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Neutropenia Support Association Inc.

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Football star beats illness, tackles world

Part of Canadian team in Super Bowl festivities

By Chris Cariou - published in the Winnipeg Free Press

Winnipeg who grew up fighting for his life against a rare disease is now a brawny 19-year-old athlete who will play for Canada in a junior football championship during Super Bowl week in Houston.

At 18 months, little Lindsey Stevens was expected to die if he left hospital.

This month, at 6-foot-6 and 280 pounds, he will play offensive line against the world's top junior football players.

"It's playing for Canada... it's awesome," said Stevens, the only Manitoban on the Canadian team in the eighth NFL Global Junior Championship Jan. 28-31 as part of Super Bowl XXXVIII.

It's a striking turnaround for the child who doctors expected would die from the rare blood disease known as neutropenia.

"I could see that he was failing," Stevens' mom, Lorna, remembered yesterday. "It was touch and go.

At five years - two years past the average lifespan for a child born with neutropenia - and hooked up to all kinds of medical machinery, his picture was beamed across Canada on national TV. The Free Press wrote a number of stories about him.

He was finger-poked for blood every Tuesday of his life until the disease mysteriously left him when he was 12. He was on antibiotics, non-stop, for 6 1/2 years. He had so many intravenous tubes in his body as a child, it was like they were another appendage. He and his parents were in emergency departments "all the time," Lorna said.

Today, Stevens plays with the Canadian Junior Football League's Winnipeg Rifles. And he's headm-g to Houston to play for Canada.

"I don't think there can be a downside to this at all," Stevens, a criminology student at the University of Winnipeg, said yesterday during a break between classes. "It will give me more experience and more coaching. This will amount to a pinnacle in my career now; I hope to get ahead and this could open the gates."

With a scholarship offer from the University of Calgary Dinosaurs already on the table, the memories of his struggle with neutropenia are dim. He says he was naive about the effects of the disease, which robs victims of their ability to produce white blood cells, the body's main line of defence against bacterial infection.

Potentially deadly

Infections that most other people can easily fight off and which might not even make them sick were potentially deadly for Stevens. But Lorna says doctors told her that her son would "always hit the home run when he needed to," that just enough white blood cells would appear at the right time - they called them little soldiers - to fend off infections.

Then, seven years ago, the illness fled his body and has never come back.

"Religious people would say it's a miracle," Lorna said, "but every disease can spontaneously resolve."

"I remember when I was sick, my parents would take care of me," Stevens said. "They always did it and kept me in high spirits and a positive attitude and I think that's transferred over to football ' those high spirits, because I don't let anything get me down. -

"The situation was probably much more grave than I ever thought it was. But it didn't hinder my life at all. I never had the burden, my parents did."

Lorna said her son was made of "very tough stuff. Thankfully he found football. We had to protect him all the time from a lot of things. Hand washing was the No. 1 thing. He had to take his shoes off when he got home. If he went to the mall, he had to wash his hair and have a shower."

When the disease left him, the family flew to Disney World to celebrate. Stevens could never travel out of Canada because no company would insure him. He got into hockey ("He was probably the worst goalie in River Heights," Loma laughed), excelled in rugby and curling, played team handball, tried rowing and sailing.

But pigskin has become his passion. He's in his second year with the Rifles and has twice played for Manitoba's Under19 squad, coached by Scott Norris, who's also a Rifles' assistant and,who will be an assistant coach with the Canadian team in Houston later this month.

Stevens was rated the No. 8 offensive lineman at a training camp in Montreal last month and didn't initially make the team.

But Rifles teammate Ian Carpick, who would have started at right tackle, opted not to, go because he was worried about missing too much school. So Stevens was added to the squad.

"Ian's decision is Lindsey's windfall," Norris said. "There were a number of university coaches at the camp and they drooled over Ian and Lindsey. What these kids are learning through some great coaching will give them a chance to move on and hopefully some of them will be in the CFL in the next five or six years."

And that, not surprisingly, is among Stevens' goals. He moved from the Crescentwood Grizzlies' program to the Kelvin Clippers, then on to the Rifles and the U-19 program, and now appears to be on the road to a university career. If he plays with the Dinos or another school next year or the season after, the CFL would be next in line.

With the Rifles, he's got a good teacher in offensive line coach Moe Elewonibi - a mainstay with the Blue Bombers.

"He's by far one of the best coaches I've ever had," said Stevens, who will be lining up against teams from the U.S., Japan, Mexico and Russia in Houston. The U.S. beat Canada 28-21 in overtime in last year's championship in San Diego. "Everyone's technique skyrocketed under his direction."

Stevens wants to get up to 300 pounds by next season and hopefully 320 the year after that. And he'd love to eventually play for the Bombers. r

"It's a huge dream but I take it one step at a time. I'll do everything I possibly can to make that happen, and this (the bowl trip) is one more notch in my belt."

Lorna, meanwhile, who co-founded the Neutropenia Support Assoc. Inc. and serves as president, continues to run the website she set up many years ago on the disease (www.neutropenia.ca). She also still takes calls on the, disease from parents and doctors all across North America on a phone in her basement (1-800-6-NEUTRO, or 1-800-663-8876).

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