17 years ago, Greenlee was blinded in an acid attack and left for dead at a gas station. A woman threw a mixture of lye and bleach on Greenlee after learning her boyfriend was cheating on her with Greenlee. Hopkins, now a wide receiver for the Houston Texans, was 10 years old at the time.
In a new ESPN Cover Story multi-platform piece published on Wednesday, Greenlee opened up about her ordeal.
“As I’m lying there, the first thing I’m thinking is, ‘Why would someone pour warm water on my face?’ ” she said of the moments after the attack. “But a couple of seconds later, I realized it wasn’t warm water, because my skin is literally falling off my face, my neck, my chest and my back.”
After the attack, Greenlee was airlifted to a burn center in Georgia and remained in a medically induced coma for several weeks, according to ESPN. When she returned home, her young children were shocked by her appearance.
“I was in shock that somebody could look like that,” Hopkins, now 27, said. “It was really scary — and to think that’s my mom, she’s gonna be like that the rest of her life. I was hoping that it was a dream.”
As Greenlee started to recover, she began to look for work so she could support her kids, explaining that she kept thinking, “I’m the only source of support that my children have … now I’ve failed them.”
According to ESPN, Greenlee did odd jobs like babysitting to bring in money, and also sold drugs.
“I thought I was doing what I needed to do,” she explained. “In hindsight, it was the worst thing I could’ve done, when you have kids that are just trying to go to sleep and get up in the mornings to go to school … but I was just seeing it as a way to make money.”
As Hopkins grew up and became a local football star, Greenlee found it difficult to go out in public to attend his games, telling ESPN that she was self-conscious of her injuries.
“I knew he wanted me there, but it was really tough,” she said.
Eventually, she made it through one of his games by picturing herself as the person her son would see while looking over at her in the stands after making an impressive play.
“I was able to cope with being blind and the scars and the ridicule,” she shared. “And I think it gave me the courage to eventually find myself.”
Today, Greenlee runs a non-profit called SMOOOTH (Speaking Mentally, Outwardly Opening Opportunities Toward Healing) to “empower, educate and prepare” survivors of domestic violence.
“It’s helped me learn a lot, about life, about how to treat a woman,” Hopkins told ESPN of working with his mother’s non-profit. “It’s helped me become a man.”
Almost two decades after the attack, Greenlee is able to mostly manage on her own, using voice-activated technology and walking around in her apartment without a cane. Though her vision fully disappeared a few years ago, she still comes to her son’s games.
“It goes back to when I got the courage up when he was in junior high,” she said. “I remember him saying, ‘I just want you to be there.’ So if I’m there, and I’m present, and I’m alive … that’s ultimately all he wants. He doesn’t care that I can’t see.”