FOOTBALL: Grant Milton: The Long Road
Updated 2:19 pm, Saturday, July 29, 2017
As Grant Milton rests in his bed at Touchstone Neurorecovery Center in Conroe, he is surrounded by his favorite things and memories of his favorite people. There’s a blanket with a collage of images with friends and family printed on the thin fleece fabric. His vibrant LeBron James socks are rolled together as a pair and safely tucked away in his closet. And a hand-crafted pillow with the No. 21 proudly displayed in red and green numbers sits on the cushion of the easy chair in the corner.
For now at least, this is home for Grant as he continues to recover from a traumatic brain injury he suffered while playing football for The Woodlands High School nearly eight months ago.
Grant will turn 19 years old on Aug. 3. And while his future still remains uncertain, the road that has brought him to this point has been one filled with emotion for those who care about him the most. There have been moments of pure joy and others filled with extreme sorrow. But through all of those turbulent times, hope has remained, and love has triumphed above all.
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As the minute hand crept closer and closer to 5:30 p.m., the sun began to capsize behind the confines of McLane Stadium at Baylor University in Waco. With the turf playing field illuminated by an array of bright stadium lights, the sky shifted to a vivid display of pink and purples hues. The temperature held steady in the 50s on a crisp evening in late November.
It was perfect weather for a high school football playoff game, and just a couple of hours after the autumn evening fell into darkness, The Woodlands and Austin Bowie clashed on the gridiron in a memorable shootout in the Region II-6A semifinals.
FOOTBALL: The Woodlands blows past Austin Bowie in regional playoffs
“Everybody was excited,” The Woodlands coach Mark Schmid said. “That was the first opportunity to play at McLane, and it was such a cool venue. … You could feel the excitement and the electricity of playoff football, and it was awesome.”
The Highlanders unleashed their ferocious offensive attack on the Bulldogs with senior quarterback Eric Schmid leading the unwavering charge. When the smoke cleared, the undefeated juggernaut from South Montgomery County had emerged victorious, taking control early in the second half before rolling to a 52-31 triumph.
But as The Woodlands and its faithful fan base began to experience the sweet emotions of the impending final whistle, Grant Milton was nowhere to be found.
With the fourth quarter winding down, the senior outside linebacker was no longer in the game. He was no longer standing on the sideline with his teammates. He was no longer in the stadium. All that remained was his shoulder pads, fully draped in his white No. 21 jersey and a Gatorade towel, hunched over on the ground next to the Highlanders’ metal bench.
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The holiday season can be a hectic one for people working in retail, particularly on Black Friday and the weekend that follows. That was the case for Patty Milton as she wrestled with the fact that she would not be able to attend her son’s game nearly 170 miles away from her home in The Woodlands.
“Black Friday is probably the only weekend during the year that you can’t get off,” Patty said. “I couldn’t get off that weekend. Not for any other reason ― but it was just work. I was watching Grant’s game on the computer at night, which I would do if I had to miss a game.”
Throughout the first half of the contest, the Highlanders’ defense was playing with tenacity, limiting the high-powered Bulldogs to just 10 points. Grant was playing well, and even came up with a big sack of Bowie senior quarterback Wade Smith, which Patty witnessed through the glow of her computer screen.
“I’m watching Grant throughout the game, and sure, I pay attention to when he’s on the field, when he’s off the field,” Patty said. “Point spreads ― that tells it all, too. So as a parent, you kind of prepare yourself for those crunch moments where your son has to be on the field.”
As the game wore on and the Highlanders began to find some separation on the scoreboard, one of those “crunch moments” arose. Bowie was knocking on the door of the Highlanders’ end zone early in the fourth quarter, as Smith had finally found a rhythm with his receivers in the passing game.
As an outside linebacker, Grant had many responsibilities, which included dropping into coverage.
“His job was to mess up the whole play,” Patty said. “I’m thinking to myself, ‘Grant, you’ve got this. This is so you. You’ve totally got this.’ I didn’t have a worry about it. You just know what your son is capable of.”
As Patty was watching the play develop, she noticed that Grant turned the opposite direction of where he was supposed to go, and the receiver he was meant to shut down reeled in a touchdown catch.
“It looked totally off to me,” Patty said. “It was very different from there.”
