Coaches filed out of the locker room one by one with hands jammed in pockets, eyes surveying the floor.
Their Auburn team had just coughed up a two-touchdown lead in the final three minutes to Mississippi State at home.
Families waited under the bleachers near the door knowing exactly what to expect next: saltiness and bitterness with a dash of woe-is-me.
It’s a familiar wait for those closest to coaches.
“You come out and are a turd to your family,” Eddie Gran said of the postgame pity parade. “You come out and you start feeling sorry for yourself. That’s what coaches do.”
But that night it was different for Gran, who was the running backs coach and special teams coordinator for that 1999 Auburn team.
His shadow had barely crossed the locker room threshold when his infant daughter was placed in his arms.
“I was holding her and she was having seizure after seizure and he walks out, and he’s of course mad because they lost,” remembered the baby’s mother, Rosemary. “But that snapped him out of it immediately.”
It was a moment in time 17 years ago that Eddie Gran still recalls in the kind of vivid detail usually reserved for your wedding day or the birth of your first child.
His tiny child was struggling, seizing, fighting for her life.
“Everything went away,” he said. “I was like, ‘How can you be so selfish?’
“So when things go bad in my life, she kind of pops into my head that maybe it’s not so bad.”
The “she” is Sydney — the third of Eddie’s four daughters with Rosemary — and even though she died in 2005, Sydney is still touching their lives and the lives of families with sick children in Alabama every day.
It’s the positive ripple effect of a life too short.
It’s Sydney’s story.
And it’s the story of how Kentucky’s new assistant head coach for offense found his faith and some perspective.
A few weeks to live
When Sydney was born on July 1, 1999, Eddie and Rosemary had their concerns. Their third daughter weighed barely 5 pounds at birth, much smaller than her two older sisters, who were nearly 9 pounds each.
The circumference of Sydney’s head didn’t register on any of the newborn charts and it wasn’t in proportion to the rest of her body.
After bouts of not being able to keep her body temperature up and severe breathing problems, doctors sent the Gran family to the children’s hospital in Birmingham for more testing.
They saw 12 specialists that day for blood work, scans, genetic testing and more. After about eight hours, a doctor came into the small room where Rosemary and Eddie waited and handed them an index card.
“The doctor said, ‘This is what your daughter has. She’ll probably never walk; she’ll probably never talk. She’s probably got a few weeks to live,” Eddie recalled.
The card had a long word: Holoprosencephaly or “HPE.” It’s when an infant’s forebrain stops growing in the first three months of a pregnancy and the brain’s hemispheres fail to divide properly.
There’s little information available about the defect because most infants who suffer from HPE don’t survive birth, and the ones that do generally live less than two weeks.
“We kept thinking that maybe it was something that could be fixed,” Rosemary recalled. “Maybe she could have surgery.”
No, the doctor with the index card told them. A numbness strangled the couple and didn’t let go for months.
“They just kept saying, ‘Take her home. There’s no way to fix this. There’s nothing you can do. It doesn’t get any worse, but it doesn’t get any better, either,’” Rosemary said.
They decided to tell their daughters, then ages 7 and 4, the truth in its most simple form: Their baby sister was sick and she was going to die soon.
‘She just kept fighting’
Eddie Gran was still a football coach and there are no days off for a football coach. Much of Sydney’s care — and the care of daughters Bently and Dillan — fell on Rosemary.
Sydney wasn’t able to lay down flat because she would struggle to breathe, so when Eddie would get home from coaching fall camp all day, he’d sit up all night in a chair holding Sydney upright so she could sleep.
“Every morning when you wake up you’re not sure if this is the day she’s going to quit breathing,” Eddie said. “And that’s an awful way to live. We were miserable.”
Within that perfect storm of misery and exhaustion, Eddie’s moment of peace found him.
“He came in and saw how miserable I was because I wasn’t sleeping and he just said, ‘You’ve got to pray about it. You’ve got to kind of give it to God and he’ll take it from you,’” Gran said of a meeting with team chaplain Chette Williams. “From that point on, we did that and our faith changed. Everything changed and we figured there was a reason this all happened.”
Gran believed in God and went to church when he could, but he was a self-proclaimed “fence rider” when it came to true faith.
And his faith was being tested in the most painful way.
“Any time you’re faced with the difficulty of a special-needs child who is going to die — a very short life expectancy — you can’t get through that without God,” Rosemary said. “We started trusting that God had given her to us to care for her, to be part of our family.”
