COLUMBIA — Jennifer Withrow didn’t let her 7-year-old son look the other way. Subtly, with a mother’s determination, she took advantage of opportunities to remind him life could be worse. There was no ignoring the less fortunate.
Her son needed to see, to believe life was better than he thought.
Behind every example, there was a purpose. And maybe a little desperation. Young Elliott Fry needed to get past his plight. Being the smallest kid in your second-grade class — with Fry for a last name — is tough enough. Diagnosed with Type I diabetes before middle school can be cruel. To a youngster pricking his finger 10 times daily to check blood sugar levels, it can feel like an impossible obstacle.
Withrow made sure it wasn’t.
“I said, ‘ Yes, this is bad, but it’s not the end of the world,’ ” Withrow said. “I’d point out people that I saw in public … and I said, ‘You know what, all you have is diabetes. You don’t have that big of a hurdle.’ ”
The daily encouragement continued for months. It soothed both mother and son. After a year, Fry got the message. Life would never be the same. It would never be normal. It would go on.
His mother was right.
A freshman kicker at South Carolina, Fry has reached his dream of playing college football at the highest level. He’s a starter in the SEC despite weighing 155 pounds. He still checks his blood sugar about eight times every day.
“For a long time, I thought I couldn’t compete at the next level,” Fry said.
Well, he’s here. Last week, Fry’s 40-yard field goal in double overtime at Missouri capped one of the most memorable wins in USC football history, knocking off a top 5 opponent on national television. Withrow sat in the stands above Faurot Field, in the same section as South Carolina’s band. A trumpeter held her hand as Fry lined up to kick, easing her nerves.
“Everybody around me is going, ‘Momma, it’s gonna be OK. He’s gonna make it,’ ” Withrow said. “And all I want to do is throw up.”
It wasn’t the first time Withrow’s stomach churned at her son’s sporting event.
Withrow’s first thought was a head injury. It had to be. One moment, Fry was leaving the rink during his youth league hockey game in Frisco, Tex., and everything was fine. The next, as Withrow turned to give her son a water bottle, he suddenly collapsed.
When the ambulance arrived, the paramedic delivered shocking news. Fry’s blood sugar was over 300, about triple the normal level. Fry was diagnosed with Type I diabetes.
“I pretty much held it together until I got home from the hospital,” Withrow said. “I was devastated. Absolutely devastated. But, you know, through adversity flows triumph, and it gives strength. His first months were difficult, but eventually he embraced it.”
Type I diabetes is an autoimmune disease often diagnosed in children. Unlike Type II diabetes, a poor diet and lack of exercise don’t contribute. With Type I diabetes, the body fails to produce insulin, a hormone used to convert sugar and starches from food into energy necessary for life.
Children diagnosed with the disease can learn to manage it and live long lives, but diabetes still takes a toll. When blood sugar rises, the heart, kidneys and blood vessels can be damaged, according to the Mayo Clinic. Diabetics are more susceptible to other illnesses. Some diabetics begin to lose sensation in their fingers and toes as they get older.
Only five percent of people diagnosed with diabetes have Type I, according to the American Diabetes Association. At first, it was difficult to cope. Withrow gave her son four shots of insulin daily, something she expected to traumatize a child.
Eventually, like most childhood diabetics, he learned to manage his health.
“Diabetes, from a young age, teaches you to be really disciplined and responsible,” Fry said. “When I was 7, I was counting carbs, doing ratios, like math. Just trying to figure out, ‘If I have 15 carbs, how much units of insulin do I have to take?’ I’ve been doing that my whole life now. It really teaches you to grow up a lot faster.”
Despite his diligence, diabetes can still be difficult to manage — especially through sports. Adrenaline can give false blood sugar readings. For an athlete, adrenaline is always a basic part of life.
In the semifinal soccer match of the state tournament his junior year of high school, Fry was a key starter on a team expected to go far. Two minutes into the game, Fry had to exit. His blood sugar dropped almost to the point of fainting.
Fry’s team won, but he couldn’t re-enter the game until the second half.
“That was a wake-up call to me because you never really think about that happening,” Fry said. “I know I never really thought about it happening until it actually really happened and affected something.”
For Fry, it was another scare that threatened his future. Those worries disappeared his senior season. On the football field, Fry made 49 of 50 extra points and eight of nine field goals. His longest came from 44 yards. Louisiana Tech offered a scholarship, but Fry wanted to go bigger. He walked on at South Carolina.
Instead of one state over, Withrow sent her son 16 hours away.
