By David Ubben
Each June 25th, Hardreck Walker joined his mother and siblings to celebrate a birthday for a boy he never knew.
The Texas A&M defensive tackle and his family would say prayers for him from their home in Houston. They'd make a cake to celebrate. Some years, they would release balloons in his honor.
"Early on, my siblings and I didn't understand what we were doing," Walker said. "We were just happy we could get some cake. As we grew up, we started to realize exactly what we were doing."
His name was Austin Cieslak. He lived almost 1,500 miles away in Hazen, N.D., less than 150 miles from the Canadian border.
He was Walker's younger brother.
* * *
Morgan Hall was just 14 when she gave birth to her oldest daughter, Claudia. She had another son, Chris, at 16. When Morgan was 18, Hardreck was born.
Three months later, Hall found out she was pregnant for a fourth time. She had just married the father of her children, but it fell short of her idealistic, "Leave-it-to-Beaver," solve-all-our-problems-in-30-minutes-then-eat-dinner expectations. They were too young. He wanted out. She was left to care for her three children on her salary as a Pep Boys cashier with a fourth child on the way.
Later, she would work multiple jobs. She saw her kids' faces when they'd come home, angry or crying after being made fun of for clothes that were too big or too small or for wearing the same shirt a few days in a row or pants with tears and holes in them.
"It motivated me," Hall said. "It got hard. There were some very early mornings and very late nights."
She came from a broken home and didn't want Austin to be born into one, too. She also knew caring for another child would stretch her paychecks even thinner, perhaps preventing them from covering her and her three kids. She didn't want to burden Austin with the belief he was the catalyst for his parents' breakup.
"I felt like it would be more than I could handle," Hall said.
She chose to put Austin up for adoption and eventually approved Sheldon and Joni Cieslak to be her new son's adoptive parents.
"It was the hardest thing I've ever had to do," Hall said. "It sounds crazy, but you grieve almost as if you've lost a loved one."
Her father was furious when he heard her plans, unsatisfied with any of her answers for why and how she give her child to strangers. The Cieslaks had already adopted another girl, Kamaria, from the Houston area.
"Our family wasn't complete yet," Joni Cieslak said.
Austin was due on Aug. 12, 1996. He was born on June 25.
Hall wonders if the stress of the situation prompted her early labor, but Austin was born extremely jaundiced. The Cieslaks rushed to Houston and found a tiny, yellow baby who needed help staying alive. They had a name of their own picked out, but never used it. Hall had named her son "Austin Blake," and the Cieslaks weren't changing it.
For weeks, Hall and the Cieslaks forged a bond inside the hospital. When Hall wasn't holding Austin, Joni or Sheldon would be. If Joni or Sheldon wasn't, Hall was. If he was in his hospital crib, all three of them would be leaning over it, watching him sleep.
"That experience comforted me," Hall said. "I knew even then I had made the right decision."
The Cieslaks left and took Austin to Hazen with them, where Joni worked as a substitute teacher and Sheldon worked in a coal mine. Austin and his adopted sister, Kamaria, were "the only two black kids" in a town of about 2,500 people, Joni Cieslak said.
Hall knew what they might face; she grew up in Corpus Christi, Tex., in the '70s.
"I was either not black enough or just black," she said.
The Cieslaks promised they'd protect her son.
"That's what they did," Hall said.
Every so often, as part of the open adoption, she'd get a photo in the mail. Some would show him before his first day of school each year, some on Halloween, some of him in his football uniform. Up north, Austin never asked his adopted parents many questions about where he came from. He was too busy playing football, baseball, soccer or basketball.
It didn't take long as he grew into what's now a hulking, 280-pound, 6-foot-4 frame to figure out he was adopted.
"I never really thought about it," he said.
He didn't experience any health complications later in life like many who are born premature.
Morgan cherished the photo updates on her growing son but never reached out to contact him. She was comforted by seeing him live the life she imagined for him and didn't want to upset the mostly idyllic life she'd given him away to enjoy.
Austin knew where he was from and already felt a pull to Texas. He naturally became a Longhorns fan as his football career blossomed.
"I didn't want him to think running away would be an option," Morgan said. "I decided to step away and allow him to grow into the young man he is today. I felt that was only fair to Austin."
Austin eventually became the state's Male Athlete of the Year and signed on to play for North Dakota. Last spring, he turned 18. His parents gave him a packet. Inside, he found his mother's identity, as well as the names of his siblings.
It also included a letter (right) that Hall had written 18 years earlier, dated June 26, 1996. It explained the decision and described how difficult it was.
"I gave you to a family that I felt was worthy of you," the letter read. "I love you more than I could ever put into words. I sat by your bedside until they came to get you. I just pray that once you are old enough to understand, you won't hate me."
