August 12, 2012

Steve Solloway: As tough as a linebacker, just as determined to win

Tyler Patterson doesn't want to forget that sunny afternoon when Ashley Drew perched on his shoulder pads, and he and she and the entire University of Maine football team smiled for a cellphone camera. He got a copy of the photo and put it on a wall of his apartment.

click image to enlarge

Ashley Drew was inspired by the University of Maine football team when she met the players after a scrimmage in May 2010. Now the team is inspired by her.

University of Maine Photo

"I look at it every day," said Patterson. "She inspires me. When I start thinking I have a problem playing football, I look at her and realize I don't have a problem."

He's a 6-foot-6, 310-pound offensive lineman from Owls Head and what is now Oceanside High. She was a new Maine graduate, a musician from Scarborough who was fighting the cystic fibrosis that was robbing her of the ability to breathe fully. She barely weighed 95 pounds.

Patterson had met Drew only that day in May 2010, at a fundraiser to help defray Drew's medical expenses. The annual intrasquad spring scrimmage had just been played. His memory of her was frozen. Saturday afternoon I brought him up to date. There was silence at the other end of the phone.

Ashley Drew, 26, is in Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. As of Saturday she was in stable but serious condition. The new lungs she received some nine weeks ago are working fine. But an apparent fungal infection spread to her brain. She's had a series of strokes.

Drew started a daily blog almost two years ago when she finally was placed on a list for a double lung transplant. That blog ended on Day 538, just before she went into surgery on June 8. She started a new blog. On Day 48 -- New Lungs. She wrote of the joy of walking the beach at Pine Point without needing a break, without running out of air. That was July 27.

Her calves hurt from walking in the sand but that was good, she wrote. The next day her older brother, Justin, wrote that she couldn't open her pill box when she woke up. She had difficulty walking and speaking. Someone dialed 911.

Patterson looks at the photo again. Drew is wearing a Maine football jersey signed by all the players. Coach Jack Cosgrove chose to give her No. 9.

"Jovan Belcher wore that number," said Patterson. Belcher is now a starting linebacker for the Kansas City Chiefs. "Jordan Stevens wore it, too." Stevens, a Mt. Blue High graduate and another linebacker, is an assistant coach on Cosgrove's staff.

"Coach gives that number to the player who works the hardest. The toughest player."

On July 31, doctors at Brigham asked Drew to move her right arm. "So she took her left hand and lifted her right arm while giving everyone a wide-eyed smile," wrote her mother, Joy. Ashley wouldn't let go. The doctor had to pry her fingers off the unresponsive right arm.

Joy and Justin have taken turns writing Ashley's blog. It's heart-wrenching reading.

"Where do I find it?" asked Patterson. Go to Facebook.com/AirForAshley.

That day in 2010, Cosgrove explained to his players what Drew was fighting.

In their limited interaction with her, they sensed her strength. Heard the sweetness in her laughter. She was so small but so full of life.

Drew didn't want favors. In fact, she kept her cystic fibrosis a secret for the most part. It's a genetic, non-contagious disease that clogs lungs with a thick, sticky mucous that has to be removed regularly. Decades ago, many children didn't live long enough to reach middle school.

Drew would tell friends she had asthma. She used a vibrating vest to shake the mucous free. She thumbed her nose at her condition by playing the piccolo flute, tenor sax and a variation of the French horn. She played in the university's symphonic band, jazz ensemble and pep band.

She was in and out of Portland's Maine Medical Center many times in 2011, fighting lung infections and trying to maintain her weight. Her lung capacity was down to about 25 percent.

Come visit, she once wrote me. I could see her dueling televisions, tuned to sporting events. Maine football, hockey and basketball in particular vied for her attention. She would get so excited or frustrated, she was moved to another room in a less busy section of her wing.

Cosgrove did visit. A photo of him with Drew is on the website. Her grin is infectious.

Her faith is limitless. Her family draws strength from faith. It seemed she overcame every challenge and now this. Doctors are trying to reduce the swelling in the left side of her brain.

Throughout her blogs you can find three simple words: God's got this.

Maine's football team reports for preseason Sunday. A redshirt junior, Patterson was named a Maine Scholar-Athlete Rising Star. From his apartment near campus, Patterson put it pretty simply himself.

"She gives me hope."

Staff Writer Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at:

ssolloway@pressherald.com

Twitter: SteveSolloway

 

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