Clemson running back Roderick McDowell took carry after carry in the season opener against Georgia, pounding his way to 132 yards and his best game of the season.
In Fort Oglethorpe, Ga., a little Bulldogs fan watched with his mom and dad. During the broadcast, announcers mentioned McDowell was born with clubfoot, a congenital birth defect that impacts the way people walk and run.
Rachel and Patrick Millsaps looked at the television. Then they looked at their son, Logan. Patrick pointed to McDowell and said, “See, he was born just like you.” Logan, 7, sat in awe, staring at the college football player on the screen. “He was?” Logan replied.
Logan Millsaps had already been through four operations to fix his foot, the last several years ago. The only noticeable signs are the scars on his leg, and a slightly different walking motion. Logan began playing football this year, as an offensive and defensive lineman, and has taken quite well to it.
But Rachel started thinking. She knew seeing a football player overcome the same condition would give her boy some positive reinforcement, and the belief that maybe one day he, too, could play college football. So she reached out to Clemson through an intermediary to see if she could get in contact with McDowell.
A few weeks later, Patrick Millsaps’ cell phone rang.
It was McDowell.
Patrick Millsaps was floored. So was Logan, who was just about speechless. So McDowell did most of the talking.
“I told him I’m his brother and I told him no matter what you decide to do, you can go out and do it no matter what circumstances may come between you,” McDowell recalled in a recent phone interview. “You may think you’re different, but being different is good. You don’t have to be like everybody else. You see me? I’m different. You see me on the field, you see me on TV and the newspaper, I’m giving you hope. I’m telling you that you can accomplish anything you want to do.”
“Yes sir. Thank you,” Logan replied.
McDowell then spoke to Patrick Millsaps, getting more detail about Logan. Their stories are similar. Both were diagnosed with clubfoot when they were born. Those with the abnormality have one or both feet twisted out of position and inward.
Both McDowell and Logan Millsaps had surgeries at a young age. They also were forced to wear casts to help correct their feet. McDowell preferred to wear long pants to hide his leg braces and scars, even in summer. Logan never wore braces, but he also prefers long pants.
But McDowell says he is luckier than Logan in one respect -- he only had one surgery. Millsaps has been through multiple surgeries at two different hospitals in Tennessee and Kentucky. In fact, doctors initially told the Millsaps that there was an 85 percent chance Logan would not be able to walk properly. Logan never learned how to crawl because of the operations, and was never an active toddler.
So to see him now, playing football and baseball, is a miracle for the Millsaps family.
“We are just so proud of Logan,” Patrick Millsaps said. “It just broke our hearts to see everything he had to go through as a little boy, but to see where he is now has just been a gift from God.”
Logan already has a head start on McDowell when it comes to playing football. Like Logan, McDowell was a baseball player first. But in fifth grade, he got the football itch. He became a water boy to get close to the players and coaches and did not start playing until seventh grade.
“I was the first person in line to get my physical. I was ready to get my pads,” McDowell said. “I was excited to play. I got out there, and on my first play, I scored my first touchdown. It was a wonderful feeling -- me and my brother out there playing on the same team. That’s something we always wanted.”
McDowell eventually stopped hiding his legs, and embraced who he was. Even before he played on national television, he served as an inspiration. His Spanish teacher in high school had a daughter born with clubfoot. Each time she saw him, she would gave McDowell a hug.
“She would say, ‘Rod you motivate me and you’re helping my daughter. She’s not fully able to walk, but for you to be able to walk and do the things you do, Rod I’m so proud of you. You give hope to my daughter.’
“To hear that from her, that’s more than a million dollars knowing I have been blessed from God to do something I love, to be able to walk and run to know that I’m helping somebody -- that means a lot. You never know how you can impact somebody’s life.”
McDowell, who already has his degree in sociology, wants to start a foundation to “show kids just because you may have a clubfoot, life is not over. You can still walk. I just want to give kids hope out there. That’s what they need. They need encouraging words to get them going.”
Logan might not fully express his emotions verbally, but Patrick Millsaps says he has noticed a difference in his son since speaking with McDowell, most especially in demeanor and confidence. Logan says he feels better, too. He had one word when asked what it was like to talk to McDowell on the phone.