Bryan Campbell is defying the odds

EUGENE, Ore. -- Gary Campbell has a plane to catch. He's flying to Florida later in the afternoon to see a running back recruit, but first he has to swing by his house to pack and say hello/goodbye to the toughest kid he's ever met.

Campbell knows running backs: He's coached nearly every 1,000-yard rusher Oregon has ever had, including this season's All-American, Kenjon Barner. And no major-college assistant football coach has spent more time at a program than Campbell. Right now, it's 30 years and counting.

So Campbell makes the short drive from the Ducks' football facility to his gorgeous little neighborhood in Eugene. He drives a Mercedes. His collection of tailored suits is legendary at Oregon. His holiday-decorated house sits in a cul-de-sac, and in the back of the property you'll find a pond and bubbling fountain. Life is good.

And then you walk into his home and the first thing you hear is the gentle sound of what turns out to be a respirator. You meet his wife, Alola, a loving, headstrong woman from Mississippi who married Gary in 1982. You meet a nurse named Angela. And you meet Bryan.

There isn't a subtle way of saying it: Bryan Campbell shouldn't be alive today. A pair of doctors told Gary and Alola their newborn son would never make it to his first birthday.

"The two doctors who made that prognosis that Bryan would live less than a year are both dead," Gary said. "So he outlived them."

Bryan, 28, has outlived the odds and actuary tables. According to Dr. Christine DiDonato of Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago, about 1 in every 6,000 to 1 in every 10,000 infants are born with spinal muscular atrophy. About 60 percent of those infants are born with Type 1 SMA, which is the most severe and deadliest form of the hereditary disease. There is no known cure. Not long after his birth -- and a series of life-saving procedures -- doctors told the Campbells that Bryan could remain alive only with life-support assistance. Had they considered, the doctors gently asked, taking Bryan off such assistance?

Considered it? Not for a moment.

"No, we could not pull the plug," Gary said.

I've had dreams where he was off the ventilator and I was afraid, and he said, 'It's OK. I'm OK.'

-- Gary Campbell on his son Bryan

But those two doctors were right in one respect. Historically, said DiDonato, infants with Type 1 SMA usually die of respiratory failure within 24 months of birth.

"Bryan is a miracle because, first of all, he defied all the odds," Gary said. "I think what he did most for our family is he brought us closer together. We circled the wagons, our entire family, and we were determined to make Bryan a part of that family and to keep him as happy as possible for as long as he was going to be alive."

Bryan hasn't just defied the odds, he's ignored them. And to watch the way Gary and Alola tenderly assist their son, it's hard to imagine how a family could be any closer.

"We were afraid," Alola said of the months that followed his birth. "We didn't know what was coming next. We just knew that here is a beautiful baby boy that we wanted to take home and wanted him to be normal. Wanted him to grow up to be a football player like his dad. But then reality started sinking in: That's not going to happen with Bryan.

"So we brought him home to die, and he's still here with us."

Bryan has never spoken a word. He can't breathe on his own. He can't eat on his own. He can't move his arms, hands, feet, legs or head. He requires 24-hour medical care.

If his ventilator attachment slips out, an alarm sounds. And multiple times during the day, his trachea tube will have to be cleaned, or any congestion in his lungs will have to be loosened by a drumming on his chest.

"I've had dreams," Gary said, "where he was off the ventilator and I was afraid, and he said, 'It's OK. I'm OK.'"

But Bryan can move his eyes. And those eyes, Gary and Alola said, can speak their own language.

"If I go in and do a lot of kissing on him, and he'll roll his eyes, like, 'Mom. Please,'" Alola said. "If he's asleep and he'll hear Gary's voice, his eyes will open up and then the nurse says, 'He always knows when you guys are in the room. He kind of perks up when you come in.' So he knows. He knows what goes on around him."

And this from Barner, who, along with other Oregon teammates, has visited the house and spent time with Bryan: "Whether you can really understand and articulate it, what he's trying to say with his eyes, you feel it."

Barner marvels at the strength and patience of his coach and Alola.

"He's always happy," he said. "He's always upbeat. He's always smiling. You see that smile, and you can't help but be happy. ... He has every right in the world to be down and feel hopeless because of his situation with his son, but you'll never see him like that."

Gary doesn't have time to feel sorry for himself. To do so, he said, would be an insult to his own son, who endures much more than he ever has.

"The thing I struggle with most is how Bryan is feeling," Gary said. "I just don't really know if he's enjoying life. ... I have asked him if he's happy. I think some days it's a yes and some days it's, well, I'm OK. But the thing that bothers me most is I can't really know whether he wants to continue this kind of life."

Gary often sits next to his son and whispers in his ear. He wants Bryan to hear his voice, to know that Gary and Alola are there for him, to give him a parent's comfort.

Bryan can answer back only with those eyes. But if he could somehow speak -- and Gary has imagined that moment, too -- what would be the first words out of his mouth?

"I wish I knew the answer to that question," Gary said. "I think that he would say, 'Thanks for loving me.'"