The coach, his daughter and the fight of their lives

CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. -- Landrey Eargle, her infectious smile every bit as broad as some of her father's Austin Peay offensive linemen, knows how to light up a room.

It's not that she's really trying to. It just comes naturally to the little girl who wasn't even supposed to make it out of the hospital alive after being born six weeks premature via Caesarean section and then undergoing open heart surgery at 7 weeks old. She spent the first 73 days of her life in a hospital -- six weeks at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas, the first 10 days on a ventilator, before being transported to Children's Medical Center in Dallas where she had the open-heart surgery. She coded four times in nine days post-operation as doctors frantically brought her back to life.

And that was just the beginning of an agonizing and yet inspiring journey that has seen Landrey, who will turn 6 on Sept. 7, capture the heart of all of college football.

"She's fought every single day of her life just to stay alive, and each morning when I check on her before I leave, she's got this big smile on her face and just full of joy," said Joshua Eargle, Austin Peay's offensive line coach and running game coordinator.

"Everybody deals with adversity in their life. They may not have a Landrey, but there's some type of adversity they deal with. And for us, to watch Landrey deal with it with a smile on her face has given us all hope as a family.

"Her middle name is Hope, and it's been awesome to see how she has fulfilled that."

Eargle came to Austin Peay from East Texas Baptist University, where as head coach he turned around a Division III program that went from winning three games his first season to earning a share of the conference title in 2015. He has been an integral part of an even bigger turnaround at Austin Peay under head coach Will Healy. The Govs entered the 2017 season on a 27-game losing streak, but surged to an 8-4 finish a year ago in Healy's second season and won seven conference games for the first time in school history.

But as compelling a story as the Govs' turnaround on the football field has been, Healy said it pales in comparison to Landrey's story and the sacrifices Joshua and his wife, Kristen, have made to care for her, not to mention the way the Austin Peay community and all of college football have rallied around the Eargle family.

"Sometimes this game gets so tainted," Healy said. "I say this to our kids all the time. There's a lot more to life than football, but this is the avenue and the possibilities that can happen because of this game. ...

"It's what makes this game great."

Football coaches preach all the time to their teams about toughness, perseverance, meeting adversity head-on and drawing strength from each other.

They might as well be describing the Eargle family.

Landrey, who weighed 3 pounds, 14 ounces when she was born, didn't walk until she was 4. She's endured 15 hospitalizations, can say only a few words like "ma-ma and da-da," may never be potty-trained and requires 24-hour care. This past spring, she was diagnosed by doctors at Vanderbilt University Medical Center with a rare mutation of the CSNK2B gene. She's one of only four documented cases in the world to have that gene mutation and the only one in the United States. In addition to a weakened immune system and serious cardiac issues, she has frequent epileptic seizures.

Just from her two hospital stays in Dallas as an infant, there are 10,000 pages in her medical records.

"I can't tell you the number of times that we thought we were going to lose her, but she's still here and we cherish every day with her," Kristen said. "She's a miracle, our miracle, and has brought more depth to our lives. We hope her story will help others, to cause others to choose joy and trust in God and operate in peace and know they're not alone."

The Eargles have just recently begun sharing Landrey's story in earnest and have been blown away by the outpouring of support from coaches and fans all across the country. A GoFundMe page was established to help the Eargles with their soaring medical costs, especially with so much of Landrey's treatment being experimental. That fund has grown to more than $115,000.

"I can't tell you the number of times that we thought we were going to lose her, but she's still here and we cherish every day with her." Kristen Eargle

Austin Peay opens the season Saturday at No. 3 Georgia (3:30 p.m. ET on ESPN), and Georgia fans have flooded the fund with money. The same goes for coaches and fans from Colorado, Tennessee, Texas A&M, Nebraska and many others. The Austin Peay players will wear "LE1" stickers on the backs of their helmets against Georgia because Landrey -- who will be in Sanford Stadium for the game -- is the only person in the country with this particular gene mutation. The Govs also had "Team Landrey: We are One" T-shirts printed up and plan to wear them during their walk-through.

"Landrey is a story that has been around for a while," Healy said. "The difference is that Josh and Kristen got to a point in their life where it was desperation mode from a financial situation. I told the team this, 'Imagine what a humbling experience it is for a man of Josh's stature and intensity and everything he stands for to have to humble yourself enough to say that I need help.'

"I kept telling Josh that this is not about you and not about raising your salary, that you're in this position because you care enough about a little girl that you've spent all you've ever earned to take care of her."

Joshua and Kristen have purposely tried not to add up what they've spent on Landrey's care. They have two other children, 7-year-old Kourtney and 2-year-old Stallings. Joshua earns $72,000 a year, which includes a recent raise. Kristen, a former morning news television anchor in Texas and Louisiana, is no longer able to work full time because she is Landrey's caregiver, although Kristen does do some in-house television work and sideline reporting for Austin Peay's football broadcasts.

