December 12, 2005 12:00 PM

Quarterback Brian Griese’s future looks pretty golden. Next April the NFL star, youngest of three sons of Hall of Fame QB Bob Griese, and his wife expect their first child. Surgery should repair the season-ending ligament tears in his knee just fine. At 30, he may still lead the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to a Super Bowl someday. And yet, with all this to look forward to, the defining moment in Griese’s life remains in the past—losing his mother, Judi, when he was 12. “I am who I am today because of that,” says Griese, whose mother died of breast cancer at 44 in February 1988. “She was always in pain, but I still remember her always being cheerful, always smiling. She was the spirit of the family, the glue that held us together.”

Soon after their mother’s death, both of Brian’s older brothers were away at college, leaving him and his father, by then a football commentator for ABC, alone in the Coral Gables, Fla., house that had once been so full of life. “We’d sit across the table from each other, and neither of us knew how to cook. We didn’t know where our meals would come from,” Brian recalls. “My dad didn’t know what time I got up in the morning, how I got to school, all those things. It was like, ‘Who’s going to take care of me? Is Dad capable of that?'” Reluctant to add to his father’s burden, Brian agonized alone. “We were trying to protect each other,” he says. “So I didn’t have anyone I could talk to about how I was truly feeling, about the fears I had and the tremendous loneliness. I don’t want other kids to have to go through that.”

Brian didn’t forget that pain when he made it to the NFL. In 1998, during his rookie season in Denver, he began giving serious thought to the idea of contributing time and money to a center for grieving children. Unable to find any local programs doing that work, he began researching the field. “I found the statistic that there were over 40,000 kids in the Denver metro area that had lost a parent,” he says. “So I knew I had to do something.”

In November 2002 he opened the doors to Judi’s House. Since then the nonprofit has served more than 750 youngsters, helping them to mourn freely, draw strength from each other and, ultimately, get their lives back on track. “Judi would be just as proud of Brian as I am,” says Bob Griese, now 60. “She’d be a little embarrassed that the house is named after her, because she didn’t seek attention, but also very proud of her legacy.”

Judi’s House offers just the kind of support Brian craved after his mother’s death. Though Judi, a nurse, had been fighting cancer since her youngest was 7, she pushed herself to maintain a happy home for Brian and his brothers Scott, now 37, and Jeff, 35. One time Brian remembers her coming straight from chemo to his school science fair. Just 10 days before her death, she threw her husband a birthday party even though she was so weak she had to spend most of it lying down. “She did everything for her children and husband,” says Bob. “One of the things she said she would miss most was not being there for her children when they got married, there for the grandkids, there for the special moments.”

But Bob-who led the Miami Dolphins to back-to-back Super Bowl titles in 1972 and ’73-eventually forged an even stronger relationship with Brian. “We just grew closer,” says Bob, who remarried in 1994. “Brian recognized my hurt, and me the same for him.” Brian agrees. “It got to a point where he was there for me in any way, shape or form, but I also felt that I was there for him too. Without each other, we would not have made it.”

Since then, Judi’s House has become Brian’s second full-time job. He has given not only money—in 2003 he established an endowment with more than $1 million—but much more. He wrote the mission statement, hired the staff, found the location, helped paint the interior, went through training to learn how to counsel kids—even plunged toilets. Though he and his wife, Brook, 30, a clinical psychologist, now live in Tampa, he spends much of the off-season either at the facility or on the phone with board members and staff. Says Bucs’ head coach Jon Gruden: “He’s as relentless in building this foundation as he is about anything in his life.”

Griese found a kindred spirit in Brook, who was a University of Colorado psychology grad student specializing in childhood trauma when she met him after his first NFL game. “The first time he cooked me dinner, he asked, If you could do anything for children, what would you do?'” says Brook, who married Brian in May 2004 and now serves as the unpaid research director for Judi’s House. “I never imagined I’d end up with a football player, but he’s very smart, compassionate—and he cares so much about making a difference in others’ lives.”

By all accounts, Judi’s House is doing just that for the children who have been referred by hospitals, funeral homes and schools throughout the Denver area. (Most have had a parent die, but the center also helps children who have lost a sibling.) During weekly or biweekly “talking circles,” small groups of kids, divided by age, meet in the cozy surroundings to share their experiences; then they participate in activities such as art or music to help them bond. Says Corin Recht, 16, whose brother Cameron died two years ago from leukemia: “If it wasn’t for Judi’s House, I’d probably still be depressed.”

Judi’s House quickly became so popular it outgrew its original walls, prompting a recent move to a new space twice the size. But Griese is already thinking even bigger. He has helped develop the new National Alliance for Grieving Children & Families, and plans to become even more involved in speaking out to aid the more than 2 million youngsters across the country who have lost one or both parents. “Finding new meaning is the last part of the grieving process,” says Griese. “This is my new meaning, and it will go on for the rest of my life.”

Pam Lambert. Kristin Harmel in Tampa and Dylan Steele in Denver

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