HARVEY -- For some, being labeled a “mama’s boy” could be considered demeaning, an insult, a way for others to cast aspersions on one’s manhood or independence.
However, for Royce LaFrance, it’s a badge of honor, one he wears proudly.
LaFrance, a New Orleans native and former Tulane defensive end, was one of 44 players invited to the Saints 3-day rookie minicamp for a tryout. Now, he’s one of a select few invited back for the team’s veteran minicamp in June.
For now, his NFL dream remains alive, though he’s come to grips with the fact that he’s at best a long shot to earn a spot on the 90-man roster and an invitation to training camp.
Still, what he knows is that he’s already overcome far greater odds to even play the game he loves.
The Harvey home of Larry and Celeste LaFrance has become a shrine to their oldest son Royce.
The house is littered with memorabilia, chronicling his days as a budding star at Helen Cox and then Tulane, where he became one of the Green Wave's all time sack leaders.
Now, he's inching closer to realizing his NFL dream. He knows it won't come easy, but then again, nothing ever has.
Born July 17, 1993, Royce Leroy Lafrance appeared to be a picture of health.
“I didn't know the signs to look for,” his mother Celeste LaFrance said. “I didn't know how serious it was.”
Unbeknownst to Royce’s parents, their son was an asthmatic.
“Babies go to the doctor every month for a normal checkup, but there was not a month that he would go for a regular checkup that they didn't keep him,” Celeste LaFrance said. “And I used to question, 'Why me? Why is my child going through all this?'
“I'm more at the hospital than at home.”
To ensure his wife could provide full-time care, Royce's father, an industrial mechanic, went to work offshore. The downside, it took him away for weeks, sometimes months at a time.
“During those times it was difficult, she would call and she would say he's hospitalized,” Larry LaFrance said.
Royce’s hospital stays weren’t an isolated event. His asthma was so severe doctors often kept him extended observations. His longest such stay lasted nearly a month. Royce’s mother remembers spending his first Thanksgiving and Christmas at the hospital.
“No matter how much somebody would say, ‘It's gonna be OK, he's gonna be OK.’ In a mother's eye you realize after so many hospital stays, this is real serious,” she said.
Meanwhile, Larry LaFrance was hard at work, securing the family’s financial wellbeing. From a distance, he was able to offer moral support by sharing his own experiences with the same disease.
“My baby sister was hospitalized with asthma so we went through it,” he said, recalling his own childhood. “I had been there before. So I was able to (get through) it and try to keep them calm and say, ‘It's gonna be alright.’ ”
And for a brief spell, it would be.
Finally, by his first birthday, Royce could enjoy his childhood. No more extended stays in the hospital. The child who could now walk and was never short on energy, proved to have an insatiable desire to explore, to play, to run.
But then a few “freak accidents” left 2-year-old Royce with several broken bones, one of which, a broken femur, ultimately forced doctors to confine him to a body cast from his midsection down to his ankle.
Because he was so young, the only memories Royce has from that time, are the stories his mother would share with him, when he was older. She would tell him how he wouldn’t sit still. How he repeatedly tried to rip his cast off. His mother’s only option: duct tape it together.
“I was so embarrassed when I took him to the hospital to finally have it removed,” she said. “All that gray tape holding it together. I just kept thinking, ‘What kind of mother do they think I am?’”
The frequency and unusual nature of his injuries aroused suspicion with child protective services. Despite his mother and father’s impassioned pleas, investigators poured through their lives, as well as those of their family members.
Social workers would show up at their house unannounced. Royce’s cousins were pulled out of school and questioned. The LaFrance’s neighbors were interviewed, all to determine if Royce’s parents had abused him.
“I think that's the most crying I ever did in my life because you never know if they're coming the next day because they made a decision it was child abuse,” Celeste LaFrance said. “My parenting, having my child was in somebody else's hand.”
The investigation dragged on for nearly six months until CPS abruptly dropped it after confirming Royce's injuries were due to brittle bones, a side effect of the steroids used to treat his asthma.
“It's horrifying to live through. I wouldn't wish that on anybody,” Celeste LaFrance said.
