Jack Cosgrove introduced the guest of honor to his football team and called for a photo. Hands reached out to hoist Ashley Drew onto the shoulders of Tyler Patterson and Steve Shea, two of the bigger men who play for the University of Maine.
Smiles brightened faces all around. Drew is a 23-year-old, vivacious, blond graduate student at Maine. Played the trumpet in the university’s pep band, the tenor sax in the jazz band and the flute in the university symphony. Loves sports. Was a jumper and a race walker on the Scarborough High track team.
She has that gift that enables her to connect quickly with strangers. Which is why so many on the Maine football team gathered around her after Saturday’s Jeff Cole Spring Scrimmage at Alfond Stadium.
Later, players approached Cosgrove. He had told the team of the challenges Drew has faced and will face. Not everyone understood the terminology.
What’s cystic fibrosis, coach?
“Isn’t that the curvature of the spine?” said Patterson, when someone asked for his definition. He was thinking of scoliosis.
Cystic fibrosis is an inherited disease that clogs the lungs and digestive tract with sticky mucous that leads to lung infections. It also prevents the body from absorbing food. About 30,000 people in the U.S. have the disease. Drew is one.
“That’s why she was so light,” said Patterson, who quickly understood. “That makes you think. We’re the lucky ones.”
Weep not for Ashley Drew. She doesn’t want your tears. She hid her disease from outsiders after starting high school. Misguided adults in Scarborough kept her off a middle school overnight trip to Quebec, believing her cystic fibrosis-induced lung infection was contagious.
She told her story only to those professors who needed to know when she arrived at Maine. “I told my best friend for two years that I had really bad asthma.” That explained all the medications and a vest that would inflate and vibrate and help loosen the mucous in her lungs.
She didn’t want any favors when she competed for positions as a musician. The cold of late October and November prevented her from joining the marching band. That hurt her chances of making the pep band that traveled to St. Louis in 2007 to support the Maine hockey team when it reached the Frozen Four.
“They could only take one trumpet player and anyone who was in the marching band had first dibs,” she said.
She didn’t want people to think she was weaker, so she worked harder mastering the instruments for which her lungs had to be strong.
Two years ago, another lung infection pushed her temperature to 101. Her doctor wanted her in the hospital. She insisted that she would play in a concert that was scheduled. The compromise was a tube inserted through a vein in her wrist that snaked up an arm and to her chest, serving as an IV.
The sleeve of her sweater hid the tube. She played nine songs that night.
“With music, I can express so many emotions. It’s like shooting foul shots in basketball. You work so hard until you’ve just about mastered it. When you get to the foul line you feel like you’re going to make your shots.
“I’ve worked so long with music that now, I can just play.”
She graduated from Maine with a 3.77 grade-point average in 2009 and started work on her master’s degree in instrumental conducting. She almost made it through her first semester.
Medicine and her humor and determination kept her disease at bay through high school and into college. This winter the disease caught her. She went into respiratory failure. She spent 12 days sedated in intensive care.
When she was able, she struggled out of bed to a window to see the sun. She cried at the sight.
“That time completely changed my life,” she said. “I knew it was time to put myself out there because I needed help.”
Frankly, she hopes you’ll open your wallets and, even more, your hearts. Her lung capacity is down to 26 percent. She needs the double lung transplant that so many with cystic fibrosis need to survive.
“I don’t know what my time line is. I don’t know where I am on lists,” said Drew from her home in Scarborough. “I do know it’s a big step. Some people won’t take it.”
She was born with the disease. Fifty years ago, many didn’t survive it long enough to enter kindergarten. Now, the median life expectancy is more than 37 years.
To withstand the surgery and recovery, Drew must weigh at least 90 pounds. It took a few months, but she gained the five pounds to reach that weight. A fast-food diet helps. So does a feeding tube that delivers 1,200 calories when she sleeps.
She laughs. Patterson, a 6-foot-6, 310-pound freshman tackle from Owls Head, might gain five pounds after one meal at the training table.
Patterson and his teammates autographed a Maine helmet and a football, which were raffled off Saturday. Because the scrimmage drew about 100 fans, proceeds from the raffle totaled about $500. Drew was grateful.
Cosgrove didn’t mention her need for a double lung transplant when he introduced her to his team.
He had learned only the week before that her father, Tom, was Cosgrove’s resident advisor in his freshman dorm.
Suddenly, what was a lesson in life outside football had become more personal to Cosgrove. Last week, his players worked to raise awareness of bone marrow transplants. The Cole Scrimmage is named for the popular Maine assistant football coach who died in 2004 from cancer.
Now here was Ashley Drew, whose grace and vitality had also moved him. It moved his players. “I was surprised that she was in such good spirits,” said Chris Treister, a quarterback from Cape Elizabeth. “It’s incredible when you think how much harder she has it.”
Cosgrove gave Drew a Maine jersey, autographed by the players. It was No. 9, worn by graduated defensive stalwarts Jovan Belcher and Jordan Stevens. “Some of our toughest players have worn No. 9,” said Cosgrove.
A tough 90-pound woman wears it now.
No one should be surprised when Drew returns in a year or two to Alfond Stadium for a regular season game.
She’ll walk to the center of the field and raise the trumpet to her lips.
And she’ll play.
Staff Writer Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at: