Today is the kickoff of the college football season for the Arkansas Razorbacks and I am excited.
Based on some of the replies and messages some of you sent me this week it appears you will be shocked by this.
Technically, based on journalistic integrity drilled into me by Central Arkansas sports information director Steve East and the Dallas Cowboys security team that I watched escort journalists out of the press box at the old Cowboys Stadium in Irving, I learned long ago to let the sports fan of my childhood go and simply analyze based on my collective experience of what is now 27 years of reporting.
So if I can’t be excited for the season in the way Razorback fans are, then those of you who are new to this party are probably confused as to why I feel this way.
You see, I was less than a millimeter from not being here to cover this game, four inches from not having my son come down to complain that it’s a Razorback game day so he can’t have the TV, and 54 heartbeats away from not having my daughter ask me questions to help her understand the game better.
Those who followed us less than a month after I arrived back on the Arkansas scene last December know the story of my sudden bout with cancer. For those who weren’t, you can read the account of what happened and the role the Razorback football team played in that below.
HOW FOOTBALL KEPT ME FOCUSED IN FACE OF DEATH
It rocked my family to its core and for my wife, the Razorbacks were a big part of getting through that first week when everything hung in the balance. It wasn’t until a few weeks after that article that we found out the cancer had pushed through my colon and the thinnest possible bit of tissue was preventing the spread.
It was so thin the cancer left impressions in my liver when the doctors removed it. Had it pushed just the slightest bit more, I would have been in the “Christmas” stage where you are told to focus on your family knowing how to live without you instead of what to get the kids for next Christmas because you won’t be there.
We were that close to this being the first season my wife would watch alone, instead of having me watching it without bias while she yelled at refs to make holding calls that usually aren’t actually holding.
Fortunately, while the University of Texas is a simply dreadful at producing professional football players, its academic side is top notch and produced one of the greatest colorectal surgeons of all time in Dr. Dale Burleson and I was lucky enough to retain his services.
It was a long fight back that I would wish on no one. All those stories I wrote covering the wars Arkansas had with Gonzaga and Duke in the NCAA tournament were done while I was in such poor health, I was certain that if they made the Final Four, I wouldn’t be around to cover them.
My family was sick, so I was all alone in a hotel room that week having to consume three gallons of fluids an hour to keep up with the lowest of hydration levels as a result of a bad reaction I had to my latest chemo treatment. I was able to return home the following Saturday so weak that it took all I had to stay conscious while getting there.
My wife didn’t know fully the extent of what had happened while I was gone. How she nursed me back when I knew how close my body was to shutting down for good is beyond me.
There was a point during treatments where I lost my ability to walk for hours at a time, and once, as I neared what we hope will be my final treatment, I found myself fully paralyzed.
My family wasn’t aware of it at first because it happened while my eyes were closed so they thought I was asleep.
My son came in and told me he loved me and I couldn’t even so much as flutter an eyelid in response to him. About a half hour later, my wife came out of the bathroom into a now dark room where my son had wandered in again and scared the daylights out of her.
Even though her scream was jolting, my body didn’t jerk with what should have been a natural reaction to such a sudden, loud noise. My brain was running at 100 percent, but just couldn’t connect to a single muscle, which was particularly frustrating when my wife forgot I was there and starting singing Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog.”
The level of internal screaming that went on at not being able to react to a moment with so much potential husband-wife comedy was infuriating.
At some point just prior to being to beautifully serenaded, my son had walked over to see if he could wake me by standing next to my side of the bed. My “I must protect this house!” husband/dad senses were sending off so many alarms because I can sense someone coming up the stairs in the dark and definitely when they reach bedside.
He most likely wanted to try to convince me to let him crash in our bed just one more night even though he had reached the official age where we cut off our kids from getting to sleep with us on Friday nights just a few days earlier. That’s when he did the bravest thing he’s ever done – touch my finger in complete darkness of night while he thought I was asleep.
Kids, it’s never safe to do that to a sleeping father. It startles dads awake thinking an intruder has made it into the room.
When he did that, an intense, shocking tingle shot through my body. By the time my wife settled into bed, I regained the slightest of connection between my brain and my finger.
I moved that finger up and down at a snail’s pace, desperately hoping to get my wife’s attention away from her iPad. As a testament to the mental connection we’ve developed over nearly 20 years of marriage, she did notice the odd movement in the light of her lamp.
No one else would have been able to deduce my attempts at communicating through slight up and down nods of my fingers and side to side shakes. Through a series of yes-no questions she realized my paralysis, dehydration, and hunger.
A man should never marry a woman he isn’t prepared to die for without the tiniest of hesitation and a woman should never marry a man she isn’t prepared to see with water dribbling down his face and chocolate pudding all over his beard.
Her attempts to get water into me along with pudding, the only food we had that she felt might be safe if I couldn’t swallow, reconnected the muscles needed for swallowing enough that I could force them to make the weakest contraction ever with the concentrated effort of a man trying to make an entire building move with just his mind.
Every weak sip that sent more water tumbling helplessly out the corner of my mouth than down my throat sent exploding headaches in my brain as a result of the intense focus it took to make it happen.