By age 5, Royce had outgrown his asthma. But not the bond he and his mother share.
“She's like a best friend somebody I can trust,” he said. “You know you can't trust everyone. Somebody I can trust to talk to about almost everything -- well, everything, basically. She's always there.”
By his junior year at Helen Cox, he'd become a three-sport standout. But football had become his true passion and his ticket to a college scholarship.
When scouts and coaches would visit, Royce’s first instinct was to call his mother, who would then rush over to the school.
As the prospects of playing college football began to morph from dreams to reality, Royce set his mind on a loftier goal.
“I just knew I could make it to NFL,” he said. “I used to tell my mom, ‘Mom, you know I’m going to play in the NFL one day.’”
To which she would respond: “No, that’s the wrong idea. Anything can happen because it’s also a dangerous sport. So you can’t depend on football because anything can happen in the blink of an eye. And then what do you have?
“Nothing,” she would tell him.
Then her greatest fears nearly became reality.
During routine outpatient wrist surgery prior to his senior season, Royce was severely burned by a hotplate used to sterilize surgical tools.
When he awoke from the surgery, doctors informed him of the unfortunate circumstances.
Unaware of serious nature of the burn, Royce’s first response: “So you burned my tattoo a little? OK.”
He had even planned to play a joke on his mother before finally realizing the agony she was experiencing.
“I was like, oh, what else is gonna happen to this boy,” she said she would often ask herself.
Luckily, he escaped permanent nerve damage. The scar, however, stretched from his forearm to above his elbow. For nearly a year, he wore a protective shield. The pain was excruciating, as doctors repeatedly scraped the burn to remove dead skin, which was part of his yearlong physical therapy regimen.
Nevertheless, he took it all in stride.
“It's normal to me,” he said. “I've never had anything given to me, so if I were to have something given me I'd be like where is this coming from there must be a catch behind this.”
ROLLING WITH THE WAVE
From the time he was a young child, all the way through high school, Royce’s parents were unequivocal about their feelings on education.
Royce’s mother would constantly tell him attending college was his only option.
Still, she worried her message wasn’t getting sinking in, particularly when he would tell her: “Mama, I’m going to play in the NFL, I don’t need (an education).”
“Not to bring in color or anything, but you look at the news everyday, you see all these young black men getting killed or going to jail or doing things that are negative,” she said. “I’ve always explained to him that it’s not an option (not to go to college) because you have to want better in order to do better.
“And it’s not work or go to school that’s not an option. It’s go to school so when you are able to go to work, you are able to take on the responsibilities and give your family the lifestyle that you would love them to have that you weren’t able to have.”
Royce says he’s close to earning his degree from Tulane, which, of all his accomplishments, is the one his parents say they’ll be most proud of.
Royce and his family knew he likely wouldn’t hear his named called among the 253 draftees this year. Yet, they held out hope.
“It killed me to see him hurting like that (when he wasn’t drafted,” his mother said.
Yet, Royce remained confident he’d catch on somewhere.
Soon after the draft, his agent called with news: Royce had received multiple offers, one from the New York Jets and another from his hometown team, the Saints.
Initially, Royce's mother wanted him to leave New Orleans, to accept the Jets’ offer. She was concerned there'd be too many distractions at home.
However, she quickly changed her tune, and now she and her husband are overjoyed they could ultimately watch their son play professional football at home. They, too, realize he’s a long shot. But they’re OK with that.
“He knows what it takes to overcome obstacles in life,” Larry LaFrance said. “He went through all this here and yet he kept a smile on his face.
“From his childhood, through middle school, high school, all the stuff he went through to get to this point….it’s just overwhelming. I’m just so proud.”
Said Celeste LaFrance: “Once Royce’s mind is set on it, he's going for it. So whether the Saints decide to sign him or not, I trust he's gonna keep his head up and just work that much harder until somebody picks him up so he can live out his dream.”
Royce accepts his path to the NFL isn’t going to be easy, yet he remains as confident as ever.
“I’m like a horse with blinders on,” he said.
And he believes nothing is going to prevent him from crossing the finish line – and when he does, he’s be wearing black and gold.