Clemson bowl foe South Florida a team on the rise

Heading into Friday's Meineke Car Care Bowl against Clemson, South Florida has won four of its final six games, most notably a victory at in-state rival Miami in overtime. The Bulls are playing in their sixth straight bowl game.

When Brooke Hartig first held her newborn daughter, she said the first words that popped into her mind.

"Mama loves you," she said, "no matter what."

Brooke and her husband, former Citadel baseball standout Phil Hartig, had little reason to suspect that tiny Olivia was anything but perfectly healthy when she was born Sept. 4, 2008. She weighed a little less than her two older brothers when they were born, and her blood sugars were a bit off.

"Other than that, she was just a beautiful little baby," Phil said. "But Brooke saw something that nobody else saw."

Tests revealed that Olivia has a rare condition called Ring 9 syndrome. Genetic material missing from chromosome 9 means Olivia will deal with physical and mental disabilities for life.

"I cried every day for about two weeks," said Brooke Hartig. "And then we said, 'All right, what can we do to help her reach her full potential?' We're going to do whatever we can to help her get there."

With the help of 12 doctors, nurses, physical therapists, family, friends, church members, former teammates and coaches, the Summerville Miracle League and advocacy group A Place For Me, the Hartigs are doing just that.

Funny thing -- in helping Olivia, they are helping a lot of other people, too.

Miracle League

The best hitter ever to play at The Citadel, Phil Hartig never made it to the major leagues.

Hartig -- who slugged a school-record 64 home runs for the Bulldogs from 1998-2001 and still owns Citadel records for games played, runs, hits, at-bats, total bases, doubles and runs batted in -- was picked by the Florida Marlins in the 25th round of the MLB Draft in 2001.

But in two seasons of minor league ball, Hartig never advanced past the Class A level. For a four-time all-Southern Conference player and three-time All-American, that was difficult to accept.

"The hardest part for me was not that I couldn't play ball anymore," he said. "After you do well and see your name in the paper, you've got people coming to watch you and hoping you do well -- part of me felt like I was letting folks down. The stress I put on myself to succeed in baseball, sometimes it was undue."

But Hartig settled into a new job and family life. He married Brooke Phillips, the older sister of his Citadel teammate Andy, and had two sons, Luke and Drew.

Hartig saw a new purpose for baseball in his life after watching a TV special about the Miracle League, a baseball league for the disabled that began in Atlanta in 1998.

"When I was growing up, I had an uncle who was mentally disabled," he said. "My parents always had a heart for that kind of work, and passed it along to me. When I saw that special on the Miracle League, I knew I had to be involved."

When the Charleston Miracle League had its first organizing meetings, Hartig was there as a coach and board member. When Steve Hatton expanded the Miracle League to Summerville, Hartig was instrumental in building the field, raising money and recruiting coaches. He now serves as the league's president, overseeing 120 youth and 50 adult players, eight coaches and many volunteers.

"Right about the time I joined the board of the Summerville Miracle League, I became the father of a special-needs child," Hartig said. "I don't think it was an accident. For whatever reason, this is what is meant for our family."

Said Hatton, "You won't find a better guy to work with than Phil, and his whole family. They are giving, dedicated people."

Olivia

On a recent Sunday afternoon, 3-year-old Olivia Hartig lay on the living room rug, wiggling her arms and legs, rolling her head around and laughing.

"She'll do that forever if you let her," Brooke Hartig said.

In many ways, Olivia is mapping out an uncharted course. Ring 9 syndrome (also called Chromosome Ring 9) is so rare that there are no real numbers on how many people have it, said Dr. G. Shashidhar Pai, director of the Division of Genetics at the Medical University of South Carolina.

"It's rare," Pai said. "But there's not a real good way to know how many people are out there because cases are not reported to a centralized place. I've only seen one or two in my 30 years of practice."

In Ring 9 syndrome, the arms of the normally rod-shaped chromosomes break and form a ring. The smaller the ring, the more genetic material is missing and the more severe disabilities can be.

Why it happens is a mystery, Pai said.

"It's a totally random event," he said. "It's not familial, and you can't tell if the origin is with the father or the mother. It can happen with either parent."

The major issues Olivia deals with are juvenile rheumatoid arthritis and gastrointestinal difficulties. She needs daily shots for pain in her joints and has a gastronomy tube for other medicines. She takes physical therapy to build up her strength as well as speech and occupational therapy, and is getting ready to start school next year.

When she's not in pain, Olivia loves to play with her brothers and rock in her swing (she's already worn one out). She likes the "dessert" her mom invented (a mixture of almond and pumpkin butter) and helped decorate the Christmas tree this year.

But the truth is, she might never walk or speak and will never be able to live on her own.

"We are going to be her parents forever, and we know that," Phil said. "She'll be with us until we are gone. She'll always be our little princess."

A Place For Me

The Miracle League introduced the Hartigs to the special-needs community. But until you've navigated the maze of hospitals and insurance yourself, there's no way to appreciate what's involved.

That's why Brooke Hartig formed A Place For Me, an advocacy and support group for families like theirs.

"I couldn't really find a group that met Olivia's specific needs," said Brooke, who is expecting the Hartigs' fourth child any day now. "That's why I named it A Place For Me."

The group has become an important force for special-needs kids in the Lowcountry and in the state, said Rick Magner, executive director of the Disabilities Board of Charleston County.

"During a recession, we face huge cutbacks across the board and for people with special needs," Magner said. "Brooke and her group have been vital to keeping many services going. They've been able to establish good relationships with key legislators, and they have a clear, cogent and forceful message. That's gotten them tremendous results legislatively."

Magner recalls attending one A Place For Me meeting when some state-funded services for young children were threatened.

"They got some legislators to come, told their story and the following week, some legislation was passed to fill the gaps," he said. "That was a direct result of Brooke and her group. I've dealt with a lot of groups over the years, and hers has been very effective and continues to be."

South Carolina is one of 19 states that provides Medicaid coverage to children with severe disabilities under the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act (TEFRA) of 1982. That enabled the Hartigs to handle Olivia's medical bills, even after Phil was laid off from his job at a building-materials company (he got a new job just last week).

"We're blessed to live in South Carolina, and to live so close to MUSC," Phil said. "No way we could do this by ourselves."