By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
A chance meeting last November in Chicago changed former West Virginia University linebacker J.T. Thomas’ life and with it the life of young Anthony Grandberry, 14, who suffers from epilepsy.
Thomas told the story in a Tuesday phone call while involved in a 1,300-mile journey with six volunteers in a van from Florida to Chicago to raise awareness of epilepsy and surprise Grandberry with a trip to Indianapolis to attend Super Bowl XLVI at Lucas Oil Stadium, a gesture made possible through the J.T. Thomas Foundation that the Bears’ linebacker has founded.
But back to that chance meeting. The NFL season was already under way and Thomas, a rookie, was on injured reserve with back and hamstring problems that would cost him his entire rookie season.
He was stopped by Grandberry’s mother, Tonya Harris, asking him to meet her son and sign Grandberry’s jersey.
Thomas was overwhelmed.
He arranged at Christmas to visit the teen, bringing him a Bears’ jersey and hat along with a gift card from Best Buy, beginning a relationship that would grow as the year went on, reaching the point that as the season ended he felt he wanted to do something further for him as a way to kick off his newly formed foundation.
“I wanted to make him feel the way I felt when we first met,” Thomas said. “I hadn’t played all season. I hadn’t practiced a down. He made me feel like I was an All-Star, like I was a Pro Bowler. I wanted to surprise him by taking him to the Super Bowl.”
This is the way J.T. Thomas, the Mountaineer linebacker who graduated following the 2010 season, is. As hard as he hits on the field is as soft as he is off it. He has a brother, Jarody, who has autism, and that led him into the world of childhood disabilities.
“That definitely played a part. Me having the relationship I have with my brother, I understand the patience you need to have to deal with special-needs children,” he said. “I know it takes a little bit more. The goal is to make the child feel as normal as possible, just like a regular kid. I know how challenging that can be at times.”
While in Morgantown, he was involved in as much of this kind of thing as he could be, active in trips to the Children’s Hospital, trying to do what he could to help kids who were suffering.
“People don’t understand how blessed we are to be able to wake up every day, to be able to walk, to be able to think, to be able to do the simple things,” he said. “More than raising an awareness to epilepsy, I want to raise an awareness around the world that you are blessed.
“It’s just the kind of person I am. I don’t worry about how the media perceives me or how anyone else does. I know why I do it, and the people around me know why I do it. I want to affect the child forever, to have a major impact on their life.
“I feel there are things more important than football. A life is more important than football. A child is more important than football.”
When this relationship started, Thomas had no idea what epilepsy was.
“I didn’t. Through this trip and talking to Anthony’s mom I’ve gained a greater knowledge of it. Just like autism, there are different levels of severity. Some people need brain surgery,” he said. “It works with some people. In Anthony’s case, it didn’t. He’s a year and a half removed from brain surgery, and he still suffers some symptoms of it.”
The Chicago Sun-Times recently laid out the history behind Grandberry’s suffering, writing:
Harris is a single mother who lives in subsidized housing. She styles hair when her schedule allows, but her life is devoted to her son, who was born three months premature, weighing just 2 1/2 pounds.
Grandberry didn’t leave the hospital for three months because of liver and lung failure and other medical challenges. When he was eight months old, he returned to the hospital with pneumonia, and doctors predicted the worst.
“Everything was failing. They thought he wouldn’t survive,” Harris said. “If he did, he would be a vegetable. But God brought him through that.”
At 7, though, Grandberry was diagnosed with epilepsy, a brain disorder that causes seizures. At one point, he was taking 14 pills twice a day. Still, the seizures didn’t stop, and he underwent four hours of brain surgery on March 16, 2010.
It was a couple of days after Grandberry’s 12th birthday.
Two years later, Grandberry is learning at a preschool level, though he’s still experiencing one or two seizures a week. Sometimes they’re momentary, involving just a twitch or a shake. Other times, he’ll fall down, stare blankly ahead, foam at the mouth and struggle to breathe for up to a minute.
In those instances, Harris lays with him, talks and prays.
“He can have a thousand more, and I’ll never get used to it,” she said. “It’s just a frightening feeling when your baby is suffering and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
Now, though, he has a friend, a professional football player with a heart named J.T. Thomas.
“As a Mountaineer you learn to give back. You learn how big an impact you have on someone else’s life. You may run into a kid that has your jersey on,” he said.
The J.T. Thomas Foundation will hold a stop on the ReadyReady Road Trip, raising awareness and funds for epilepsy research, from 3 to 7 p.m. at the Buffalo Wild Wings in the Suncrest Towne Center in Morgantown. Former and current WVU athletes will be in attendance, as well as former linebacker J.T. Thomas of the Chicago Bears.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.