What's in a name? It's hope, faith and family for ex-Michigan kicker Phil Brabbs
Melanie Maxwell | AnnArbor.com
One day after his 28th birthday, Phil Brabbs sunk into a comfortable chair at a local coffee shop and wept.For two years, the former Michigan football player had experienced unexplained anomalies in his health.
A pulmonary embolism in a lung nearly killed him in 2006. A blood clot developed in his left leg in 2007. A few months later, another formed in his right leg. Blood thinners for life were the solution, although doctors could never pinpoint the cause.
But now, on Aug. 8, 2008, they had their answer. Further tests detected a telltale protein in his blood. An oncologist concluded he suffered from multiple myeloma, a cancer of the blood.
Brabbs called his wife, Cassie. Her mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer two weeks earlier. Now, her husband delivered more devastating news. The couple convened at Caribou Coffee on Packard, away from their two children, to try and comprehend.
“All I could do was close my eyes,” he said. “Most of the time, you close your eyes and see darkness. I just remember it was so dark.”
This was all wrong. The median age of multiple myeloma patients is 68. Symptoms include kidney problems and brittle bones. He ran marathons and bench pressed 300 pounds. Survival estimates ranged from three to five years.
How would this impact his desire for a big family, just like the one that raised him and his four sisters? How could his children grow up without a dad? Damn, would they even remember him?
The darkness enveloped him. And then, as quickly as the dread arrived, it receded. He opened his eyes.
Phil Brabbs, the larger-than-life kicker who joyfully ran around Michigan Stadium after a game-winning field goal in 2002 against Washington, the enthusiastic student who nurtured a devout faith in college, the proud father who named his first-born son Ocean, wasn’t succumbing to anything.
“I’m going to passionately pursue beating this thing,” he decided that day, “and I’m not going to stop being a family man, and I’m not going to stop having dreams.”
A fast-paced life
Thirteen cycles of chemotherapy over 15 months, two bone-marrow transplants, three drugs and a steroid - Brabbs’ doctors say it’s double the most aggressive treatment they’ve ever undertaken - haven’t slowed him.
He serves as a husband and father of three energetic children at home, worships at Ann Arbor Vineyards Church and works full time as an IT project manger at Thompson Reuters.
Courtesy Midland Daily News
He sends Tweets to 844 concerned followers, monitors a Facebook page for 12,902 fans and maintains a blog that has logged 110,167 visits and connects countless numbers of multiple myeloma survivors.
Against the advice of his appointed voice of reason, his wife, he founded the Cancer Kicker Foundation amid his treatment, which raised more than $49,000 for myeloma research in 2010.
“She told me not to start a foundation, and I told her I would not,” he said. “I must have forgot.”
Life with Brabbs has always moved with the hurried pace of a two-minute drill.
Growing up in Midland, he devoured sports. He anchored a relay team that set a middle-school record. He ran the fastest leg. Childhood friend Kevin Lynn ran the slowest - don’t think Brabbs lets him forget.
He was a soccer fanatic. At Midland Dow High School, he earned varsity letters in basketball, track and football. He paused once a day for dinner at 3:30 p.m., the one time his mother could serve the entire family together.
When Brabbs came to Michigan in the fall of 2000, he enrolled in the School of Engineering. But his more challenging curriculum that first semester came from outside the classroom.
Teammate John Navarre invited him to a meeting of Athletes In Action, the athletic branch of the group Campus Crusade for Christ.
Brabbs wasn’t religious. But listening to Navarre and others recount the impact of Jesus in their lives struck him at his core. At the end of the night, he filled out a comment card with his name, phone number and a request.
“I want to get to know Jesus,” he wrote.
Bruce Dishnow, the campus director of Athletes In Action, met with Brabbs for an informal overview of the organization. In passing, Dishenow mentioned he planned to attend a fall retreat in Kalamazoo that weekend.
“Three days later, he’s in the car with me,” Dishenow said, “and I’m thinking, ‘I just met this guy.’ But that’s how eager he was to get involved.”
As Brabbs’ faith took root, his contagious enthusiasm impressed other members of the group. One of them was Jim Richardson, the longtime Michigan women’s swimming coach.
“I saw a lot of humility in him,” said Richardson, whose relationship with Brabbs would change dramatically in the years ahead. “He was a really bright student who wasn’t living in the NFL dream.”
On the contrary, a series of leg injuries derailed his college career. The game-winner against Washington - it came in his first college start - stood as his lone highlight.