One sibling's name stuck out: Hardreck Walker. It was unique, and Austin knew a quick Google search would tell provide plenty more information. He came across Walker's bio on Texas A&M's website, as well as his high school highlight tape. He read and watched everything he could find.
"It was definitely a big shock," Austin said.
That shock paralyzed him for a week. It took that long before he reached out to Walker on Facebook, but he never heard back.
"He's never on Facebook," Austin said.
The family also lost much of the records of Austin's adoptive family in Hurricane Allison in 2001. Walker wasn't all that familiar with his brother's last name. Austin wrote another message and sent it to his oldest brother, Chris.
"Based on all the information I can put together," Austin wrote, "I think you're my brother."
Chris got the message within minutes.
"Mom, you need to read this," he said, walking into her bedroom.
Hall had been dealing with a blood clot in her leg and was resting in bed. She told her son to leave her alone; she wasn't interested in watching a YouTube video or reading a funny text from his girlfriend.
"It's Austin," Chris said.
"I felt like the wind got knocked out of me," Hall said.
She felt too overwhelmed to read Austin's message, so she covered her face and asked Chris to read it out loud. She said to tell Austin he was his brother, his birthday was June 25, his name was Austin Blake and they shared a brother named Hardreck Walker.
Austin wrote back seconds later.
"I found you."
* * *
Austin and his biological mom traded messages. She called him immediately, but he was working his job at Sears and couldn't answer. He called her as soon as he clocked out.
She saw the 701 area code and took a deep breath. After a few pleasantries, she asked him for forgiveness.
"There's nothing to forgive," he said.
Hall called Walker to tell him the news after she left her first message.
"Oh my God," Walker said. "I want to talk to him."
After Austin hung up with his mom, he called Walker. The two spent hours on the phone, staying up until around midnight. The conversation started with football; their respective high school careers and recruitment; and questions about each other's height and weight.
They talked about each other's siblings and their father.
"It was like we had known each other for years," Walker said. "There was no awkwardness there. We just had a natural bond."
Austin kept up with his new, old family over the summer. He told them about his favorite foods and about his hunting expeditions with his dad in the North Dakota wilderness. Once the fall came, he tuned into every Texas A&M game he could. The two would trade "good luck" and "good game" text messages every Saturday and talk on the phone weekly to keep up.
Walker eventually made plans with his mom and girlfriend for the three of them to visit Grand Forks during a game weekend. Texas A&M was off on the second Saturday in October, and North Dakota played Idaho State during the school's homecoming.
The three booked the flights and got to North Dakota earlier than expected, so contacted the Cieslaks, asked them to pick them up from the airport and not tell Austin.
When Austin, running a few minutes late, jogged onto the practice field, he saw his mom and Walker for the first time.
She stared at her son for the first time in almost two decades.
"The expression on her face when he came around the corner, it was priceless," said Walker, who described that moment as the best of the weekend. "It wasn't a look of shock, it was a look of love, like you can tell she had a deep love for him. She was glad he shared the same love."
Austin had told only his fellow defensive linemen about his plans for the weekend, so most of the team was confused. A few wondered if Walker was a recruit making a campus visit.
"I just wanted him to embrace us as we knew we were going to embrace him. And he did," Walker said. "The fact he sought us out, found us and wanted to contact us, let me know he understood."
Both families convened later that night at Rhombus Guys Pizza in Grand Forks before heading back to the Sleep Inn hotel for a night of laughs and overdue catching up.
"We grew up in such different places," Walker said, "but it was surreal to see all the similarities."
Both are left-handed. Both count on flip-flops and beanies to anchor their wardrobes. Both are natural introverts.
"You have thought I was pregnant with them both at the same time," Hall said.
"They even walk the same, say a lot of the same things and share a lot of the same mannerisms," Joni said.
Most unbelievably: Both drive the exact same black 2012 Chevy Impala with dual exhaust and dark interior. The only difference is Walker's doesn't have a sunroof.
Saturday's game came and went, a 37-31 loss for North Dakota. Austin's been a standout defensive end in his first season on campus, as he is tied for the team lead with 2 1/2 sacks in six games.
"He plays with his hands, I like that," Walker said. "He has a nice first step off the ball and he gets separation."
It was still dark outside when Austin Cieslak pulled into the hotel parking lot to take his new family to the airport on Sunday morning.
"Life-changing," he said about the whole experience. "I feel whole now."
* * *
David Ubben is a contributor to Sports on Earth. Before joining, he covered college sports for ESPN.com and Fox Sports Southwest. He lives in Dallas with his wife and their golden retriever. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter.