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KeShun Freeman's resilient little brother is his inspiration

Andrea Adelson/ESPN

LAGRANGE, Ga. -- Day after day, the baby laid in his incubator, tubes snaking from his heart, his lungs, his arms. Day after day, nobody came to visit. Nobody wanted him.

Days turned into months, the clock ticking on finding him a mommy and a daddy. His birth parents could not keep him. An aunt could not take him. A grown half-sister also said no.

Keisha Freeman initially said no, too. She knew her estranged father had a baby with another woman, but she had three boys of her own, and she was balancing a job and school.

Her husband, Charles, urged her to reconsider. So did her boys, led by 10-year-old KeShun. Keisha decided to visit the baby in the hospital to see whether she was ready to upend their lives.

As soon as she set foot in the neonatal ward at the Columbus Medical Center, the nurses rushed up to Keisha. "We're so glad to see you!" they said. "Nobody ever bothers with him." Keisha Freeman put on a protective gown, washed her hands and entered the room. She picked up the baby, an oxygen tank and heart monitors connected to his incomprehensibly small 2-pound body.

"At that very moment," Freeman said, "I knew that I had to have him."

Landon Freeman is 9 now, tall and lanky, with big eyes and an enthusiasm that is often hard to contain. He wants to play basketball, but his passion is football.

Because that is what his big brother does.

KeShun Freeman starred as a true freshman defensive end at Georgia Tech last season, leading the team with 9.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks. As he did when KeShun played in high school, Landon belts out, "GOOOO BIG BROTHER!" before each game. Landon has become such an integral part of who KeShun Freeman is that Jackets teammates ask on a daily basis, "How's your brother?"

"Landon brought our family together, and it brought me to the place I am now," KeShun said. "All of us can say the same thing: Our family grew so close through Landon."

Landon is the reason KeShun plays for Georgia Tech. Leaving home was never an option. The two grew especially close during Landon's early years, the teddy bear of a big brother enveloping the baby brother with love, compassion and care. It was hard not to hold Landon close.

On so many days, the family thought they were losing him.

Born at 24 weeks' gestation, Landon was given four hours to live. When those four hours passed, doctors gave him another four. Then another four. Landon had the fortitude to survive, but that did not make his predicament any less stressful. Once Keisha and Charles got through adoption classes, they brought Landon home, but he remained critically ill.

Doctors tried to brace them for what was to come.

"They told us he would never walk, he would never talk and the only way he was going to communicate was through sign language," Charles said. "I told my wife, 'We're not going to listen to the doctors.'"

The first night home, Landon's heart monitors started beeping. KeShun raced into his parents' room with his brothers, 7-year-old Michael and 4-year-old Jacob. They crowded around Landon, confused and fearful. After a few interminable seconds, Landon started breathing again.

That night was only a glimpse of what was to come. Landon underwent open heart surgery at 1. He had ongoing lung issues, forcing him to sleep upright.

Then the seizures began. KeShun remembers the first one vividly. The four boys were sitting in the car outside Keisha's office while their dad and uncle waited outside to drop something off. KeShun, 11 at the time, looked over at Landon. His face had turned blue.

"Landon! Landon!" KeShun shouted. He started patting Landon on the back, panicked. No response. KeShun took him out of the car seat, ran out of the car and screamed, "Daddy! he's not breathing!" Charles laid Landon on the hood of a car, and their uncle did CPR. KeShun burst into his mother's office, crying. "He's not breathing, Mom!"

Keisha dropped the papers in her hand and sprinted out the door. Landon started breathing, but then began seizing. Foam spilled from his mouth. Keisha and Charles remained calm while the three older boys cried. Landon was rushed to the hospital once again. The seizure was caused by a fever from pneumonia.

"I was like, 'Why am I experiencing this? I'm just a kid, I shouldn't be experiencing this kind of stuff,'" KeShun said. "My grandmother got us while my parents went to the hospital. She talked to us. 'You're strong people. You have to stay strong. Landon needs everyone to stay strong for him.'"

His health problems became so severe that Keisha quit her job and school to care for him full time. Doctor appointments filled her days; hospitalizations in nearby Atlanta were so frequent that they became the new normal.

KeShun had grown-up responsibilities while his parents cared for Landon. He would make breakfast, iron and get his siblings ready for school. To this day, KeShun still cooks breakfast for his family when he is home, frying up sausages and bacon and making gourmet egg casseroles.

"It was a lot, but I wouldn't trade it for the world because it made me the person I am today," KeShun said. "Landon -- he's our miracle child."