Although he became something of a trick-play phenom, Brabbs would kick just two more field goals for the Wolverines.
As football receded, he threw himself into school and Athletes In Action and he talked deep into the night with Lynn, now his roommate in an off-campus house, about a girl named Cassie.
“He was full of big dreams and big schemes and big plans,” Lynn said.
'God ladles water from the ocean'
It wasn’t long before Brabbs hatched his grandest scheme.
Cassie grew up in Ypsilanti. Her dad is Jim Richardson. After attending broadcast school in Detroit, she met Phil through mutual friends and worked as a presenter at auto shows for Dodge.
When she departed for the Houston Auto Show, he said other commitments left him too busy to tag along. Behind the scenes, he plotted.
Brabbs’ father, a Dow employee, snagged him an empty seat on the company’s corporate jet, which made daily flights from Midland to Houston.
Cassie was about to detail the merits of the Dodge Caravan for the assembled crowd on April 4, 2004, when Phil bounded onto the podium with a microphone in hand.
Onlookers listened as he touted the Caravan as the perfect family car. Said he hoped to own one someday. Because he wanted the perfect car for the perfect family.
He got down on one knee.
“She said, ‘Of course,” which is better than ‘yes,” he said.
From there, events blurred together. They married in September and sought a fresh start and adventure, so they moved to Charlotte, N.C., where Phil worked for Accenture and dreamed of an idyllic life.
Three to five years - that was the timeline he envisioned for starting a family.
Instead, they conceived on their wedding night. And he scrambled to buy a house for a growing family. And Cassie miscarried at 13 weeks. And they grieved. And they explored adoption.
And they became vegetarians and got in the best shape of their lives. And Phil suffered his pulmonary embolism while on vacation in Ann Arbor. And Cassie was pregnant again.
And as she shopped one night at the Harris-Teeter store near her house, she couldn’t help but notice the name tag of the man bagging her groceries read “Island.”
“I’m like, ‘Island is a cool name. Where did it come from?’ He says, “I don’t know,’” Cassie said. “I asked him, ‘How do you have a name like Island and not know where it came from?’”
So bewildered by his apparent lack of interest in his uncommon name, she recounted the experience for Phil when she returned home. They laughed. Phil joked that should they ever have twins, they could name them Island and Ocean.
“Ocean was a pretty cool name, but we were like, ‘Our parents would be so mad at us,” Cassie said.
Over several weeks, the thought persisted. A line jumped out of the lyrics in one of their favorite songs by the group Ten Shekel Shirt: “There’s something about the ocean that makes us rise up in praise.”
They had talked about raising a compassionate kid who connected with people from all backgrounds and cultures. Phil had a vision that the only thing that connected all the continents was the ocean.
As Cassie read her Bible one night, she came across Amos 5:8, which captured the essence of the giving child they wanted. “God ladles water from the ocean, and gives the land a drink.”
A return to Michigan and family
Following the NCAA swimming championships in February 2006 held at the University of Georgia, Richardson flew from Atlanta to Charlotte rather than return home with the Wolverines.
“At that point I was thinking, ‘Uh, it’s going to be tough with him down here.’ We started thinking about being closer to them in North Carolina.”
Phil and Cassie considered moving home. They just never shared that idea with each other. Almost a year passed before he finally asked her one night if she ever thought about moving back.
“Only for the last two years,” she replied.
The house sold in 12 days. Within six weeks, they returned to Ann Arbor.
Brabbs kept his job with Accenture and traveled frequently for work. On a flight to Charlotte, he developed a blood clot in his left leg and was hospitalized.
Richardson flew to Charlotte to drive Brabbs home. On the way, they talked about building the couple’s dream home and their return to Ann Arbor, and big plans and big dreams.
Richardson made one suggestion during the trip. “When we get back to Ann Arbor, you’ve got to go see somebody,” he said.
Doctors conducted a barrage of medical tests. Even after a second blood clot formed in his right leg months later, nothing exposed the secret hiding in his veins.
Forging ahead, the couple started construction on that dream home, six blocks from Michigan Stadium, and Cassie was pregnant again. Overjoyed, they searched for a baby name that complemented the first.
They found it in a familiar Bible passage, one that spoke to their desire for compassionate children, as well as their vegetarian lifestyle.
In Genesis 9:12, God said to Noah, “This is the token of the covenant which I make between me and you and every living creature I do set my bow in the cloud.”
