By Jourdan Rodrigue, SDA Digital Communications Intern
Within the Weatherup Center, the squeaks of rubber soles cutting and pivoting on a polished wooden floor echo from hoop to hoop. And the rhythmic pound-pound-pound of the ball on the court keeps time to a less-discernable sound: the whirring of a mechanical wheelchair as Brandon Wechsler moves up and down the sideline, a huge grin on his bespectacled face.
As the Arizona State University men’s basketball team finishes practice and begins to cluster around Head Coach Herb Sendek for some post-workout instruction, Brandon whir-whir-whirs his chair toward the center of the huddle. The players close around him wordlessly and naturally. He’s one of them; his place is mid-huddle where he can both see and be seen by his team. And something is special about Brandon today—more so than the ear-to-ear grin or the chair or the slight but noticeable discomfort his own body betrays. Today Brandon put on his own shoes for the first time in a year.
At just eight-and-a-half years old, Brandon was diagnosed with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD), a fatal disorder caused by a mutated gene that failed to produce a biologically necessary protein called dystrophin.
“We noticed he was walking, running, and jumping a little slower,” his father Len said. “He was a little behind the other kids. So we took him in for a checkup and they gave us the news.”
The three-word diagnosis couldn’t possibly prepare Brandon and his parents for the gradual treachery of his own body as his muscles began to break down within him. Because DMD blocks production of dystrophin, muscle fibers literally tear and collapse when trying to contract, and eventually weaken and die.
“It was sad—I wanted to be like all the other kids,” said Brandon, now 19, looking back on the day he found out. “I didn’t understand it, really. I only knew I had something that wasn’t good.”
And slowly, Brandon began to need more and more help getting around. When he was 10-and-a-half he got his first chair. Later, he regressed enough to need a motorized chair.
Len, a former basketball player for the University of Missouri and his wife, Eydie, were going through a divorce at the time of Brandon’s diagnosis.
“After we heard the news we went through all the stages a person would naturally go through after hearing something like that,” said Len. “We were devastated. We went through all the steps. At first you’re in shock. And then it took the focus right off the divorce. And we started having a pity-party, you know? Asking ourselves ‘Why?’ and we didn’t know what to do.”
But then another feeling kicked in: desire. Len and Eydie threw themselves into their desire to beat the fatal disease.
“We kicked into ‘research mode’,” said Len. “We took him in for tests, we’ve talked to doctors; we’re trying to beat this.”
Len and Eydie began to devote all their time and energy to Brandon’s wellness. They decided they wanted their son to live as normally as possible despite the DMD. Brandon’s family of Len, Eydie, and his younger sister Brianna became his home team.
“What’re you going to do, are you going to give up?” said Len, rubbing his bleary eyes. Every year he’s worried about Brandon is etched into his face. “That’s my son.” His energy seems to sap for a second. “I just hope I’ve been a good dad. And I really want to be able to tell you that my son will live forever.” He pushes the negativity away with a slap of the armrest of his chair. “At the end of the day, it’s what you make of the day.”
And it seemed then, as time passed, Brandon began to grow beyond his own body. For every muscle that deteriorated, Brandon’s courage strengthened. Brandon’s disease spread internally, but on the outside his smile and sunny disposition was infectious to those around him. He stopped being known as “the kid in the chair” and just was “Brandon”. A kid who couldn’t lift himself out of bed without help began to lift others and carry them on his shoulders.
When his dad was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2011, Brandon helped him through it.
“Alright, dad, see you in three hours,” Brandon had said when Len went into surgery. “No problem.”
Brandon’s classmates took note of his positive outlook. Not only was he voted Prom King his senior year at Pinnacle High School, he also was the first ever person in a wheelchair to play in a regulation basketball game after spending four years as the Pinnacle High Men’s Varsity basketball team’s manager.
