Yesterday, I launched part one of a two-part series involving five-year-old Jack Marshall and Northwestern senior safety Brian Peters. I really need you to click HERE to read part one so you can enjoy part two. I get it, I’m just as lazy as you are at clicking on click HERE stories, but I’m on to you. Really, click here – I don’t ask much.
Thanks. So, we pick up where we left off yesterday. Young Jack was hard at work overcoming paralysis in his legs from an extreme case of the rare condidition called Transverse Myelitis. The ‘Cats were 7-4 with a home finale against ranked Wisconsin the only thing separating them from a potential New Year’s Day bowl game. Jack was obsessed with showing off the fact he could walk to his hero, then sophomore, Brian Peters. As I mentioned in the previous post, the multiple times per day YouTube videos of Northwestern wins, culled from this very site (and YouTube) thanks to Northwestern Highlights were the Rocky-like inspiration for Jack. His regimen reminds me of Dan Persa’s Achilles recovery. Up at 5:30 am to perform exercises in the home. Dad would take Jack to the pool for water exercises (more on that in a bit) and of course the near daily PT appointments for the kid who was not only convinced he’d “show Brian”, but had now convinced himself he was on track to earn a scholarship as a safety at Northwestern in more than a decade.
Just five weeks earlier Patrick and Joanna Marshall had to turn away from purchasing a wheelchair as they thought it signaled defeat. Now, with the invite as Pat Fitzgerald’s special guest in hand, Jack was good enough to walk and show Brian Peters his stuff. Thanksgiving was a mere five days away and the Marshalls were overdosing on counting their blessings. It was a cold, late afternoon game at Ryan Field and it would be a long day for young Jack. He was ready and so were his parents – at least they hoped.
The Badgers (8-3) were ranked #17 and led by Heisman candidate and star RB John Clay who seemed like a replica of Ron Dayne. It was senior day at Northwestern (7-4) and a win against the heavily favored Badgers would mean a tie with Big Red and a chance at a strong finish that would likely catapult their bowl hopes. It felt big time. Jack was, well, jacked. Cody Cedja, the NU football director of operations knew it was gameday for Jack as well and hooked the family up with special credentials that read “Special Guest, Pat Fitzgerald” and the Marshalls took to their customary season ticket seats they had yet to visit since the home opener. You might remember the incredible see-saw game which found Northwestern up 33-31 with just under two minutes to go and the Badgers were at the NU 46 yard line. The NU fans were glancing at the clock and doing the math for the game-winning FG position. Momentum was wearing red. Karma was wearing #10.
John Clay took the handoff from QB Scott Tolzein and went to his left. Just as he darted for what seemed to be an open hole, Vince Browne had driven the Badgers OT and pushed him back in to the guard. Two Badgers stacked up moved backwards and Clay did the unthinkable – he fumbled. The ball squirted forward on the ground and time stood still for the Marshall family. There was Peters scooping it up like a shortstop and falling on it to all but seal the game. Bedlam reigned. Ryan Field was up for grabs. In the movie version of this moment the cutaways include our very own version of Leigh Ann Tuohy, Joanna, covering her mouth with her two hands, shaking, uttering “oh my God” with tears streaming down her face. Jack, being held up by his dad was jumping up and down on his legs, unaware of any pain, screaming his head off. The fictional version cuts back to Peters being mobbed by a slew of his teammates as they realized this was the game. Jack was mentally right there jumping on the pile. As Peters raised his glove to the sky he pointed with the #1 sign and the Chicago Tribune would capture the moment on the front page of the Sunday paper. For Jack, the moment was seared in his brain. The students would pour on to the field a minute later, but for Jack, the fun was just beginning.
The Marshall family made its way to connect with Cody Cedja who had Jack wait with his parents in the foyer of the lockerroom building, just south of the entrance to Welsh-Ryan Arena. The waiting was tortuous. Cody Cedja was there and provided Jack with a full Northwestern goodie bag that included a T-shirt, program, sharpies, essentially all the tools to memorialize the night forever. Cedja was the man behind the curtain on orchestrating this and the Marshalls were pretty surprised that Pat Fitzgerald quickly emerged moments after his postgame speech.. He bent down to get eye-level with Jack and engaged him in a more than casual conversation.
