Summer in Alabama is a lot like you would imagine. Hot. Humid. It’s not long before you’re soaking in sweat, trying to get any relief from a short breeze.
Now, imagine playing football in that Alabama heat. Two-a-days.
I pushed through drills, like the rest of the boys on the team. So as a 12-year-old going through this, like I was, it’s easy to assume you’re just gonna sweat. And I did. A lot.
Because the only thing more unrelenting than the humidity in Alabama, is football (Although, for me, my life was really about basketball. But more on that later).
A few days into our summer practice, I knew something wasn’t right. I was sweating, but this just wasn’t normal. The heat became unbearable, my head hurt real bad. It felt like a cold set into overdrive.
And then came the really weird stuff…
After our third day of two-a-days, I tried going to bed that evening and looked down at my hands. It felt like they were tiny, like I couldn’t pick anything up, like I had no strength or control over them.
When my mom came into the bedroom, I kept asking her,
Mom, can you tuck me in? I can’t pull up the sheets.
Can you tuck me in? I can’t pull up the sheets.
Can you tuck me in? I can’t pull up the sheets.
Just pulling up this single sheet seemed like an impossible task. My mom knew things were getting really bad, and she and my auntie decided to take me to the hospital. There are some pretty scary things in the world of a 12-year-old, and being rushed to the hospital in the middle of the night is probably close to the top. I cried the whole way there because I knew this was worse than just a cold, but I had no idea what the doctors were going to tell us when we got there.
Turns out, the doctors had no idea what to tell us either. Nobody knew what was wrong.
Except my grandma, who had come to the hospital with some other family.
I knew I had a cousin who passed away before I was born. In fact, he died on January 15, 1994. I would arrive the on same date, three years later.
When my grandma saw everything that was happening, she turned to my mom and the doctors.
“Test him for meningitis.”
The doctors said I wasn’t exhibiting all of the symptoms associated with the illness, but my grandma knew.
“Test him for meningitis.”
My uncle, who was there as well, stayed as the doctor cleared the room. I held his hand as the doctor administered a spinal tap. For those of you who don’t know, a spinal tap is when they insert a large needle into your back to draw blood from your spine. There’s no way to describe the pain, other than that it was unlike anything I had ever felt in my entire life.
The results came back: I had bacterial meningitis. The same disease that took my cousin’s life, over a dozen years earlier. But the diagnosis was only the beginning of our worries.
The next few days in the hospital were honestly life and death. The doctors weren’t sure I’d make it. Everything I tried to eat, I threw back up, so I was losing a lot of weight. The worst part was the headaches. I have a pretty high pain tolerance, and during the day I could somewhat cope with them, but at night, they were unbearable. I remember my mom just sitting with me in that room, massaging my head, trying to get rid of just some of the pain.
The doctor even passed a piece of paper around to my family members. I didn’t see the paper myself, but as each one read it, I saw the looks on their faces just change. And they didn’t look good. The paper was about what could happen to me — and that’s even if I recovered from meningitis, which wasn’t guaranteed at that point. I could go blind. I could go deaf. And there was a very, very good chance that I would never play basketball again.
Me and basketball pretty much go back to the day I was born. My father was still in college playing for the University of North Alabama, and when your child is born, what else does a player do but invite his teammates to meet the kid? A bunch of ball players filled my mom’s hospital room and passed me around, holding me in their hands.
This is when I’m supposed to say that from then on my basketball career was set. I mean, who else can say that right after they arrived into the world, they were greeted by a group of DII ball players?
Unfortunately, it didn’t really work out that way. I just wasn’t that good. I was never the type of player who just “had it.” I rode the bench most of the time on my youth teams and would cry after every game because I hadn’t gotten any playing time.
By the time I hit second grade, my father sat me down after I had watched yet another game from the sidelines.
“Do you really want to be great at this?”
“Are you tired of sitting on the bench?”
I didn’t have the natural talent that some of the other kids on my team had, but my dad knew I had the work ethic. And from that day on, we grinded. He and I were at the gym constantly. And my mom— really my whole family, looked at my dad like he was crazy, ’cause we were in the gym, like, every day. I always had a ball in my hand, always slept with my basketball. Everywhere I went, it was just all about basketball. It was almost like I was obsessed with it.