Over the course of what would be roughly 10 hours, my brain slowly connected to my muscles individually.
I reached a point where I could make what would be simple multi-muscle movements for normal people by switching my brain back and forth between controlling two muscles individually super fast. Think of having a game controller where the A button moves something up a quarter inch and the B button moves right a quarter inch and you have to push them as fast as possible to create any sort of movement that would look like one normal motion.
The last thing to come back was my voice. Apparently talking requires a lot of complicated muscle control that is beyond my understanding.
By 8 a.m. I was back at work and convinced God had used love to help me escape what was the most terrifying of a giant blue binder full of side effects from chemo.
Four Inches and an Army of Angels
As my final treatment neared, I had a rare day of feeling somewhat normal. After roughly eight months of using any moments my body wasn’t shut down by surgeries and the treatments to work, I had enough energy left over on this particular day to take my son on a much needed father-son trip to the movies.
He had sacrificed so much to help me get through this journey and I owed him this few hours of person time before when I knew the chemo wall would hit again.
For those who haven’t had to experience this, the wall starts with an intense tingling and numbness in your feet. That’s when the clock starts ticking.
You’ve got 3-5 minutes before your body shuts down no matter where you are or what you’re doing and you’re out for the next 3-4 hours.
This particular day I made a mistake. Without realizing it, I took a road I go out of my way to avoid ever driving.
It’s literally one of the most dangerous highways in America. At one point it felt like someone died on that thing every week.
One day a man in our church lost his entire family after his wife picked up his kids early from the Vacation Bible School my then 4-year-old daughter was attending. She went to turn on that road and none of them ever returned home to the husband and father who loved them so much.
That had been the final straw for me, so as a family we figured out a series of backroads that allowed us to avoid it no matter where we were going.
All I remember is the sound. For a full month I heard it over and over every time I closed my eyes.
It was the sound of a car hitting ours exactly where my son was sitting at full speed, sending us spinning across three lanes of oncoming traffic. We should have been hit a second and third time but weren’t.
We should have hit the curb sideways and flipped multiple times before wrapping around a concrete column, but we didn’t.
We should have been dead, especially my son. Sometimes my mind wonders if we aren’t.
That day I had to force myself to do the hardest thing a father ever has to do and I pray no one reading this ever has to do it because it messed me up really bad.
It took everything I had, but I forced myself to turn my head to look through the smoke filling the car to see what was likely going to be the dead body of my son. My natural instincts as a father for protection is the only thing that allowed me to keep it together when I saw him move.
Ignoring the pain of broken ribs and what felt like rips throughout my abdomen from what I can only describe as my insides being spun around in reverse in violent fashion from the impact, I got out and pulled the back passenger door open. I then talked my son through crawling far enough for me to pull him from the wreckage and get him away from the car.
He was stunned, severely concussed and wouldn’t be able to see color for a full hour, but me was alive and walking. The list of things that had to happen to get that result was endless.
I never drive my wife’s car. No one is allowed to touch it, but for some reason, knowing the trouble I would be in when we got back, I took it.
It was just a year old, loaded with the most safety features of any of our cars, the heaviest, and the only one with OnStar.
We don’t survive in any other car we own. The back passenger side airbags that saved my son’s life aren’t in the others and the rest would have flipped without question.
A week earlier, we told my son’s pediatrician that since he was about to be 10 and already at a good height for his age, we were going to go ahead and remove his booster seat. She was so insistent that she convinced my wife, who can be dismissive on certain things when she thinks enough is enough, to keep him the booster seat just a little longer.
Had he not been in that booster seat, he would have been directly impacted instead of the booster seat absorbing some of the blow and also not high enough up to be properly protected by the air bag.
My son would no longer be here.
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When we had to go to the salvage yard to get personal belongings from the wreckage after several days in the hospital as my son recovered, my wife went in alone. When she got back to the car, she was in was in uncontrollable tears.
She had just been forced to crawl through the area where our son sat and had seen the destruction caused. While I had told her there was no way he should have lived, that angels had to have made a wall around him for him to be with us today, seeing firsthand how true that had to be overwhelmed her.
She could see the impact was directly on our little boy. She could see the mangled four inches of door that stood between him and a vehicle going at full speed.
She could see the airbag that had concussed my son, yet spared his life hanging at a height he couldn’t have reached if the booster seat, still in its place, hadn’t been under him.
I shouldn’t be here from that wreck and I was in the front driver’s seat, well away from the impact.
When I hear the sound of the impact when I close my eyes, I am forced to turn my head over and over again to see what should have been the result, a constant nightmarish reminder of God’s grace and protection.
With my last chemo treatment behind us by a few days but me still vulnerable to potential death at the hands of anything that can cause a fever from a common cold to intense flu, a massive wave of COVID swept through our town. It made its way into our home also.
My son handled it well, it was a bad bout for my wife, but for my daughter, who battles a respiratory malady called vocal chord dysfunction, it was especially harsh.
Over time she developed extreme shortness of breath. Walking a few steps wore her out and made it difficult to breathe.
