Over the last few months of Rowan County's 2014-15 school year, Mark Kidd had a severe case of "graduation fever."
"Every day, Mark would ask me 'Am I going to get to graduate? When do I get to graduate?'" says Debbie Hudson, a Rowan County teacher's aide. "I think graduating was a big goal he set for himself."
Bear with me, and you will understand why making it across the stage at his graduation meant so much to Mark.
I first told you about Mark in September, 2012. When he was little, Ashley and Melissa "Missy" Kidd's son loved nothing more than getting out in the yard and throwing a football. Hudson remembers Mark when he started school at Clearfield Elementary. "Just a normal, rambunctious little boy," she says."
Never miss a local story.
By the time Mark got to high school, however, a cruel malady was causing his body to betray him. By then, Mark needed a wheelchair to get around and his vision had degenerated so much he could only see shapes.
His love for football, however, never diminished. So Mark's mother would sometimes take him to Rowan County Vikings games and do the "play-by-play" for him. When Matt Ballard, then the Morehead State head football coach, heard about a mom "calling games" for her nearly-blind son, he suggested it to me as a story worth sharing.
Since 2012, a lot — some good, some the opposite — has happened for Mark.
Two summers ago, Mark got to score a "touchdown." It began during summer school, where Mark was talking non-stop about football. Hudson and another Rowan County staffer, Michelle Haney, decided they were going to create a "football game" for Mark.
Said Hudson: "The football coaches had hooked him up with every piece of equipment you could have. We told him to go home and the next day to bring his helmet, his shoulder pads, everything he needed to play football."
Under the noon sun, they took Mark to the 50-yard line in Rowan County's Coach Paul Ousley Stadium. "It was hot as blazes," Hudson said.
Haney "threw" Mark the ball. With Hudson pushing his wheelchair, Mark scooted 50 yards into the end zone. After he "scored," Mark started flapping his arms. "He said he was doing 'The Dirty Bird,'" Hudson says of the Atlanta Falcons touchdown celebration.
Last year, Mark got to go to prom. In a generous act of friendship, one of his fellow Rowan County students, Emma Banks, invited him. "He was decked out," Missy Kidd says. "Tuxedo. Sun glasses. Fedora. He was rocking."
By the time prom season rolled around this spring, Mark's story had taken a less happy turn.
In 2012, doctors thought a condition called mitochondrial myopathy, a neuromuscular disorder, is what had put Mark in a wheelchair. They believed he was losing his vision due to retinitis pigmentosa, which causes damage to the retina.
Turns out, it was a different malady causing all of Mark's health problems.
Some months back, Mark had a 13-year-old cousin showing physical symptoms similar to those Mark had long displayed. Doctors at the Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center eventually determined the cousin had Batten disease, a rare genetic disorder. That led to a re-diagnosis of Mark, now 20, and the same verdict for him.
"It's a horrible disease," Missy Kidd says. "It causes seizures, dementia, blindness and, eventually, the loss of all mobility. It takes away a person's speech and their ability to eat. Most kids who get it don't live to see their teen years, let alone to see 20. My biggest thing now is raising awareness. People need to know there are rare diseases no one even knew about and what it can do to your kids."
According to the website of the National Organization for Rare Disorders, Batten disease is a progressive, degenerative neurometabolic disorder that normally afflicts children between the ages of five and 15. It is far more common in Northern Europe and Scandinavia than in the United States.
In recent months, the deterioration of Mark's body has accelerated.
"Mark has seizures now," Missy Kidd says. "He's completely blind now. He can't eat by the mouth anymore, is completely tube fed. Mostly, he stays in bed, He's declining rapidly."
Given that, it is easy to understand why making it to his high school graduation meant so much to Mark.
On May 22, inside Morehead State University's Ellis T. Johnson Arena, he made it.
"I was behind his wheelchair, and you know he can't see at all now, so I would try to describe to Mark what was happening," said Hudson, the teacher's aide. "I'd say, 'Mark, it's five rows until you graduate. Mark, one more row. Mark, you are the next person.'"
When Hudson pushed Mark's wheelchair across the stage and he got his diploma, he did something no one was expecting.
"He's very weak now, but somehow he got his arms up and he held his diploma up in the air, and he kept it up there all the way until we got back to his seat," Hudson said, her voice quavering.
In that moment, those who were there say the cheers for Mark Kidd were fit for the football hero he always wanted to be.