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While Patty was intently watching the game from home that night, Grant’s father, Miles, was able to make the trek to Waco. Miles and the rest of his family sat near the 30-yard line on the east side of the stadium with the rest of the fans from The Woodlands. Being at a Division I college stadium with a sub-capacity crowd meant there really wasn’t a bad seat in the house.
“My wife (Debra) and all of my kids ― my sons and my stepson and stepdaughter ― we were all there at the game,” Miles said as he showed a group photo they took before kickoff, a green “Milton Strong” wristband protruding from the sleeve of his white button-up shirt. “We made a big event of it. I went to Baylor, and Grant was so excited to play in McLane Stadium. He could see us all up there, and he was waiving to us in the stands. He had a whole cheering committee up there.”
As seconds ticked off the game clock in the final period, Miles suddenly heard someone shouting his name. He looked toward the sideline and saw David Lee, Grant’s teammate and close friend, frantically motioning for him to come down to the field.
“He just had a horrifying look on his face,” Miles said. “By the time I got down there and jumped the wall to get on the field, they were loading him onto the gurney to get him off the field and strapping him in. He was already in and out of consciousness, [and] he had already had a seizure. I ran off the field with the [team] doctor (Brant Lipscomb) and the EMSteam, and the ambulance was waiting there.”
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There are 6.5 miles on I-35 South in Waco that stand between McLane Stadium and Baylor Scott and White Medical Center. Every inch of that pavement and every second it took for the ambulance to reach the emergency room doors was crucial.
“They sent me back immediately, and it was just like what you’d see on a television show,” Miles said. “There’s my son, and he has his football (leg) pads, and there were at least 10 people in that room working on him between the doctors and the nurses.”
The CT scan of Grant’s head revealed that he had severe intracranial bleeding, and emergency neurosurgery was required.
“His pupils were dilated, which means it affects the brain stem, which is where your life support is,” Miles said. “He was headed towards brain death.”
Back in The Woodlands, Patty hitched a ride with a friend to Waco after receiving several calls from Lipscomb, who informed her that she needed to be there as soon as possible.
Two hours passed by as Grant underwent surgery at the hands of Luiz Cesar, M.D., who had been practicing neurology for nearly 40 years. By the time Patty got to the hospital, the operation was complete, but her son was not out of the woods.
“My brother met me at the elevator, and I found out that [his condition] wasn’t that good,” Patty said. “I learned that all my boys were told to say goodbye to their brother. He wasn’t maybe going to make it through the night. I was told there from my brother that I needed to say goodbye. … I heard what was being said, and it was the worst words a parent ever wants to hear. I couldn’t accept it.”
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During the final quarter of the game, Schmid was approached by team athletic trainer Charlotte Laverne and informed that Grant had been transported to the hospital with concussion-like symptoms.
Schmid had addressed his team and answered questions from reporters after the contest finally ended when he got another update.
“You go from this state of just euphoria and excitement for advancing and the kids, and then she tells me that he’s in the hospital, they’re doing emergency surgery, and it doesn’t look good,” Schmid said. “I was shocked. … You go from one extreme to the next in your emotions in a split second.”
Schmid, Laverne and trainer Cody Dean rushed to the hospital and waited with Grant’s family as the surgery was performed. Meanwhile, as the rest of the team rode back to The Woodlands on the bus, news of the operation was relayed to the players.
“That bus ride home was not an easy one,” said teammate and fellow linebacker Zach La Canfora, one of Grant’s closest friends. “Me and two of my really good friends (Lee and Conner Barnett) just sat in the back of the bus holding hands and praying with each other.”
Around 3 a.m., after consulting with Miles on his son’s condition, Schmid and Lipscomb decided to head back to The Woodlands.
“We’re not on the road more than 30 minutes, and Miles calls,” Schmid said. “And he says he just spoke with the surgeon, and the surgeon told him that he’s not sure Grant is even going to make it. So once again, you go from, OK, he’s going to be alright, to he may not even live.”
Schmid arrived home around 5 a.m., but sleep was not an option. After a couple of hours had passed, he drove to the school to meet with offensive coordinator Jim Rapp. The two coaches talked about how they would handle the situation with the kids, knowing they also had a regional championship game against Round Rock to prepare for that week.