“He told me that I reminded him of his son” said Jack. When I pressed Jack for more he said “well, my hair color, my size and my age, his son is the same age as me, you know.” Joanna, sensing my line of questioning asked “what else?”. “Oh yeah, his son his named Jack too.” This story isn’t about me, and I knew this info as Fitz and I have even joked about our respective kids – he has a hat trick of boys and I have a hat trick of girls. But, I put myself in Fitz’s shoes that night, on the heels of a huge win and realized how much being eye to eye with Jack must have hit home. “He was incredible” said Patrick. “Really, just completely engaging and genuine. It meant a lot to us.” Jack thought this was pretty cool, but he was waiting for you know who. Cody was pacing in and out of the lockerroom. Then, the moment came.
Brian Peters emerged from the ‘Cats party atmosphere of a winning lockerroom and was in full uniform, pads, jersey and all. He hadn’t even washed the eye black smeared on his face. Jack instantly gave him a high five. Brian instinctively took off his left glove and handed it to Jack. Jack may not know who Mean Joe Greene is, but this was that moment. A deep connection with his hero had manifested itself in getting a piece of Brian to take home – a game worn glove. Just two months earlier Brian was playing video games with a kid who was paralyzed and now, just outside of the lockerroom, the guy who had made the game-winning fumble recovery was blown away. Jack strutted his stuff and showed Brian how he could walk on his own. “That is awesome” Brian said. “It was pretty neat to see him like that. I couldn’t believe it. I snuck him in the lockerroom for a quick minute and gave him the glove.” Brian asked Jack to wait for him to change up so he could spend more time with him. By this point, Jack couldn’t even tell if he was walking as he was floating on air.
The time passed quickly as Jack grabbed player autograph after player autograph. The Marshalls, proud ‘Cat fans to begin with, were overally impressed with the personable approach. There was Mike Kafka posing for pictures. Corey Wootton, Mike Trumpy..the parade went on and on. They were pretty confident Cody was prepping the players about the story. Finally, Brian emerged decked out in his suit and tie and they had a chance to talk more in depth. Jack told him about his rehab and Brian told him to keep up the hard work and determination and to stay in touch. The air cast on Brian’s hand seemed pretty insignificant on this night.
The beauty of this story was that this night marked a beginning, not an end. The very next morning the Marshalls opened the Chicago Tribune to see the glove – JACK’s GLOVE – on the front page. That was it. Jack would not separate it and refused to wash it (for fear of erasing the #10 inscribed on it in pen). “That thing stunk as he took it everywhere.” recalled Patrick.
The next stop was the Outback Bowl in Tampa, FL. We all know the result, but there was Jack focused on #10. You might have forgotten that Brian Peters made an absolutely ridiculous ESPN Sportscenter Highlight interception. Down 21-7 with Auburn driving in the third, Peters made an acrobatic one-handed pick and somehow managed to stay in bounds. Jack was clenching the glove feeling like he had some magic impact on the play. Little did he know he’d be impacting Brian in just a bit. “The next time I saw him it was at the Outback Bowl and there he was wearing the glove. I lit up when I saw him” said Brian. “Every time I see that kid, it makes me smile. It’s money in the bank.”
Back at the hotel after the devastating, but thrillling game (Jack doesn’t want you to know, but like many of us, he cried after the loss) Joanna spotted Brian’s parents, Jeff and Carla. Joanna grabbed Jack’s hand and introduced Jack to his idol’s parents. More importantly, she recounted the story that you now know. “I told them I didn’t know if they knew it, but their son inspired Jack to walk again. I told them the whole story” Joanna said. As you can imagine, both Jeff and Carla lost it. Joanna remembers that Carla said something to the effect of never having been more proud of her son in all her life. I nearly lost it this time. Another friendship was born.
Within a few days of returning home Jack got a box shipped from Pickerington, Ohio. Carla and Jeff had sent him his very own #10 Brian Peters jersey. Life could not have been better. Jack was still needing daily exercises and regular PT visits. Several days a week Patrick was taking his son to the pool at Swedish Covenant Hospital. Water exercises were great for Jack and he attended some classes. He was the youngest participant by about 70 years. “The folks lit up at Jack from the moment he got in the water” Patrick said. “Jack was asking where the rubber sharks and fun toys were and they all laughed. Soon, that pool had balls and fun things to make the workouts manageable.”