Media and fans that included superstars like Blake Griffin and Tim Tebow surrounded Brandon after news of his historical moment spread. He was a local hero, a source of inspiration to those around him—especially to the athletes he so sympathized with as a longtime sports fan. Len has hundreds of pictures on his phone of Brandon with various athletes that he eagerly whips out at every chance—a proud father getting the chance he never thought he’d have to display his son’s athletic achievements.
For Brandon, the attention (especially from his childhood heroes) was much-needed relief from sometimes excruciating pain that he still refuses to describe as anything worse than “pretty bad”.
In 2010, Brandon had a necessary scoliosis surgery. The 12-hour process aimed to insert metal rods into his back so his deteriorating muscles wouldn’t have to support his frame alone. The end of the first surgery only began a spiraling 3-year nightmare of problems for Brandon.
A staph infection developed in his back, so while his own muscles died on the inside, a flesh-eating bacteria devoured his skin and tissues on the outside. He had to have his back cut open three more times before the infection was gone.
Brandon was left with 22-inch scars on his back and a severely weakened system when the staph was finally eradicated.
“That kid died and came back to life,” said Len. “I had to ask myself if I was going to lose my son.”
Brandon said he knew he would make it through.
“I didn’t want to go yet,” he said quietly. “I had more things to do.”
And even then he still had more surgeries to get through. In 2012 he had to get his feet surgically straightened. Another infection set in and covered his feet with pus-filled holes. He was told his feet might need to be amputated. His surgery count had reached ten within the past three years.
“I was told I’d never wear shoes again, too, after my feet healed a little,” he said. “Today’s a good day, because look at me now—I put my shoes on this morning.”
“I first met Brandon at Pinnacle High School when he was a sophomore, where he was the manager,” said Herb Sendek. “Brandon’s presence just immediately struck me. So we kept in touch and when he decided to come to ASU we wanted to make sure we had him on our side.”
Sendek checked in on Brandon frequently throughout the rest of his time in high school. He offered him a chance to be a manager if Arizona State was Brandon's college choice. "Come join our team" he told him. He made Brandon his Special Assistant once he arrived at Arizona State. Immediately after beginning his new job, Brandon befriended the players.
“He’s a great guy,” said sophomore point guard Jahii Carson. “And we don’t treat him like he’s different. He’s one of the team.”
Many of the players texted or Tweeted at Brandon upon hearing that he finally was able to put on his shoes. He made sure he was dressed to impress at practice that day, in gray Nike Dunks that matched his shorts and shirt in adherence to basketball culture.
“Those are some fresh kicks,” said Sendek when he saw Brandon’s feet. “Ooh, man, look at that color-coordination.” He gave his Special Assistant a hug and a fist-bump, then went to speak to a few players.
“(Sendek) is a family guy, and so am I,” said Brandon. “I really look up to him.”
Brandon attends almost every practice when his health allows in between classes and starting up his own non-profit, B-Inspired.org.
“My job is to make sure everyone’s okay,” he said. “I really like to focus on the team first and make sure everyone is feeling alright and maybe try to make them smile and feel important. Because every player is important.”
Sendek is constantly reminded of how important Brandon himself is.
“The thing that amazes me the most about Brandon is just how joy-filled he is,” he said. “He’s always smiling and he just radiates a genuine, pure joy.”
There’s a quote on the white walls of the Weatherup Center by Vince Lombardi. It reads, “The harder you work, the harder it is to surrender.” So many maroon-and-gold jerseys whiz by the words every day that they’re hardly noticed anymore.
But when Brandon whir-whir-whirs into the center of the huddle, the players get what Lombardi meant.
Because the soft-spoken kid with the mile-wide grin is every impassioned halftime speech by a coach to a trailing team. He’s every player who ever stayed late to shoot free throws in the dark. He’s the extra set in the weight room.
He’s the simple act of lacing up his own shoes after doctors told him he’d lose his feet. Brandon is the courage to believe in trying again, harder than before, and he is the refusal to surrender.
He’s the kid who, despite being stuck in a wheelchair on the sideline, gives his team legs on which to stand.