“[The game] gave us a purpose, and it gave us a focus,” Schmid said. “That Sunday, the day after, some of Grant’s closest friends (La Canfora and Barnett) went back to Waco to see him. They came to practice on Monday, those kids, and we had a team meeting. They wanted to address the team, and they just basically said that Grant is one of their best friends, and he would want nothing more than for us to focus on football and try to finish what we started at the beginning of the year.”
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Despite the bleak prognosis, Grant did survive the first night after his surgery and spent the next two and a half weeks in Waco in a coma. The Highlanders, meanwhile, rallied around their fallen teammate and dedicated the remainder of the season to him.
The very next Saturday against Round Rock, the Highlanders went back to McLane Stadium, dressed in the same white uniforms, and beat the Dragons 41-18. Patty was there watching the game from a suite, which had been offered to her by former Baylor coach Grant Teaff.
“That was the first real time where I felt like, ‘I need to do this for Grant,'” she said. “I’m not a football person – I’m always asking for explanations. But I felt like I needed to be there.”
FOOTBALL: Playing for teammate, The Woodlands wins regional title
As kickoff approached, the Highlanders’ captains ― Eric Schmid, Michael Purcell, Chris Stewart and Zach Loane ― walked out to midfield together for the coin toss. Purcell and Loane carried Grant’s pads and jersey with them to christen their teammate as an honorary captain.
“I was tearing up as I was carrying his jersey out,” Loane said. “He deserved to be there, and he was one of those kids who always put the work in. He was a leader to me and a role model to me. I know it meant the world to all of us to do that and honor him in that way.”
All throughout the stadium, the No. 21 could be seen. There were t-shirts, signs, helmet decals for the players, and even a banner hanging from the railing on the Round Rock side that read, “All of Dragon Nation is #MiltonStrong21” in the Highlanders’ colors.
“When I saw them bring the jersey out, I felt like a giant puddle, to be honest,” Patty said. “I was very overwhelmed. It was incredibly special, and it came from those boys’ hearts.”
After that game, The Woodlands went on to beat Allen in the state semifinals before ultimately falling to Lake Travis in the state championship game at AT&T Stadium in Arlington. Patty was there at the send-off rally, offering hugs to the players and coaches as they boarded their charter bus. And although the season ended with a disappointing loss and a 15-1 record, the players showed their character as they fought for Grant on every single snap.
“I was never more impressed by a bunch of teenage kids than I was as I watched them deal with that situation,” Schmid said. “It was a very close group of seniors, and they’ve been close all growing up. … No matter what level of friendship you had with Grant, everybody was thinking and feeling the same way. Just an incredible group of young men ― that’s going to stand out with me forever.”
FOOTBALL: An emotional, unforgettable season for The Woodlands
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The day after Grant’s surgery, a prayer gathering was organized at StoneBridge Church in The Woodlands, and Grant’s family watched on a cell phone as the community came together to show its support.
“It was so beautiful,” Patty said. “There wasn’t a dry eye in that room. We all crowded around that little phone, and we were watching this giant moment. It was really incredible. At that point, visually I could see the good will and the love, and it was a really tremendous moment.”
That evening was just the beginning of what would turn into a tidal wave of support and outpouring, not only from The Woodlands community, but also from across the state of Texas and beyond.
Thousands of dollars began to flood into the GoFundMe page created by Dorothy Casey, the mother of senior wide receiver Dylan Casey. Houston Texans star J.J. Watt made a $10,000 donation after learning of the situation, and left a message for the family as well: “If there’s anything that I can do to help, please let me know,” the All-Pro defensive end wrote. “Sending my best wishes to Grant and the entire Milton family.”
Texans star J.J. Watt donates $10,000 to injured Woodlands player
As of Saturday evening, the total amount raised was just more than $147,000 with more than 1,666 individual donations. More than $100,000 of that came within the first few days.
Over the next several weeks after the injury, various fundraisers were organized by supporters of the football program with specially-made t-shirts, wristbands and other assorted items being put up for sale. Local business also chipped in, offering a portion of their proceeds during certain times of the day to the Milton family.
While Grant was in Waco, a waitress at a local restaurant overheard his brothers talking about their situation and later prepared a homemade meal for them.
Smith, the same quarterback who Grant had tackled to the ground during the game against Bowie, traveled almost two hours for a hospital visit with his mother to show his support.
The Allen Eagles, who the Highlanders defeated on their way to state, gave the family a football-themed wall decoration that reads, “I can handle anything that life throws at me.” It hangs above Grant’s nightstand to this day.