It was basketball season and the Marshall family has season tickets there as well. Jack sported his Brian Peters jersey to the first game after the Outback Bowl and sure enough Brian, who attends a lot of games, found him. “We’d see each other all the time at basketball games because we both would go. We really got to know each other during that season.” By now, every friend at school and on Jack’s block knew how to find the safety on TV. The Peters jersey, the glove, they were great, but the visits? Money. The relationship continued through the 2010 season – basketball, spring football and in to the 2010 season.
By last season, the ritual became weekly. The physical therapy visits declined, the home exercises continued, but every home game Jack and his family would head to the lot where Brian’s car would be. “He knows his spot, his car and of course those Ohio plates, by heart” said Joanna. “I see him after every home game” Brian admitted. The postgame catch-up includes Jack showing new wrinkles in his progress, games of catching the ball and the Marshalls tailgating with the Peters family. “My parents are good friends now with Joanna and Patrick” said Brian. “Jack’s parents are great. They’re such an incredible support system for Jack, I really admire what they’ve done and they’re great people to have in my life as well.
Halloween is Brian Peters birthday (happy belated Brian!). By 2010, this fact was well known by Jack. I’ll give you one guess
who he went as in 2010. Yup, Brian Peters. “That was an expensive one. We had to get the actual real Northwestern helmet” Joanna said. By now, I’m finding myself just in complete disbelief that I didn’t know about this story. I’m holding the helmet in my hands in the Marshall’s kitchen last Thursday night. After an hour or so, Jack has warmed up to me on our stroll down memory lane. Every Wildcat artifact is out for display including what I call the “shrine”, a framed collection of ticket stubs, the signed T-shirt from the Wisconsin game and of course “the glove”. I keep double-checking the timeline as we’re only through most of 2010 and yet, we have a full year to catch-up on. So, I asked Jack to show me his daily exercises. Joanna props up the IPad to show how it works with the daily consumption of NU highlight videos. The Marshalls explain that he has little to no muscle in one thigh, a fact Jack acknowledges, but it won’t let him stop him. He loves football and baseball, but, this year he resorted to playing in games for fun as the Marshalls realized he couldn’t quite go the organized sports route with the leg not quite strong enough to compete. I couldn’t tell at all and by now I find myself getting drawn back to being a 7-year-old. Visions of eating cereal, the sports section and Sports Illustrated came over me. Yet, there I am talking as a 38-year-old and Jack and I are on the same page. I see a lot of me in Jack, or is it Jack in me? I show him my scar from back surgery and he shows me his exercises. When it gets I too serious he starts to show off his wares. He has a phenomenal painting he made of Dan Persa against Illinois in art class in September. He’s still kind of ticked at his teacher who forced him to use a more blue shade than purple to contrast the orange. It looks almost dead on of the Persa photo from the Tribune after the Illini loss, but I find out he made it before the game. It sparks a conversation about 2010 and the Wrigley Game. Jack tests my knowledge about a great trivia question he has. “Who is the only Wildcat to score a TD in the east endzone at Wrigley?” Clearly, it’s Brian. Clearly, this is the coolest trivia question I’ve ever been asked. Then, I’m completely sucked in, lump in the throat and all, when I see the Christmas list from 2010. Here is the photo:
1)Dan Persa’s autograph
2)NU to win a bowl game
3)To play Brian Peters – NCAA playstation football
4)A new Brian Peters jersey cuse (sic) its to(o) small
6)new golf clubs
7)go to Tickit (sic) City Bowl
How cute is that? We talk about the meetings with Brian and the realization sets in that the relationship has spanned more than two years at this point, which is more than 25% of Jack’s life. We talk about what he wants to do when he grows up and without hesitation he tells me “play football at Northwestern.” I realize that the odds are stacked against any kid to play Big Ten football, let alone Jack, whose parents inform me that with the exercises and physical therapy he’ll be blessed and lead a relatively normal life. The atrophy of muscle in the one leg is severe and he’s told it will never be fully capable. I try to figure out how to diplomatically ask “what if?” in regards to his dreams because I sure as hell am not going to doubt this kid. I go for it. “What if you don’t play football, what would you do?” I asked. “I’d coach.” I find out at this moment that is what Pat Fitzgerald encouraged him to do when he talked eye to eye and man to man with him. I’m desperate to make the emotional connection between Jack and Brian come out of his mouth, but it’s hard for Jack to understand what I’m getting at. Afterall, he and Brian are best buds. I ask him what the first thing that pops in to his mind when he hears the words “Brian Peters” and he looked at me sternly, but in a shy manner, and without a word, he tapped his thigh, the one he’s told will never be quite right.