"The easy answer is everything that we have, because we've emptied my retirement in chunks," Joshua said of what they've spent on Landrey's medical costs. "I've rolled it over three times from different jobs I've had. We'd take the penalty and use as much as we could."

And that's not to mention maxing out their credit cards and interest charges accruing at more than $5,000 per month.

"What Josh and Kristen and all of us have here at Austin Peay is a front-seat view of what a fighter really looks like," Healy said. "You talk about outliving your expectations. You should see Landrey with all of those kids at practice. What's amazing to me is that you would never know what all they've been through and what all has gone on at home with the way Josh works."

Even now, there are times that Kristen is overcome with emotion. She went the first 190 days of Landrey's life with just a couple of broken hours of sleep each night. Landrey had pulmonary hypertension after her surgery, and Kristen had to administer a life-threatening medication every four hours.

"I cry in the shower. I go in the closet and cry," said Kristen, who has kept a journal ever since she was pregnant with Landrey and publishes a blog. "I still have a lot of fears. How long is she going to live? What will the future look like?"

What really chokes up Kristen is the way so many different people have reached out to help. She looks on the GoFundMe page and sees donations from Austin Peay players, and that doesn't even count walk-ons on the team, players not even receiving scholarship money that come up to Healy on campus and hand him $7 out of their wallets to give to the Eargles. "To give when you don't have anything ... that's unreal. It's precious," said Kristen, fighting back tears.

Kristen and Joshua have leaned hard on their Christian faith and have focused on the positives. For instance, Landrey had gained only three pounds in 2½ years. But in the past two months, she has already gained three more pounds. She makes a clicking sound now with her mouth when she's hungry and will tap herself when she wants something.

Landrey is most content when she's listening to music or when her mother sings to her. When she was a baby, one of the few things Josh and Kristen could do to calm her down was play her favorite song from Christian music artist Chris Tomlin. And on the countless occasions that Landrey would need to have her blood drawn, Kristen would always have Landrey's favorite song queued up on the iPhone.

She also loves playing with paper and is particularly fond of the laminated coaches' call sheets, so much so that Central Arkansas defensive coordinator Max Thurmond (formerly the Austin Peay special-teams coordinator) recently sent Landrey a special package in the mail.

"He would bend over and talk to her after practice, and she used to always grab his call sheets," Kristen said. "She loved playing with them, so he sent her a stack of his call sheets in the mail and put $200 in there. It makes me cry every time I think about it, his kindness and the kindness so many people have shown us."

One of Landrey's favorite times is when her father's offensive linemen come over to the Eargles' rented home for dinner. It's not uncommon for her to have as many as six seizures in a day. But any time the Govs' offensive linemen are at the house, she rarely, if ever, has any seizures.

"She claps and cheers like they're running out of the tunnel," Kristen said. "It's so awesome to see because they know she gives odd responses, and they always want to know if they can pick her up. They're real respectful. They know if she's kind of sick that they can't touch her."

Landrey's sister, Kourtney, who's in the second grade, recently gave a presentation at school on her career goals. She wants to become a pediatric cardiothoracic surgeon so that she, in her words, "can help Landrey and other babies' hearts ... and help their families not feel scared."

Joshua has drawn on Landrey's strength. He and Kristen both have, and he jokes that he often wonders if it's not Landrey who is raising him.

"We found hope in our faith in God, and we've seen him work in unbelievable ways through Landrey in our lives," Joshua said. "We've been through a tough situation, but our situation is not as tough as somebody else's out there. Just look at Landrey and the smile on her face and let that give you joy, the kind of smile that says, 'Maybe I can't make it six years from now, but I can make it today.'

"We decided to choose joy today, and if that helps anybody, it's worth sharing. I promise you."

Through some of the most difficult times, Kristen doesn't mind admitting that she kept asking a recurring question of God.

"Why did you give Landrey to us, a football coach and a journalist?" recounted Kristen, laughing at her directness. "I don't know anything about science. I took the bare minimum to get out of the University of Memphis. If I were going to pick a trailblazer, I wouldn't pick me. I would have picked a physician. But then it hit me. God wanted me to write about this, to document Landrey's case and bring it to light. Maybe this will help another mom whose child gets diagnosed with this."

The doctors at Children's Medical Center in Dallas affectionately tagged Landrey with the nickname of "Baby Enigma," and that she is, even to some of the world's most renowned physicians.

But to the Eargles, the Austin Peay community and anybody who has had the pleasure of meeting Landrey, she's much more than an enigma.

She's a light that burns a little brighter and a little more effervescently each day.