The distance never bothered Withrow. Maybe it was the maturity Fry showed from a young age. Or all the miles his stepdad, Mark, logged taking him to kicking camps during the summer. When opportunity came for her son’s dreams to be fulfilled, Withrow didn’t hesitate.
“He’s smart, he’s talented, he’s independent,” Withrow said. “So I’ve never had a concern about him being far from home, and the fact that he’s going to an SEC school who’s ranked so highly in the nation with Steve Spurrier as the coach, I never thought twice about it. I was thrilled for him.”
He was only a walk-on, but it didn’t matter. Fry quickly carved a niche for himself with the Gamecocks, becoming the first true freshman to kick in USC’s opener since 1996. He’s made eight of 10 field goals, none more important than Saturday night’s game-winner.
It’s not easy. Before a game, Fry must obsess over his blood sugar. Each trip to the locker room comes with another prick of the finger. He takes three readings before kickoff, then another at halftime. On the sideline, he’s accompanied by insulin and Gatorade packets — just in case his levels get too high or too low. Usually, it takes about 15 minutes for his blood sugar to return to normal.
Withrow said South Carolina has been a perfect fit for her son. One reason is the work USC’s training staff does to ensure Fry’s safety. Fry has no concerns of falling into another dangerous situation during a football game, like he did during his high school soccer match.
“It almost can’t happen,” Fry said. “The medical staff here, our trainers, they really keep me honest about it. They force me to check.”
Fry’s mother was nervous as she watched her son line up for the field goal in Missouri. She shouldn’t have been. On his wrist, Fry wore a good luck charm.
Fry attended a small, private school in a tight-knit community 30 minutes north of Dallas. Word travels fast at Prince of Peace Christian. During his junior year, he heard about an elementary student diagnosed with Type I diabetes.
His friendship with Thompson Moore began about 18 months ago. Moore, now a 9-year-old fourth-grader, had just been diagnosed. Sports were a common bond threading them together. Both played soccer and football. They talked about their games while receiving insulin shots in the nurse’s office, a welcomed escape from their disease.
“He was diagnosed in the second grade, just like Elliott was,” Moore’s father, Patrick, said. “So they had a lot in common there.”
When Fry left for South Carolina, their friendship grew. Fry and Moore text before and after their games. Earlier this season, Fry spoke with Moore and his fourth-grade class via Skype on the internet. He also sent a game-worn cleat from USC’s opener against North Carolina.
Moore sent a gift in return, a garnet and black bracelet he promised would bring good luck. When it broke last week, Moore sent a second bracelet in time for USC’s trip to Missouri. Fry wore it as he made the 40-yard field goal that sealed the win.
“I told him, ‘Lucky bracelet. Helped me out a little bit,’” Fry said.
Patrick Moore said his son struggled to adjust to his new lifestyle at first. He believes it’s helped having Fry as a role model and friend. Fry tells the youngster what his mother told him. Don’t let diabetes define you. Life is different, but it goes on.
“I think it’s had a huge impact on his life,” Patrick Moore said. “There’s been several moments — especially this fall — where his mindset has changed a little bit. Either he brings it up, or we bring it up, of what Elliott’s doing, where he’s going, what team he’s playing and the fact that he’s playing in the SEC and it’s not just any school.
“We use that as a good guideline that there’s nothing that could hold him back. The only thing holding him back is himself.”
With time, Fry hopes to help more diabetic children. The more field goals he makes, the more his influence will grow. Already, he’s someone coaches and teammates count on, doing well enough to become the target of Spurrier’s classic quips.
“He was out kicking (Monday) night and I said, ‘Do students on campus recognize you as a football player?’” Spurrier said this week. “He looks like a normal student, and he is a smart kid. He said, ‘Yeah, there are a few of them that actually recognize me?’ I said, ‘Really?’ Because he would blend in as a normal 155-pound student here. But Elliott Fry is getting recognized on campus now, so hopefully he won’t go bad on us by getting too much attention.”
Not a chance.
Fry has worked too hard, overcome too much, to have a setback now. Ask Withrow, and she’ll tell you the kick at Missouri was just the beginning. There are more game-winners to come, more triumphs after years of adversity.
On Saturday, in the chilly night just outside the team bus, Withrow held her son close. She told him how proud she was, for the game-winning field goal and the work it took to get here. She thanked Ryland Culbertson for a good snap, and Patrick Fish for a good hold. Eventually, the excitement quieted.
On her way back to Texas, Withrow marveled at how far her 7-year-old boy has come.
Follow Gamecocks beat writer Ryan Wood on Twitter @rwood_SC.