Knowing that there were no miracles coming for Sydney, Eddie and Rosemary said a prayer each day that when their daughter died that she wouldn’t suffer, that he would be home to help and that the older girls wouldn’t have to see it.
She just kept fighting. She smiled some; she said a couple of words, which they said she’d never do, and she did. … Two or three weeks to live and she lived almost six years. She was a fighter. She was supposed to stay around for a reason.
Sydney lived well beyond original projections — one month and one day short of her sixth birthday — plenty long enough to change the lives of nearly everyone she met.
Sydney Gran traveled to bowl games with Auburn. The family, not wanting to cheat the older girls out of childhood’s joys, took all three of them to Disney World.
She was a regular at Auburn football practices, where she touched the lives of players, most of whom had never been around someone with special needs.
“They would hold her and talk to her,” Rosemary said of the Tigers players. “She was very mobile for a lot of her life and we were lucky that she was able to (go places with us). If we went, she went.”
When Eddie thinks about his daughter, he thinks about her toughness. It was his favorite thing about her.
“She just kept fighting,” he said, nodding toward an 8-by-10 framed photo of Sydney in his office. “She smiled some; she said a couple of words, which they said she’d never do, and she did. … Two or three weeks to live and she lived almost six years. She was a fighter. She was supposed to stay around for a reason.”
Rosemary, who is no longer married to Eddie, returned to the Auburn area to live after their divorce. There she has regular reminders of their little girl with the strong spirit.
Doctors told the Grans that Sydney would be a vegetable, that she would never be aware of her surroundings.
None of that turned out to be true.
“She had quite a little personality,” Rosemary recalled. “She didn’t smile a lot, but when she did, it was a beautiful little smile.”
Sydney loved being in church. “And music. She would kind of sing along. She didn’t really talk, but she did make noises, so we’d go to church and she’d kind of make noises like singing,” her mom said.
Letting go, giving back
Those prayers that Eddie and Rosemary said for so many years that their daughter would die peacefully with her dad at home and her sisters away were answered.
Sydney had been battling pneumonia again and her temperature hovered around 107 degrees, so Rosemary called Eddie to come home. Their other girls were at dinner with family.
Eddie walked in the house and scooped up his daughter as he had when she was a baby. Her organs were shutting down slowly.
“Within five to 10 minutes, she just closed her eyes and went to sleep,” Rosemary said.
Eddie folded his arms over his chest slowly and took a deep breath as he remembered Sydney’s final moments on May 31, 2005.
“It was unbelievable the night she passed,” he said. “She passed in my arms. She didn’t suffer. My kids weren’t there; I was home. It was amazing how it happened.”
Perhaps even more amazing to them is how many lives Sydney touched in her short time in the world.
Weeks before she died, the Gran family set up a foundation in their daughter’s name. The endowment gives out nearly $30,000 annually to families with sick children who pass through the doors of Children’s of Alabama where they spent so much of their time with Sydney.
“They pay light bills; they buy gas; they give $500 Visa cards to families who have to drive back and forth for treatments,” Rosemary said of vouchers given to families there each year. “So 100 percent of that money goes to families that need it.”
A series of benefits that included former Auburn players turned NFL players like running backs Carnell Williams and Ronnie Brown helped raise nearly $500,000 to honor Sydney and her family.
Many of those players saw a change in their coach, who is now Kentucky’s coach.
“It gave me a great sense of what was important,” Gran said of being Sydney’s dad and a football coach. “They got to see a transformation of a coach where I’d be cussing like a sailor and just the way I acted was so different. She changed all of our lives.”
Rosemary saw the evolution in her former husband. Having a special-needs child has a way of showing you what’s truly special in the world.
“As a coach, it made him better because he became more empathetic to the players’ lives,” she said. “It made him realize that if this is going on in my house, then what’s going on in their house? He didn’t really get that before.”
Touchdowns are good. Victories are great.
But the things that are special about football have changed dramatically for Gran.
“For me, it’s about a kid texting me … he’d just had his first baby,” Gran said. “He texted me, ‘Coach, I remember how you were around your girls and I’m having my first girl right now and I wanted to tell you that I remember, that I hope I can raise my kids like that.’”
Gran doesn’t want Kentucky fans to think he doesn’t care about winning. He still walks out of a losing locker room with hands jammed in pockets and eyes cast downward.
But he knows other things are important, too.
“When we win, I’m pretty level-headed and when we lose, you’ve got to go to the next one,” he said. “You try not to dwell on it and make your life miserable that way. There’s much more to life than just that.”