If Ocean’s name symbolized compassion between cultures, perhaps the second baby’s name should stand for compassion between all living things. The rainbow was God’s symbol of that relationship.
“We didn’t have the nerve to call her Rainbow,” Brabbs said. “Ocean was enough on my Mom. But we had a clear vision, and Iris is Greek for rainbow, so that was it.”
Iris Brabbs was born in November 2007.
Eight months later, Phil’s health deteriorated again. A general practitioner referred him to a hematologist who referred him to an oncologist at Michigan’s Comprehensive Cancer Center.
This time, initial tests found elevated levels of a monoclonal protein typically excreted by malignant cells in his blood. The protein level, known as an M-spike, was at 10 percent. Further tests were performed. The diagnosis came.
Within a year, his M-spike had ballooned to 30 percent. Desperate for solutions, he and Cassie scoured the Internet for resources and contacts about the little-understood cancer.
A blogger recommended he seek a second opinion at the Myeloma Institute for Research and Therapy at the University of Arkansas in Little Rock, an institution at the forefront of myeloma research.
Doctors prodded him throughout a week of rigorous testing during his visit. They believed an ultra-aggressive approach - largely unheard of in the myeloma circles - could lead to a cure.
“That was the first time we heard the word ‘cure,’” he said. “And at age 28 with two kids at home that is when hope started creeping in.”
That was 15 months ago.
Last week, Brabbs cleared a milestone in his recovery. After pummeling the stubborn cancer with even more chemo than originally outlined, his M-spike dropped to 1 percent.
He’ll transition from regular rounds of chemo into maintenance therapy, which means doctors will draw blood every three months and determine if he needs an occasional jolt of chemo to keep the cancer subdued.
Brabbs, his family and his phalanx of friends and supporters pray for the day the M-spike reaches zero.
For now, they are thankful. By all accounts, his decision to pursue an exhaustive and unorthodox path resulted in improbable improvement in his condition and prognosis. There was just one caveat to the aggressive approach.
The treatments made him sterile.
A complete family
Cassie Brabbs drew incredulous stares as she waddled onto the oncology ward on the eighth floor of the University of Michigan hospital.
“I was hugely pregnant, bigger than anyone in the history of pregnant women,” she laughed. “You should have heard the comments. ‘It’s twins, right?’ Or, ‘Shouldn’t you be over at Mott delivering those babies?’”
She walked into Phil’s room. Days removed from his first bone-marrow transplant, he cajoled hospital staff into hauling an exercise bike from the basement into his room.
He pedaled furiously, “as if he was training to be Lance Armstrong,” she says. An IV dangled from his arm. He asked Cassie how she was feeling.
The couple’s third child was due in two short weeks, roughly the same time frame they had to embark upon the decision to grow their family.
Nine months earlier in Arkansas, Phil did not know doctors would recommend immediate treatment, nor that it would render him sterile. They suggested a sperm bank. He ached for a big family, but the idea felt too awkward.
Phil and Cassie faced a two-month window to try for a third child - if they wanted one. He had qualms. Was it irresponsible to have a third child in his condition? Was it selfish? Was it insane?
They decided to leave it up to God.
“We weren’t going to aggressively try,” Phil said. “We were just going to throw it out there. It was a trust thing, a 100 percent faith thing.”
Melanie Maxwell | AnnArbor.com
Right away, they received confirmation.
Months later, when they knew the baby was a girl, they again sought spiritual guidance in choosing her name. Cassie found special meaning in Isiah 54:12.
“I will make your battlements of rubies, your gates of sparkling jewels and all your walls of precious stones. You will have nothing to fear and terror will be far removed.”
The ruby, the foundation of their family fortress. Ten days after her father’s first bone-marrow transplant and one month before his second, Ruby Brabbs was born in April 2010.
Recovery prevented Phil from updating his myeloma blog for weeks. When he finally returned, he posted an entry about the joy newborn baby Ruby brought into his heart.
Upon reading the update, one of Phil’s readers, a woman in the United Kingdom, hurriedly wrote him a letter that left him not quite believing the words on his computer.
Did he know, she asked, that in many cultures, people wear rubies around their necks? They believe the gem possesses healing properties. That it cures the sick. That it cleanses their blood.
Pete Bigelow covers the Michigan football team for AnnArbor.com. He can be reached at (734) 623-2551, via e-mail at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @PeterCBigelow.