full guardianship of Vydalis that summer, a couple years after their mother passed away. Now he had to ask his coaches to leave before team meetings to get Vydalis to his first day of freshman year at a new high school.
“That’s the part where it’s like, ‘I’m a dad to my brother and got my own kids,’ ” Haylee Lowe said, “and no guy has ever had to worry about that at the same time of being in football practice.”
But the driver on route 9A — Vydalis was supposed to be on route 9B — wouldn’t let the 14-year-old student off the bus and insisted on eventually getting him to school. Lowe pinballed between home, where he tried to meet Vydalis, and campus with his good intentions.
“Going back to the stadium, I was sweating right before practice,” Vederian Lowe said.
Lowe juggled more than the average college football player while tying the Illini program record with 52 starts — most at left tackle — over five seasons at Illinois. He says handling fatherhood, the unexpected loss of his mother, Veneka Cockrell, and taking in his younger brother didn’t extinguish his NFL dreams, but instead galvanized his will to reach them.
“He’s probably motivated beyond what the normal rookie coming in is,” Illini head coach Bret Bielema said. “This young man is already feeding two children and his brother and has others counting on him.”
‘A rollercoaster of emotions’
Vederian and Vydalis are half-brothers through their mother, Veneka, who died unexpectedly in July 2019 because of an enlarged heart and liver failure. She raised them in Rockford, Ill., where Vederian — as a towering freshman — quickly became a standout offensive lineman at Auburn High School.
That was the dream his grandfather, Jerry Lowe, had since ushering Vederian to football camps as a 9-year-old tyke.
“He’s my male figure, that’s my role model,” Vederian Lowe said. “He’s the foundation of who I am as a man today. He started it off for me, really got me interested in football.”
Lowe started two years at right guard and two years at right tackle in Rockford, becoming a three-star recruit who committed to Illinois during one of the school’s summer camps for high school prospects.
He headed to Champaign, Ill., where he met Haylee — a fellow student — on social media. Long nights talking led to falling in love, and their first child, Kingston, before either could expect it.
“I had a rollercoaster of emotions,” Vederian Lowe said. “I just didn’t know how I was going to be able to do it. I had just turned 19 three or four months before I found out I was having a kid. I was a baby, man. But my wife, she sat me down — and that’s why she’s my soulmate and I love her to death — she was so confident in her words telling me I’d still be able to graduate, still be able to play football and that we’d raise this kid together.”
They meshed lives and schedules. Haylee worked from home, caring for Kingston with the help of her mother and Vederian’s grandfather while supporting the family financially. Vederian stepped in following daily communications classes and the physical toll of football.
“The one thing he loves more than football is being a dad,” Haylee Lowe said. “He’d come home after a game and be like, welp, it’s bath time. He wouldn’t go celebrate or party. He didn’t care about anything after practice or games other than that.”
A foundation was formed to handle an eventful 2021. They married in February. Haylee gave birth to their second son, Trey, in May. Two months later, Vederian was granted full guardianship of Vydalis, who had already lived with them for about a year.
Bringing Vydalis into their family was crucial for Vederian. Their grandmother was living with their mother, Veneka, whose passing turned Vydalis into a young caregiver to their grandmother who had suffered strokes.
“We’ll figure out how to do it, no questions asked,” said Haylee, who turns 22 this month. “We’re learning how to do it. We’re very, very young and we’ve only had three years of parenting. That’s the biggest struggle.”
Playing for more
Lowe’s family furthered a reputation of strong character, which included being an Illini team captain and serving on former head coach Lovie Smith’s leadership council — a group of trusted players whom Smith consulted on team matters.
The Vikings heard a lot about the 23-year-old Lowe’s maturity before scouts met him for the first time at the East-West Shrine Game, a college all-star game held in February outside Las Vegas. Intrigue about Lowe’s size — 6-5, 314 pounds — and durability was coupled with rave reviews about his character from coaches and trainers.
“He’s got enough athletic ability to function in a zone scheme, but also has the size and power to play downhill and move people off the line of scrimmage,” Vikings national scout Chisom Opara said. “He’s [also] a guy with an impressive background.”
“He knows what responsibility is all about,” Opara added, “and he’s going to hit the ground running and may not have some of the hiccups that some of the guys without that background may have.”
General Manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah, in his first draft atop the front office, saw and heard enough to take a late-round swing.
“You read the story and it’s incredible,” Adofo-Mensah said. “How does somebody overcome adversity on the field? Well, you can’t always observe that. But I know that somebody who has overcome adversity in life, I’m willing to bet on that person.”
When asked what makes his juggling act possible, Lowe says he owes it all to Haylee, whom he now wants to help pursue her passions just as she supported his. Making an NFL roster can be an uphill battle for any sixth-round draft pick, but Lowe’s motivation comes from multiple sources.
He’s also playing to provide stability for Vydalis, who changed schools three times in Rockford, attended a middle school and high school in Champaign, and will now be changing schools again in following his older brother to Minnesota.
“I want to get him into a rhythm with life. He’s been bouncing around for so long,” Lowe said. “I told my brother this is the last time you’re going to have to move. I’m going to make sure this is the last time you’re going to have to move.”