And a man from the Dallas area sent Schmid an old bronze statue of a football player that he had reluctantly held onto for years. The metal figurine dons the No. 21, and when the man heard of Grant’s situation, he knew there was a reason he kept it.
Those gestures, along with countless other acts of kindness, made a big difference for Grant’s parents and siblings.
“The broad community has been just unbelievable,” Miles said.
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While Grant has been battling his own condition, Patty has also faced personal health struggles. She was first diagnosed with breast cancer at age 38 when the family lived in Ohio. Grant was very young at the time, and after receiving treatments over an extended period of time, Patty finally reached remission.
But after they relocated to Texas, she was re-diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer. She is still battling the disease to this day.
“It’s just been something that we kind of roll with in our family,” Patty said. “It’s certainly not the death sentence that people think it is. … Right now, I’m doing great, and I have been for so many years with God’s grace. And I think everything Grant has been brought up with gives him such a push. There’s no obstacle [he can’t overcome]. I look at the stuff that I’ve gone through and my family has gone through as really a positive for what Grant is going through right now because I know he gets that strength and maybe some of my tenacity.”
Before Grant’s injury, Patty was very involved with a program called Canopy, which originated at Memorial Hermann-The Woodlands Hospital and provides cancer patients and caregivers with an assortment of complimentary support and educational services. She is hoping that one day a similar program will become available in the area for those dealing with neurological disorders and injuries.
“It’s an incredible gem in The Woodlands community and all of Montgomery County,” Patty said.
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Over the first seven months after the injury, Grant lost 30 pounds from his 6-foot-1, 190-pound frame. He is still unable to speak, using “Yes” and “No” cards to communicate by looking at them when asked a question. He is still receiving tube feedings and is not able to consistently move on his own.
It’s been a long road, from Baylor Scott and White in Waco, to a brief stint at Nexus Specialty Hospital in The Woodlands, to TIRR Memorial Hermann in downtown Houston, and now to Touchstone. Both Patty and Miles have expressed a great deal of gratitude for all of the medical professionals that have helped their son in his recovery.
There have been little moments of encouragement throughout the process. Back on April 23, Grant scribbled his name on a piece of paper. His eyes swelled with tears when he saw a photo taken by Lon Larsen of the Highlanders emerging from a smoke-filled inflatable helmet before a game at Woodforest Bank Stadium. And at times, he has shown cognitive response to commands by lifting his right hand when asked to give a “high five.”
But despite those instances of progress, no one is quite sure what his long-term prognosis will be. As the swelling in his brain decreased in the weeks following the injury, it gave rise to ischemic bilateral strokes, leaving several areas on both hemispheres permanently damaged.
Grant is essentially undergoing a re-wiring of his brain.
“I don’t harbor an ill will towards football,” Miles said. “I’ve had people ask me that, but I haven’t even gotten to that part of a reconciliation with that yet. But I can tell you my son loved to play it. The cheerleaders cheering, the band, the Highsteppers, Grant loved all of that.”
While the injury has adversely impacted his young life – Grant had his sights set on possibly attending the University of Oklahoma this fall with La Canfora as his roommate – the silver lining is the impact his story has had on others.
It was apparent when youth football players Anderson and Ashton Adkins came to visit him at Touchstone. Or when Reed Kotalik, a young athlete with cerebral palsy, runs a race with Grant’s No. 21 on the back of his shirt.
The 21 Strong Foundation was created by classmate Grant Farley and Mel Saettone with the goal of being an advocate financially and socially for high school football players who have suffered brain injuries like Grant endured.
FOOTBALL: ‘A Night of 21 Strong’ introduces new foundation to help others
“That’s the good that comes out of it,” Miles said. “Most of all, that’s what you want to see – you never quit, you never give up, you always have hope, and you have to put your faith in God. No matter what, even if this is as good as Grant gets, his injury did something for other people in a positive way.”
As La Canfora prepares to leave for college at Oklahoma later this summer without his best friend, he is constantly reminded that each day is a gift.
“It definitely gave me a better perspective on life,” he said. “You just have to cherish everything because you never know when it’s going to be your last day or your last breath. I look at every day now with a more optimistic view just because I want to enjoy everything I’m doing. I know Grant would want to be right there next to me.”