Kedric Golston (64), following Robert Griffin III off the field after the game at Minnesota on Nov. 7: “When you really think about it, I need to be thankful for everything.” (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

It was past 1 a.m. Monday night in the players’ parking lot at FedEx Field when a veteran defensive lineman finally met up with his wife and managed a half smile in the bone-chilling cold.

“Hey babe,” Kedric Golston said to Christal as they shivered together.

Golston has a He-Man physique. Standing 6 feet 4, he carries 318 pounds, 317 of which appear to be muscle mass. But at that moment, about an hour after a grueling, frigid night of hitting and being hit by offensive linemen, his aching body felt like a pounded ball of Play-Doh. His team was reeling after the 49ers scored on the defense and manhandled Robert Griffin III’s offense, dropping Washington to 3-8, his team’s dreams of a playoff run all but gone.

Sure, Golston was starting on an NFL team, with two years remaining on a three-year deal worth about $5 million. And who could have foreseen a sixth-round draft pick out of Georgia in 2006 sticking around this long, the least-known holdover from Joe Gibbs’s years after Santana Moss, London Fletcher and Reed Doughty.

But after that and a huge feast with family a few days away, what was there really to be thankful for, standing there freezing in a parking lot after such a dismal night?

“Everything,” Golston reminded. “When you really think about it, I need to be thankful for everything.”

When we think of big in the NFL, we think of strong — big enough to physically move other 300-pound men, strong enough to hold on to a job with the same team for eight years.

But how big do you have to be at 6 years old, when your mother’s boyfriend wakes you to say the woman who brought you into the world is gone?

How strong do you have to be at 18, when your truck rolls five times, leaving you in the hospital with a shattered right femur, a collapsed lung and in a drug-induced coma for a week — an accident so life-altering people not only thought you would never earn a scholarship to play college football but the kids at your high school actually held a prayer vigil that first day?

How big and strong do you have to be to deal with all that and still emerge as the most balanced, grateful-to-be-here guy on the roster, a 30-year-old father of four you would never imagine overcame so much hardship and heartache so young?

Harriett Pou (pronounced Pew), Golston’s biological mother, was 26 years old when she was murdered during a robbery in Columbia, S.C. She was mugged and then run over by a car during the Christmas holiday break. Kedric was in first grade.

“I remember sittin’ on the couch, probably in the wee hours in the morning — her boyfriend at the time came up to me and said, ‘Your mama’s not coming home. She’s dead,’ ” Golston said. “I don’t know exactly how he worded it, but I remember crying till I couldn’t cry any more on that couch. It hurt. You know, ‘Why me? Why is my mom not here?’ ”

After the funeral, Leroy Golston gathered his boy’s belongings and drove him to Atlanta.

His father, still a painting contractor, brought his son to summer jobs. Lynette Golston, Kedric’s stepmom, who owned her own commercial cleaning business for years, took Kedric to office buildings and churches at night to dump the trash and do some of the heavy lifting. He saw how hard his parents worked to ensure they could afford to live in a good neighborhood. “I could still enjoy being a kid, but also they taught me the amount of work it took to get that point,” he said.

When Kedric wanted to play football, they took him to practice, later bought him a gym membership and then trusted coaches to make their son better — “really just allowing me to live my dream,” Golston said.

“My dad is the strong, silent type,” Kedric added. “He shows his love in different ways but taught me what it’s like to take pride in myself and pride in my work. And my mom, that’s what I call her. She’s poured so much into me. I love her to death, and she loves me to death.”

Kedric’s father says he knew when Kedric was about 13 or 14 years old that he probably wasn’t going to have a co-worker for life. “He never really complained about anything,” said Leroy, 54, when reached at home in Fayetteville, Ga., on Wednesday afternoon. “I do remember him saying he really didn’t want to be a painter. About then I said, ‘Well, I guess you need to go on and see about that football camp.’ ”

By his senior year, Golston was named to Parade Magazine’s all-American team. He was one of the country’s most sought-after recruits when his world was shaken again. Swerving to miss a car pulling into his lane, Golston was thrown from his vehicle.

“Witnesses said my truck rolled over me,” he said. “I had a staph infection in the lungs. I was in a coma for a week. I don’t know how near death I was, but I know kids at school held a vigil the next day. If you had told me then I would have any kind of college career, let alone play in the NFL, I don’t think I would have believed it.”

He went to rehab and physical therapy determined to play football again. Georgia eventually signed him, and he went on to become the Bulldogs’ example of resolve before Gibbs drafted him in 2006.

Eight years, three head coaches and dozens of players come and gone later in Ashburn — including his best friend and teammate Lorenzo Alexander via free agency — Golston is still here, the holdover we know least about, the man who survived so much more than seven training camps to hold on to a job.

“The older I get, the more thankful I get because I understand not only how hard it is to stay in this league for eight years but to stay on one team for eight years with different coaching staffs,” he says.

When Christal is told it’s almost surprising her husband and father to their four children — (Victoria, 14; Kedric Jr., 6; Kaden, 4; and Avery, 18 months) — managed to hold on this long, she just nods, adding, “I’m not surprised. He’s a tough guy.”

Golston says he knows there will always be the memory of that haunting night as a child tucked deep in his subconscious. But he has come to grips with his biological’s mother’s death at such a young age.

“It was tough not being able to comprehend,” he says. “The man who did it went to jail and everything. I don’t really care to dig up the files and look at his face.

“Looking back on it, I hate that my mom is gone,” he adds. “But I understand that what was meant to hurt me, in the big scheme of things, made me stronger as a person and made me understand how fragile life is. It made me see that the relationships you have, you keep them and make sure they work even when times get tough.”

Golston keeps going, from the heart:

“Situations happen in life. Even if you did grow up in a two-parent home, which I am strongly a part of and agree with, you don’t make excuses for what happened. You continue to push on. You forgive and you forget and you restore.

“In this season of thanksgiving and things like that, the only thing you really have are the relationships you build. Money comes and goes. Situations come and go. But the people you grow with, the people you stand with, going through life with, those people are always going to be there.”

You walk out of that parking lot Monday night, shivering but smiling — realizing a team merely lost a game, realizing that because of the ability of people like Kedric Golston to heal and then help others, the world is not nearly as cold as you think.

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