Landon's medical condition was not all that threatened the Freeman family. Shortly after Landon arrived in their home, Keisha and Charles were served with court papers. When they arrived at the courthouse, they learned that Landon's birth mother wanted her baby back.

The Freemans were devastated. KeShun took the news especially hard. "I remember crying, 'We just got a baby and I don't want to lose it!'" he said. "That was very tough."

After months of motions and court hearings, a judge finally ruled in the Freemans' favor. They officially adopted Landon in January 2008, nearly two years after he was born.

After the ruling, Keisha went to visit his birth mother.

"I looked at her and promised her I'd take care of him forever," Keisha said.

Both women wept.

It was a promise Keisha intended to keep, but there were still scary days ahead. They had no idea whether Landon would ever be healthy. Rather than allow worry to consume them, they doubled down on their efforts to help. Keisha, strong and determined, constantly reminded them, 'I'm not trying to raise a victim. I'm trying to raise a victor.'

Eventually, KeShun and his brothers taught Landon how to crawl, dangling pieces of bologna in front of him to entice him to move.

Speech therapists and physical therapists worked with Landon through the state of Georgia's free Babies Can't Wait program, designed to help families with special needs children. Medicaid covered Landon's other medical costs.

KeShun would mimic the exercises the therapists did. He'd get on the floor and roll the ball to Landon. He'd do bicycle kicks with Landon's legs. When he'd come home from school, he and his brothers would go outside and hold Landon's hands to try and get him to walk up and down the front steps. Landon ended up taking his first steps at 18 months and saying his first word around the same time.

"It was rough for him at the beginning, that's for sure," said Dr. Eric Zerla, the pediatrician who treats Landon. "It's really amazing how he has thrived under Keisha's care. Honestly, if it wasn't for her, I don't think Landon would be around today."

Once Landon was old enough to sleep in a normal position, he would often end up in KeShun's room. "That was a comfort to Landon," Keisha said. "KeShun's always been a special kid with a big heart. He always took the time with Landon, and he showed that care and kindness and compassion. Landon automatically gravitated to him because that was the one who gave him so much love."

Landon slowly started getting better, but when he began elementary school, he was developmentally delayed. It was KeShun who would put aside his own homework and sit with Landon, coming up with creative ways to teach him to read. Sometimes KeShun would come up with a song or a clever rhyme, drawing the whole family in to the beat.

In between his advanced placement classes, community service commitments and football practices, KeShun always found the time to help Landon. During his junior year in high school, KeShun skipped a literary competition to be with Landon in the hospital after the little boy had three seizures in one day.

"I told my coach, 'I'm sorry, I can't go because I have to be with Landon,'" KeShun said. "When Landon's eyes opened and he saw me there, my mom said, 'You're helping him get better by just being here.'"

KeShun wants to be a pediatric anesthesiologist so he can help young children the way doctors helped Landon. One in particular made a lasting impression after allowing KeShun and his brothers to watch as he prepped Landon for surgery.

"He was like, 'Want to watch your brother go to sleep? We're going to count to 20,'" KeShun said of the anesthesiologist. "By the time we got to 13, he was totally out. Seeing that, I was like, 'I want to do this. I won't have to see the children having the surgery. I can let them go to sleep, rest peacefully and still see that smile on their face before they go out.'"

Last month, KeShun made the short drive home so he could ride with his family to a reunion in Ohio. Landon, who just started third grade, climbed all over him. He is the healthiest he has ever been.

"I was sitting over there thinking, 'I couldn't imagine not having Landon in our lives,'" Michael said. "He's opened my eyes to a happier side, a funnier side. He makes me happy."

Michael and Jacob, both football players, teased KeShun mercilessly. "We've always been like that," KeShun said.

Nearly two years after they adopted Landon, the Freemans also adopted Jalanda, completing the family with the girl they always wanted. KeShun took an active role in helping Jalanda, too, embracing her from the moment he met her during an outing at Burger King. "She always felt like family," KeShun said.

Now 13, Jalanda has a passion for drawing. As for being the only girl among the siblings, she says, "It's kinda hard."

The family turned to Landon. They asked, 'Do you have anything to say?'

Silence.

"Do you feel lucky to have this family?"

"Yes, ma'am," he said.

"What do you think about Big Brother playing at Georgia Tech?"

"Cool!" he replied.

Landon went back to his computer game. KeShun recalled a Whitney Houston song his mom used to sing to them when they were younger. Keisha starts in on the tune:

If there's a time

When the tears should fill your eyes

And you can't see past the shadows

To the sun on the other side

Don't despair,

Because there always will be someone there

Don't lose faith,

Love won't let you lose your way

Because you...

You'll never stand alone

Not in the Freeman family. Standing alone is never an option.