Happy Halloween everybody. As you run around stressed out about where you need to be and how you’ll get there to attend to your kids’ costumes, friends parties or whatever your plans might be, I thought now would be the time to share an inspiring story that came to my attention last month. It’s the type of story that makes you shed a tear and find that lump in your throat on a Saturday morning watching College Gameday. It’s a story that might even sound familiar as the feel-good stories between a young kid and a player are nothing new. However, this is OUR player and this is OUR kid. Let’s see if you feel the same way.
Like most roller coaster ride stories, this one started innocuously. On September 29, 2009 five-year-old Jack Marshall trudged in to his parents’ bedroom at 3:00 am in tears and said “mommy, my back hurts really bad”. There is motherly instinct and then there is the fatherly eyebrow raise. Both were in effect. “What kid has a bad back at age five?” Patrick Marshall asked himself that night. During the fog of the night they gave Jack some kid’s aspirin and put him back to bed. That morning Jack woke-up with his legs feeling like they were “on fire”. Joanna Marshall and Patrick were off to the ER at Children’s Memorial in Chicago not far from the couple’s Lincoln Square home (north side of Chicago). The typical battery of tests ensued and confusion reigned as the process of elimination of what could be causing Jack such pain was concerning the Marshalls with each passing test. They even quarantined the family thinking it might be some type of flesh-eating bacteria. No-go. Jack was released the next day and the Marshalls were uneasy. Jack fell in the parking lot on the way to the car and mom and dad chalked it up to weakness from all of the tests.
Within 24 hours the Marshalls were back at Children’s Hospital. For context, Joanna Marshall is straight out of The Blind Side and could double as Leigh Ann Tuohy. She’s an aggressive Super mom, running a huge business unit of a plastics company while mom to four kids ranging from age 10 to just over a year old. She’s feisty with a capital “F” and on this day she marched in to Children’s with authority. Imagine your kid feels like his body is on fire, he’s in pain and no one knows what is wrong. Little Jack was in hand and Joanna arrived at the front desk. “There is something really wrong with my son and I’m not leaving here until I get some answers” said Joanna. The answers would come, but not until a slew of intense tests ranging from MRIs to cat scans to spinal taps. Fortunately the Marshalls lived near Children’s, one of the most renowned hospitals in the nation. Within 72 hours the team of doctors headed by a neurologist had honed in on the diagnosis, for the Marshalls, it was sheer horror. By now, five year old Jack was paralyzed.
The diagnosis was Transverse Myelitis. In layman’s terms, it is a rare condition that essentially is a virus that turns on the body and attacks the spine. It is rare to begin with, but in extreme cases it can cause paralysis. Unfortunately for Jack, he had an extreme case. It starts with paralysis in the legs and works its way up the body wreaking paralysis along the way. Once it gets high enough it attacks the respiratory system and, well, let’s just say it is not good. The doctors administered a massive steroid approach to essentially send a shock to the system. Jack was in a wheelchair and depressed. Then, the family saw a sign at Children’s and knew it was a sign:
“Come to the Children’s Activity Center This Friday and Meet Some of the Players from the Northwestern Wildcats Football Team from 11a to 12p”
You see, Jack was already a diehard Northwestern fan. His mom, Joanna, graduated from NU (’91) along with his two uncles (Joanna’s brothers). Patrick has a degree from Kellogg (’98), Northwestern’s prestigious business school. The family has more than a dozen season tickets between them. The family is LTP-level in its passion for following NU. Joanna took it upon herself to get every single ounce of purple for that Friday, which was early October 2009, the day before the ‘Cats – Miami (OH) home game. Northwestern’s players make visits every Friday to area hospitals throughout the season, and despite the efforts of this blog and the marketing team at NU there are many days when the players spend their time talking with families whose number one Big Ten team of choice is not based in Evanston. On this day, Brian Peters, Mike Trumpy, Jacob Schmidt and Cameron Joplin entered the room and did a double take. There was a purple-clad posse cheering and awaiting their arrival. The anticipation itself had been a several day milestone to look forward to for Jack. Jack had a video game, a football game of course, set up and ready to go in hopes of enticing a player to spend time with him. Then sophomore Brian Peters took the bait.
“I’m used to seeing other fans, mostly Ohio State fans in there, but they were decked out in purple, it was great to see. I sat down with Jack as I saw he couldn’t walk. I got in to it with him and played for 30 or 40 minutes. I remember he took the first game, I took the second and he took the third, so he ended up winning. That was the first time I met Jack” said Peters, “but I remember he wasn’t wearing a #10 (he was wearing Mike Kafka’s #13) jersey, but we’d change that eventually.” And just like that Peters and the team were off to beat Miami (OH) the next day. When asked about the impact he thought he had Peters shrugged it off and sounded like he and Kirk Cousins are cousins in deferential speeches.
“It’s the least we can do. It’s not a big deal. To bring light to people that are in situations like that and to take the opportunity we have as college football players to be personable compared to what he’s going through…it’s the least you can do. It’s humbling.”
