By John Kampf
The postgame celebration at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium was in full swing, but Alex McDonald had someplace else he’d rather be.
McDonald and the Chardon Hilltoppers had just put the finishing touches on a 21-14 win over Hamilton Badin in the Division III state championship game. The Hilltoppers’ second straight state championship and their unprecedented 16-0 record meant the on-field party wasn’t going to end anytime soon.
But McDonald ducked away, scaled a nearby fence and climbed into the stands into the welcome arms of his father, Alex.
Then he turned to his mother, who had a firm grip on a railing, and took her in his arms.
“We love you. We’re so proud of you,” said Amy McDonald, her hushed words pushing through her son’s bushy red hair.
Those eight words meant more to McDonald than anyone will ever know. Just the SOUND of them meant the world to him.
That’s because he knows someday, he won’t be able to hear them.
And the thought of that rips the heart out of his very chest.
For nine years now, Amy McDonald has battled Huntington’s Disease, a rare, inherited disease that causes the progressive breakdown (degeneration) of nerve cells in the brain. The disease has a broad impact on a person’s functional abilities and usually results in movement, thinking (cognitive) and psychiatric disorders — including, but not limited to, loss of speech.
There is no cure.
McDonald, a high-energy, two-sport star has the world in the palm of his hand. He is a two-way starter for the Hilltoppers’ football team as a tight end and defensive end, earning All-Ohio honors twice. He’s a state-caliber wrestler for his school as well. And he’s earned a football scholarship to Youngstown State University.
But he’d make a trade if he had the power to do so.
“I’d give it all up, one hundred percent,” he said. “One THOUSAND percent. I’d give it up just so my mom can go back to how she was before this disease and be OK.”
Huntington’s Disease has been part of Amy’s life forever. Her father had it and passed away. She’s had aunts, uncles and cousins have it and die from it.
“It’s a (crappy) disease, that’s what it is,” said Alex the father.
For a while, Amy thought — or hoped — she had evaded the grips of Huntington’s. But in 2012, the family got the diagnosis through a test they had done.
“It’s not the news we wanted. But it’s the answer we got,” her husband said.
To her credit, Amy has missed nothing of her children’s activities — not her son’s wrestling matches nor his football games, nor anything in which daughter Madeline took part.
“She never leaves my mind,” young Alex said. “I do everything for her. she lives vicariously through me. She keeps me motivated.”
“He’s wonderful,” Amy said, her words quiet and a little garbled because of Huntington’s. “It brings tears to my eyes.”
But nothing will stop her from being there.
And don’t think about putting her in a wheelchair.
“Have you ever known a redhead?” Alex the father said with a hearty laugh. “They’re as stubborn as they come. You’d be in for a fight if you think she’s getting in a wheelchair.”
Earlier this year, the McDonalds walked arm in arm across the field at Chardon’s Memorial Field for senior night. It’s a ceremony some might take for granted, but not the senior leader for the Hilltoppers.
While he’s not a big fan of peripheral events that take the focus off the game at hand, the special moment was not lost on him this time around.
The scary part is that, because of the hereditary nature of Huntington’s Disease, both Alex and his sister Madeline are predisposed to be carriers. There is a 50-50 chance that the children of Alex and Amy could also someday be diagnosed with the crippling disease.
It doesn’t change the inspiration for his mother, nor does it change the way he lives. But it is in the back of his mind.
“I’m inspired by my mom every day,” he said. “I get up every day and see (the disease’s effects) happening. I just wish I could help. I wish I could change the outcome.
“Will I get the test? Yeah, when I’m older. Probably at the same as she was when she took it. She was 43. I’ll wait.”
His father agreed with the choice.
“I always told my kids, once you’re 18, it’s your choice,” he said. “Something like that can loom over your head. Every decision you make is based on that. So just go and live your life.”
His son — his namesake — has done just that.
He just wrapped up a senior season in which had 33 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss and 6 1/2 sacks for the proud Chardon defense. He also was a punishing run-blocker for a Hilltoppers offense that ran for more than 4,000 yards this season.
Next week, he will embark on a senior year of wrestling and make a push for a berth in the Division I state wrestling tournament.
“I’m inspired by watching him play football and wrestle,” Amy said. “Yes, I always worry about him.”
Alex McDonald knows the scary reality that Huntington’s Disease will continue to affect his mother. He also knows that there’s a 50 percent chance that someday the disease could also come calling for him.
That’s why no one has ever seen him slack off in practice — whether it’s doing pushups with teammates on the beach at Mentor Headlands or during sprints on 100-degree days in the summer. That’s why his engine runs so hot each and every play on the football field or on the wrestling mat.
Time, he has learned, is ever so precious.
“My mom inspires me to be the best person I can be every day,” Alex said, his voice cracking a little with emotion. “To do everything … with no regrets.”
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