Everybody knows that football rules in Texas. For the Fitzhugh family, football has provided more than just entertainment and a place to be on Friday nights. Football has supplied joy and support in the midst of difficult circumstances.
Former Liberty Christian quarterback Bailee Brown is pursuing his dream of becoming an NFL general manager at Texas A&M as a sport management senior, but when he travels home for the holidays each year, he gets together with former Liberty players for 7-on-7 pickup games.
For Brown and his buddies, it has given them a chance to hang out while away from school. It also has provided the perfect reason for them to do something special for somebody less fortunate than them.
Thirteen-year-old Emery Fitzhugh is the daughter of Brown’s former Spanish teacher Mike Fitzhugh, and she suffers from the incurable, progressive disease Friedreich’s ataxia, which causes degeneration of the spinal cord and peripheral nerves.
“We love football and we love Emery, so it was a no-brainer,” said Brown, who graduated from Liberty in 2009. “Emery’s older brother Walt was a very good friend of mine and we played basketball. Her dad, Mike, also coached my older sister. They had this daughter that would run around and everybody loved her. She has never met a stranger in her life. At the age of 4 or 5 she was hanging out with the high school kids. Now she’s in a wheelchair and she always has a smile on her face. Everybody knows her as the most joyful girl with the circumstances she was given.”
Brown said neither he nor his friends thought they could raise much money with a charity football game, but they figured every little bit helped.
“We thought we could probably get three or four hundred bucks, and we knew they were paying bill after bill,” Brown said. “We thought people were going to bring $10. We got $1,600 last year. I remember getting everybody together and everybody was shocked with our small goal. All we did was put it on Facebook in a private group, and they committed.”
Brown pooled the money with the intention of just dropping the check and a signed photo of the players on the Fitzhughs’ doorstep, but was noticed by Mike at the door.
“It was an amazing thing for them to do,” Fitzhugh said. “They did it last year. I didn’t know anything about it, and they came over and raised some funds for my daughter. He had talked about doing it again. I thought, ‘OK, awesome.’ Then I found out they did it again during Christmas.”
This winter, Brown had even more friends come out for the second Emery Fitzhugh Football Classic, with hopes of raising $2,500.
“We ended up with eight teams of 10,” Brown said. “We said ‘Let’s shoot for $2,500,’ and we ended up raising $4,200. I think the coolest part about it was we didn’t get the word out to a bunch of corporations with a whole bunch of money. It was just a bunch of kids.”
Brown said they have even loftier goals for next year’s classic.
“Our goal is to get some celebrities out next year,” Brown said. “Our goal next year is $10,000. We, not our parents, can make a difference. That was our mind-set on the thing. We planned this thing in a week and it blew up. Imagine if we had a little bit more time to let everybody know about it. We want to make it a tradition during Christmas break because they have given everybody so much.”
Friedreich’s ataxia began affecting Emery at age 6 and has forced her into a wheelchair.
“We saw symptoms when she was 6 years old,” Fitzhugh said. “We adopted her as a baby, and her birth parents had asthma. We first noticed her complaining about her chest hurting during soccer. We thought it was asthma. Then the doctor noticed a heart murmur that wasn’t there before and we found out she has an enlarged heart. Then a few months later we took her to a neurologist and they diagnosed her with this disease.”
In recent months, Emery has been experiencing increased back pain. To ease the pain, she is scheduled to have a spinal fusion procedure.
“Basically, you lose control of every part of your body except your mind,” Fitzhugh said. “Two years after she was diagnosed, she had to use a wheelchair. She would walk a lot and get tired a lot. As time progressed, she lost the ability to walk altogether. As we go forward, now that she’s 13, we noticed her back hurting in the past two months. Then, all of a sudden, we go in right after Christmas and she has a 60-degree curve in her spine. We’ve seen her FA [Friedreich’s ataxia] friends that have already had the spinal fusion and it took away the pain. We are just trying to find relief for her.”
The Fitzhugh family discovered that a new bed would help alleviate Emery’s pain, but it was going to cost a pretty penny.
“We studied and found out we need to get a new bed,” Fitzhugh said. “We looked at different beds and found a great bed that cost $4,000. We walked out of there and I thought, ‘I don’t know how, but we are going to find a way to come up with this money. We need to find a way to get this money.’”
Brown and his friends delivered the answer to the Fitzhughs’ prayers.
“Bailee came over with some money and checks that they had raised, and it was over $4,000,” Fitzhugh said. “I was blown away. I didn’t know what to say. Talk about a prayer and an answer. It let us know that God was looking out for us. We got the bed earlier this week and she hasn’t complained once. She thinks she’s in her own little paradise. It has made her so happy and has given us a few nights’ sleep.”
Brown said one of the reasons he and his friends put on the game was to remind themselves to be thankful for the athletic ability they take for granted.
“I asked our assistant basketball coach to pray before the game, and in his prayer he said, ‘We so often take our athletic abilities for granted,’” Brown said “We need to remember we are out here for Emery. She can’t do the things we are out here doing, and next time you are having a bad day, you need to remember how happy Emery is without these abilities.”
Fitzhugh said the love and support his family has received has been more than helpful.
“It’s great when you have a family of support, especially through our Liberty family,” Fitzhugh said. “I have been there 22 years now and a lot of people have seen her grown up. It makes it a lot easier knowing you have support.”
Fitzhugh has known Brown’s family for years and couldn’t have been more impressed watching him develop as a man.
“I watched Bailee all the way up through high school and I taught him Spanish,” Fitzhugh said. “I saw him in sports as well, but you can’t say enough about the kind of person he is. He is so giving and thoughtful of other people. He’s a blast to be around and he has a heart of gold. He spends his spring breaks on mission trips with the school, and I always say he is an extension of his parents. Their whole family is like that. I know he loves and cares for Emery a whole lot.”
With the physical limitations Emery is facing, Fitzhugh promised her they would help her do whatever she wants to do.
“Since we had this happen with her, there have been a lot of things taken away from her life,” Fitzhugh said, “from being able to jump out of bed to walking.”
After Mike and Emery participated in a charity bike ride last year, Emery decided she wanted to ride bikes. So, Fitzhugh, Brown and a friend started getting creative.
“She wanted to start riding bikes and she couldn’t keep her balance,” Fitzhugh said. “Bailee’s friend Garrett fixed this adult bicycle hooked up to her electric scooter so she can ride around. So this year, we tried to make it more secure. Then we took it to a shop and added a chair and some other things along with painting it her favorite color, turquoise. We rode 25 miles last year, and she loves getting out on the dirt roads.”
Now, the Fitzhugh family has been approved through the Hope For Michael Foundation — a organization set up to support local families with a life-threatening or terminal disease or injury — to receive donations for a new house with wheelchair accessibility.
Fitzhugh said he hopes for one more thing when it comes to the third annual Emery Fitzhugh Football Classic.
“Maybe next year we will know the date and be a part and watch,” Fitzhugh said.
PATRICK HAYSLIP can be reached at 940-566-6873. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org .