By TONY TAGLAVORE, Journal Sports
They watched their grandfather become weaker by the day. They watched him lose his ability to speak. They watched him die from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, commonly known as ALS.
Two years later, they have watched their grandmother struggle to survive ovarian cancer surgery. They have watched her hair fall out — sometimes in strands, sometimes in clumps. They shaved her head.
And through all of this, Emma and Andrew Bradford have excelled not only at Captain Shreve High School, but at the sport they’ve played — and loved — most of their lives.
“They all grew up with soccer balls at their feet,” Emma and Andrew’s mom, Kathlyn, said.
In 2018, Kathlyn’s father, Roger McPhearson, was diagnosed with ALS. Kathlyn bought a house and everyone, including oldest son William, moved in.
“We knew we wanted to keep him at home and take care of him,” said Kathlyn, who is a nurse.
Roger died in 2020. Then, last year, Emma and Andrew’s grandmother, Dianne, was diagnosed with cancer.
Despite the long, sad, emotionally draining days and nights, Emma and Andrew not only survived. They thrived, with an assist from an inflatable ball.
“Soccer is their ‘out’,” Kathlyn said. “It’s their therapy, basically. I feel like they’re able to express their stress. It gives them something to look forward to.”
Emma’s senior season at Captain Shreve continues today in the quarterfinals of the state playoffs. Along the way, the 17-year-old has kicked, passed, and defended her way to a long list of individual honors.
“My mom kept pushing me to be the best,” Emma said of succeeding, while dealing with her grandparents’ illnesses. “She didn’t want me to fall off because of everything that was happening. She kept pushing me in the right direction, and always made sure I was doing what was best for me.”
Andrew’s junior season with the Gators ended last week in the second round of the playoffs. After being named team and district Newcomer of the Year as a freshman, and making first-team all-district as a sophomore, injuries kept the 16-year-old from playing his best this winter.
“It really affected me a lot, because I had never had an injury like that,” Bradford said of the torn meniscus in his left knee, which happened during a scrimmage last June. “The recovery time — I couldn’t do things I wasn’t supposed to do, so I could get back in time (for the season). If I did one little thing, it could keep me out even longer.”
Andrew was cleared to play just before the 2022-23 season, but later hurt his ankle and missed a month of action.
And then there was dealing with the inner emotion of what was going on at home.
“I really tried not to show it,” Andrew said. “Nobody knows about it. It was kind of hard playing soccer, but I tried to do my best.”
Grandma used to go to most all her grandkids’ games. Now, not so much. But thanks to technology, that doesn’t mean she misses seeing them play.
“Our games are live-streamed, so she can watch them at home,” Andrew said.
And when Andrew and Emma hit the door, they take part in a post-game interview — with Grandma as the audience.
“It’s always fun to tell her the stories about what happened,” Emma said.
“She tells me all about the game,” Andrew said. “She’s like, ‘Man, those players are rough!’”
Emma has physical challenges of her own. There’s Celiac Disease, along with several auto-immune diseases.
“Those things have stunted her growth,” Kathlyn said. “She’s only 4-11. She thinks it is a disadvantage to her, but it has always been an advantage to her. She has more control over her body than most girls do, and she can whip around those tall girls and maneuver the ball and have more ball control than someone who is bigger than her.”
If Emma and Andrew have learned anything from seeing their grandparents’ sickness up close, it’s that time is precious.
“My mom always tells us it doesn’t matter how much time they have left,” said Andrew. “Just keep on loving them.”
Through soccer, Emma and Andrew have shown — and continue to show — their love.
Contact Tony at firstname.lastname@example.org