Then came the rash. Her skin started developing waves of deep redness like the worst sunburn ever.
At first she described it as being covered in thousands of fire ant bites and had swollen markings similar to many fire ant bites clustered together. It tormented her and kept her from sleeping.
When she saw her pediatrician, it was suspected she might be developing a rare COVID reactionary condition found in children and teens called MISC, a dangerous side effect that involves inflammation of your insides.
Early Thursday morning, she experienced extreme dizziness and confusion, which was one of the symptoms we were told to watch for if other symptoms were present. Then, as she sat on the other side of the room while I finished breaking down the Cincinnatti quarterback situation, her skin exploded into this rash all over.
There were no waves. It was hitting everywhere and when anything touched her skin, it swelled up instantly.
The pediatrician got things under control with a steroid, but seemed concerned. That concern went to a whole new level when her body suddenly started having muscle specific bouts of intense fever.
It started with her saying she felt her right elbow just suddenly burst into flames. Then an arm muscle got intensely hot.
She was confused, not sure what she was experiencing so she had me check. Sure enough, her body was normal temp, but specific areas were the hottest fever I have ever touched.
Her doctors sent her to the emergency room at 3 p.m. By the time the children’s hospital could see her around 9 p.m. because of the overwhelming amount of trauma cases coming in Friday night, my daughter had been long since moved into a wheel chair, her blood pressure had dropped dramatically and the wheelchair couldn’t be moved without making her feel the need to vomit.
Things had deteriorated for her a lot in the waiting room.
Doctors, stressed by the extreme cases happening all around that night, scrambled to figure a solution as her blood pressure dropped further. Not long after, the worry in a father’s heart peaked when her heart rate fell to 54 beats per minute.
At one point a mother in the room next door burst into the hallway screaming and crying uncontrollably. A tumor had caused all the pressure on her child’s brain.
Rattled, my daughter put her headphones on to try to block out the awful scene next door and prayed for that family.
When things were at their worst, I stopped trying to entertain my son to keep his mind off everything happening with his sister. We huddled together and prayed as hard as we could for his sister.
Ten minutes later, we got a text from my wife. Things had turned and our daughter was going to be OK.
So good in fact that she will be home Saturday to show off the knowledge she has gained while watching me cover the Razorbacks the past year. Remember, all my healthy time was spent writing stories for each of you, so to spend time with her dad, she had to watch the games too.
She’s now the only person on her school’s color guard who actually understands what is happening on the field now. As the “mother” of the group and a captain, she explains the game to the rest of the group as it unfolds on Friday nights.
So you see, I don’t have the excitement that bursts through Razorback fans today. Journalistic integrity requires I give that up so I can cover the team without bias.
That means I tell things how I see them to the best of my ability. Some days I get to make people happy or even feel warm feelings about times or people past.
It also means I get flooded with insults and hateful messages when my observations don’t align with what a fan wants to hear, but that’s just part of the job these days.
There are those out there who are homers who write or say things they don’t necessarily believe, but know it’s an easier path by placating the fans. There are also those hung up on shock value who write or say things they don’t necessarily believe, but know getting the fans all in a tizzy means clicks or listeners.
I will always write only what I believe because integrity matters.
And today I am excited for the opening of the Razorback football season. I could say this entire offseason has been Hell, but, in reality, it’s been blessing after blessing of God an his army of angels protecting this family through crisis after crisis.
Nothing could mean more to me than that moment today when our whole family gets to come together to watch the Razorbacks take on a Cincinnati team that deserves every ounce of the highest respect by Hog fans.
It’s the moment the four of us get to believe we’ve been delivered from the darkness of cancer, car wrecks and COVID complications. At least half our family shouldn’t be here, but we are.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.
I’m excited. Let’s get this thing started.
PLAYOFF EXPANSION CAN REALLY BENEFIT RAZORBACKS
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW FOR HOGS-CINCINNATI OPENER SATURDAY
RAZORBACK FANS HAVE BELIEVED FOR NEARLY 60 YEARS THEY ACTUALLY WON A NATIONAL TITLE WITH FOUR VOTES
WHO STARTS AT QB FOR CINCINNATI WILL DETERMINE VERY DIFFERENT GAME PLANS FOR BEARCATS
SEC ROUND-UP: KELLY HAS LSU CALLING TEENAGERS AFTER MIDNIGHT ON SCHOOL NIGHT, AUBURN HAS AD INTEREST, PLUS MORE
FORMER RAZORBACK MAY SOON BE WITH DALLAS COWBOYS
CHANCE FOR RAZORBACK FANS TO WALK DOWN MEMORY LANE
WHY RAZORBACK FANS NEED TO COOL DOWN THE HYPE THIS SEASON
PLENTY OF GAMES FOR HOGS’ FANS TO WATCH ON TV THIS WEEKEND
HOGS WON’T CATCH CINCINNATI OFF-BALANCE TRYING TO RUN THE BALL SATURDAY
SAM PITTMAN COULD USE SOME OF JIMMY JOHNSON’S PSYCHOLOGY FOR DEALING WITH HOT DAY
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