For Peters and his teammates it was “30 or 40 minutes”, but for Jack, it was the start of a one-sided relationship that turned in to a personal quest. The inspiration of meeting a Northwestern football player, his team and now his player would take on a life of its own. The Marshalls returned home after nearly two weeks and little Jack was on a ridiculous physical therapy regime. He couldn’t walk, but the inspiration of Peters, and the prospect of meeting him again, when Jack could walk became not only a goal, but an obsession. Unknown to Jack were the odds of him walking and the persistence of his mom. One doctor would say 15%, another would caution 10%. The Leigh Ann Tuohy character kicked in and Joanna began doing what she does best – working the phones for a sale. However, she wasn’t the one selling, she was looking to be sold.
“They gave us a bunch of names and numbers as part of a support group” Joanna recalled. “I started calling and I would get one conversation with a mom whose child had been on a respirator and another whose teenager was in a wheelchair. I would politely tell them “I need to hang up now, because I can’t deal with this.” Marshall would not be denied and eventually found the ray of hope she needed. “I found a Stanford cheerleader who had gone through this as a teenager and she talked to me about her experience and that was all that I needed to know it could be done.” Game on with Mom and Jack.
The pre-iPad days were a little more taxing than today, but Joanna would set up the computer so Jack could watch the YouTube videos of Northwestern Highlights (yes, our very own YouTube guru’s highlights!) and he would watch them as he performed his at home exercises. His parents put their work lives on hold, while still attending physically, but not quite there mentally as they shuttled Jack to every kind of PT imaginable. Jack refused to use a wheelchair and would be carried around the house by his parents even crawling on his stomach using his arms for leverage when he had to get to the bathroom. When his mom tried to help she was met with a consistent dose of “I’ve got to show Brian I can do this.” Understandably there were quite a few tears behind the scenes.
By this point, Joanna had connected with the Cody Cejda, Northwestern’s Director of Football Operations. Jack was making steady progress and Cody became an instant fan. He invited the Marshall’s to be Coach Fitzgerald’s guest at the Northwestern homecoming game against Indiana (2009) and promised a special pass for Jack. Jack was thrilled, but was really focused on Brian Peters. A budding artist, Jack would draw pictures of #10 and send them to Brian via mom via Cody. Brian was touched, but had not seen Jack or talked to him since the video game encounter. Jack’s progress was getting better as he had transformed his mind to think he was in training camp for Northwestern football.
“The physical therapist instantly loved Jack. Within the first couple of visits Jack had said the routines were boring and asked if they could incorporate some football into the “drills”. The therapist was fantastic and became creative to maket the process like a training camp” Patrick Marshall said. Within weeks, the progress was pronounced, but not far enough along that the Marshalls found themselves out of the woods. “We went to the store, which is only a few blocks from here and we were wheelchair shopping” Patrick recalled. “However, I turned to Joanna and said “I can’t do this” as I felt the purchase would be admitting we were giving up.” The Marshalls never purchased the wheelchair and instead opted for the red radio flyer wagon to cart Jack around their house.
With the invite on the board – 10/25/09 – Jack was a maniac in his exercises. “We like to say he was Persa Strong” Joanna said. It had been just about a month from the onset of the condidtion and he was able to walk with assistance from mom and dad. The term “miracle” gets overused in stories like this, but he was definitely beating the odds. Jack was determined to see “BP” at the Indiana game. Gameday came and the family packed in to the van and Jack’s red wagon made it too. Jack didn’t want to see Brian until he could show him he could walk and he was ready, or so he thought.
The Marshalls arrived in Evanston and unloaded. It was cold and a tad damp that morning. Jack tried to steady himself to make the walk to Ryan Field and it was clear it was premature. Jack needed his parents help and the optimism of the day had won out over the reality – Jack wasn’t there yet. Jack, not wanting to show Brian he wasn’t fully walking, asked to go home. For a diehard NU fan the Marshalls didn’t need to hear anything else. The Marshalls were treated to the all-time biggest NU comeback, but had to watch on TV. Jack’s optimism won the day on the couch. Joanna is not afraid to admit that she thought it was over (NU was down 28-3), but not Jack. “Mom, we’re the Cardiac ‘Cats. We always come back. There is a ton of time.” he told her. “It’s incredible” Joanna said. “No matter what the score or how bleak it may be, I’ll be there saying “we don’t have a chance” and he’ll snap at me and say “be positive, will you?”. It’s this perspective that gives Joanna the unique perspective that while no parent would ever wish this upon any child, she is content that he was “built to handle this”.
The invite stayed open from Cody and Northwestern. Next week was Halloween and not even #10 could overmatch the allure of the candy. Jack would go as Batman, and to be clear, it was the “real” Batman, not Sherrick McManis. The ‘Cats would lose to Penn State before heading on the road at No. 8 Iowa and Illinois. The lone home date left for the season was the season finale against a ranked Wisconsin team. Weeks passed and the YouTube Highlight videos got jacked-up viewership from one single home. The pictures continued and Brian was touched by the correspondence, but the bond was still one-sided at this point. Peters, a college sophomore, had no idea about the impact he had made and the inspiration he had sparked. The ‘Cats were putting together wins and were on the precipice of the highest win total since 1996, needing just a win over heavily favored Wisconsin to get there. Brian Peters was focused on shutting down the Badgers, Jack Marshall was focused on showing Brian Peters he could walk again.
TO BE CONTINUED…TOMORROW MORNING.