A little more than a week ago, Dalton Green was just like any other kid.
He did normal 11-year-old boy things: soccer practice, corny jokes, Nerf gun wars with his dad and quiet moments zooming Hot Wheels across the floor.
“He’s one of those kids that loves to talk,” said Doug, Dalton’s dad. “And I would beg him, ‘Please, please, please just be quiet for five minutes.’
“I will never ask him to be quiet again.”
A silent, unresponsive Dalton in that big bed at the pediatric intensive care unit changed all that.
Doug Green relayed that common parenting story to visitors who joined them at Kentucky Children’s Hospital on Tuesday.
One of those visitors, Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops, turned to the other visitor, quarterback Stephen Johnson, and said quietly: “Tomorrow is not promised.”
It’s something Stoops discusses with his UK players on a regular basis, in the quiet moments in the new football practice facility.
“We talk a lot about how yesterday’s gone, today’s a beautiful day, embrace it, and tomorrow’s truly not promised,” Stoops said.
When Stoops and Johnson left Dalton’s hospital room after a short visit that included some marked progress for the sick boy, they continued to discuss how life can change in an instant.
“To be at practice and then three days later be in intensive care, it’s amazing,” Stoops told the Herald-Leader on Wednesday. “It’s scary.”
Dalton’s story is one that would terrify any parent.
On Monday of last week, the Anderson County Middle School student had soccer and then golf practice.
“Then two days later he can’t support his weight and then two days after that, he’s basically unresponsive,” Doug explained. “It all changed so quickly. There was no car accident. He didn’t fall out of a tree. There was no reason for it, no trauma whatsoever.”
It took some time and a rapid decline in his health, but eventually doctors diagnosed the 11-year-old boy with a rare neurological disorder that causes aggressive, widespread swelling of the brain and spinal cord tissues.
Acute demyelinating encephalomyelitis — or ADEM for short — is brought on by a viral infection and has symptoms similar to multiple sclerosis.
“He had a pretty severe case,” explained Al Green, Dalton’s grandfather and a retired head trainer for the UK football team under coaches Fran Curci, Jerry Claiborne and Bill Curry. “He was unresponsive, had no movement whatsoever, including reflexes.”
Friday night was “really, really, really scary for all of us,” said Dalton’s uncle, Freddie Maggard, a former University of Kentucky quarterback and an analyst for the UK Radio Network.
“I spent Saturday morning before my pregame show duties with him and got a little bit of response from him, a smile,” Maggard said.
In the hospital room with a lifeless Dalton, Maggard urged the boy to squeeze his fingers to show him his new grip on the golf club. There was a promising little squeeze that doctors later said was just a “reflexive twitch.”
“When I went to the game, I didn’t know what was going to happen,” Maggard said.
After the win over Eastern Michigan, a heavy-hearted Maggard asked Stoops to sign a poster with Josh Allen on the cover. The sophomore linebacker is among Dalton’s favorite players along with Johnson.
“He just stopped and wanted to know everything” about Dalton’s situation, Maggard said of Stoops. “I felt bad because I understand he has recruits and family and he just finished the game. I didn’t want to bother him with it, but he insisted on talking about it.”
The head coach promised to visit the young boy in the hospital as soon as he could.
‘Two kids wanting to play catch’
That visit came on Tuesday in the middle of a physical therapy session for Dalton, who had shown some signs of improvement thanks to high-dose steroid treatments.
But Dalton was still mostly immobile and unresponsive when Stoops and Johnson arrived with a get-well football. On it, the head coach wrote: “The Wildcats are with you. Keep up the good fight!”
Johnson handed the ball to Dalton and the boy tried to gesture with his arms that he wanted to play catch with the quarterback.
“At that moment, it was just two kids wanting to play catch,” Maggard said. “I had to stand back because I was getting too emotional.”
It was an emotional moment for the entire family because it was the first time they started to see that Dalton was processing what was going on around him.
Physical therapists tried to help the boy clutch the ball.
“With the help of the therapist, he was able to take the handoff, so that was a great moment,” said Al Green, his grandfather.
Johnson, who battled through Tourette’s syndrome when he was a boy, got down close Dalton.
“He kept getting in Dalton’s ear and telling him he’s a warrior, he’s going to get through this, he’s praying for him,” Maggard said. “And he talked about how he got through a tough time at about the same age and was just talking to him like they were having a conversation.
“I could see the care in his eyes, the empathy in his eyes.”
Maggard saw another side of Stoops, too.
“Mark Stoops was not the head football coach at the University of Kentucky at that hospital,” Maggard said. “Mark Stoops was a caring dad who saw a child in a serious situation medically.”
There were no reporters or television cameras around.
Only three people knew the visit was even going to happen that day. That meant a lot to Maggard and the Green family, too.
“This wasn’t some publicity stunt,” Maggard said. “It was Mark Stoops, the dad of two boys, and Stephen Johnson, a quarterback who has overcome issues in his life and just has a caring heart.”
Allen, Dalton’s other favorite player, had class at the time of the initial visit but asked Stoops after practice on Tuesday about going back to visit later this week, the head coach said.
The visit touched Johnson and Stoops as much as it touched the family that witnessed it.
“When you go do things like that and you help kids, it helps you keep things in perspective just as much as it helps them,” Stoops said.
The visit also was the start of big-time progress for Dalton.
“It was just amazing to see the changes that he’s gone through, especially with them here,” Doug Green said.
By Wednesday morning, Dalton was coherent and able to speak more clearly.
“He knows where he’s at and the best part is he’s been able to move his legs and he can move his arms,” Al Green said, noting that Dalton was still working on hand movement and other things.
It will be a long road for him to get back to the kid he was before the infection. There will be more evaluations and therapy to improve his range of motion, and then strength and endurance work.
Doctors are hopeful that he will make a full recovery.
In many ways, Dalton already is returning to 11-year-old boy form.
“He’s wanting his feeding tube out,” Doug said. “He’s wanting White Castle and a chocolate milkshake, of all things.”
Doug joked with his son that if he’d been down for that long he’d be asking for steak and lobster.
“He looked at me and said, ‘Oooh, lobster,’” laughed Doug, relieved to hear his son talking again.