My mind flips back to my interview at Northwestern, just 36 hours earlier with Brian. The most fun memory Brian has is the
day he and Mike Trumpy visited Jack on his 7th birthday, this past June. I joked with Brian and asked if he went Will Ferrell on Jack’s friends. “No, there was no spiking on little kids or anything like that. Trumpy came with me because he knows the story and remembers meeting Jack two years ago. We played 500 on our knees. It was a blast. It was really fun.” Joanna remembers the day vividly. “Many of Jack’s friends now go to NU games because of the relationship. I remember that Brian was wearing one of those Under Armour-type tight fit jerseys. Many of the kids’ moms were there and let’s just say many of them are now regular attendees at Northwestern games as well. Seriously though, to Jack, this was like having Michael Jordan come to your birthday party.”
It’s no secret that 2011 has been a major disappointment to date, and especially at the time when I conducted the interviews last week. However, win or lose, Brian meets Jack at his car after every game. Each game Jack will try and share a new improvement and Brian offers the acknowledgement and encouragement he wants and needs. After the Michigan game, Peters went right to work and watched tape on his own to try and ease the pain of another tough loss. It was nearly 11:30 by the time he made it to his car. Jack had refused to leave despite it being way past his bedtime. Obviously, perspective was in order for Brian. “It’s a humbling experience. I don’t know if he knows this, but he motivates me.”
It became clear to me that Brian was of the “I don’t really do anything special” mode when I interviewed him for the story. I felt like Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting at the emotional final scene trying to take any which angle to get Brian to understand and accept some gratitude from me, the go between, the storyteller, for impacting a life. I follow-up on the motivation quote above and he finally gives in offering at least tacit acceptance. “If the motivation is mutual then that’s great. We’ll just grow together in the future.”
Brian’s senior season is coming to a close. There were only five games left at the time of the interview. “I think we can win them all” said Jack. “Well, let’s see, maybe not Nebraska, but every other one we will.” Even the most optimistic kid I’ve met has his limitations. I ask Brian if he sees the friendship extending beyond graduation and without blinking he said “I guarantee it. I plan on coming back for football games and basketball games. Plus, I have to make sure Jack doesn’t start to think about moving on and replacing that #10 jersey!” When I ask Jack about the realization that Brian is going to graduate and what that means for their friendship, he of course, has it all figured out. “He’s going to play for the Chicago Bears and get to play with his old teammate Corey Wootton.”
By now I’m saying my good-byes and heading for the door. I ask Jack for a prediction for Saturday against Indiana and he pronounces definite victory. I ask about Brian and whether he’ll factor in to the game. “Yeah, I think he’s going to get a sack and force a fumble.” I challenge with a follow-up on how confident he is of his prediction. “Well, I’m not sure, but I think he’s going to make a big play.” At this moment Jack is inspired. “Mom, I want to go to Indiana, can we go?”. The Leigh Ann Tuohy character emerges in Joanna and it is game on- mission Bloomington.
Less than 36 hours later the ‘Cats found themselves down 7-3 with Indiana and Tre Roberson marching once again. Roberson threw to the sideline and Peters had read it beautifully making an all out dive with outstretched hands to make his 10th career pick. Somewhere in Memorial Stadium the Marshalls were going nuts. I was on the couch doing the same. I shook my head and just basked in the power of sport. A college senior. A 7-year-old. A life impacted forever. A dose of perspective in a season in need of just that. Thank you Jack and thank you Brian. I look forward to checking in down the road.