I didn’t really have a favorite team — we’re mostly about college sports in Alabama and at that time, I didn’t have much knowledge of the pro game. But as I grew older, I would watch my favorite players: Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan. Whenever I could, I would get online and watch their plays and their moves and try to incorporate them into my game. You know how Kobe backs down his guy sometimes? And then he does his fadeaway jumper? Well, I would try to do that.
My dad would get so upset with me.
“Why are you backing down like that?”
“Because Kobe does it.”
And forget sneakers. Some guys were into their Jordans or whatever. But I didn’t care too much about that, I would go out and play in church shoes. As long as I was on the court, as long as I had a basketball in my hand, that’s all that mattered.
But when I was in the hospital, my dad wasn’t there. He was in Iraq working as a government civilian, and at first he didn’t really know what had happened.
My dad is somebody who I’m very close to. He’s my dad, sure, but in a lot of ways, he’s also like my brother. He’s somebody that I look to during tough times. But he wasn’t there. My mom called him on our way to the hospital, so he knew I was sick, but it was hard to get him all the information. Sometimes the call would drop or we couldn’t reach him for a few days. So for a while, all he knew was that I was sick. He didn’t know much about my live-or-die week in the hospital. It was hard on my mom because my dad is the backbone in our family. I can remember my mom crying, and I just told her, “God got me.”
I remember praying, and having this assuredness inside of me that God would take care of me. This wasn’t the end of me. My faith has always been a big part of my upbringing, I teach Sunday school, I was raised in the church. During this time, one passage from the Bible stayed with me and my family.
Pray without ceasing.
And that’s what we did.
And after about a week, I just got better. My fever went down, the headaches ended and I could keep food down and the doctors told me I was well enough to go home. I just rested for a couple more weeks, happy that I was good to go and could finally keep my food down. And you know I had to go with Zebra Cakes and Nutter Butters first. It probably wasn’t the smartest move, but my mom was just so happy I was eating again, she’d buy anything.
I sat out that football season, but by the fall I was ready to try out for our middle school basketball team. I didn’t forget everything I’d just gone through, but I wasn’t really thinking about it. I was just happy to be back on the court.
I made the team and we went undefeated.
Even better was that my dad came home that spring, just before my seventh-grade year ended. A bunch of my family came round to see him and he just looked at me when he walked in.
“What are you standing on?” he asked.
Turns out, I had grown a few inches that year too.
Now, when I think about leaving next year for Michigan State, I think about my family — especially my dad — and the people who supported me not only through my sickness, but these last few years of basketball. I’ve always been the one to get our family together, asking my mom if our cousins can come by the house, calling my aunties and grandma to come by. Someone once joked that at our high school games, you could always tell where Josh’s family would be, because they have a little section where they all sit in the bleachers. Everyone knows us, and they know we’re here for each other.
Whether it’s trying to get off the bench, or trying to stay positive in a scary situation, having people around you can make all the difference. I realized that even more when I visited the Ronald McDonald House this weekend as part of the McDonald’s All-American Game.
I met one boy, named Bradley, who had also gone through a spinal tap. His dad told me that he was pretty sick (Bradley was a little shy). He’ll have to get stem cells from his sister, possibly the only person who can help him beat leukemia. Bradley’s father said he’d been following me since he found out I was coming to visit because he knew about my game. But he didn’t know about my own ordeal.
Bradley didn’t say much, but I leaned down and asked him for his autograph. He just smiled back at me.
I was actually really nervous to meet the kids and their families, knowing they’re going through far worse hardships than I did. I just wanted to share my own story and hoped that being there made a little difference.
There’s not a lot I remember from my own time in the hospital — I kind of went in and out of it — but I do remember the people who came in to see me, and the feeling that brought. Uncles, aunties, friends — even my school teacher came. At one point, I think the room was pretty full. To be able to do the same for those kids and families is what I wanted to do.
I used to work hard at basketball because I wanted the chance, I wanted to play. Now I have a little bit more perspective. I know that you can suddenly lose it all. And that’s what drives me.
It’s been seven years since my mom rushed me to the hospital. I always think about it. I always think about how far I came. But mostly, I think about the people who were there, who came to visit me those days in the hospital and to cheer me on those nights on the basketball court.