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After surviving stroke, 16-year-old football player is truly a miracle

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Mount Pleasant sophomore football player and wrestler Tylin McDowell stands in a hospital room and shares a hug with his mother, Crystal Rodgers-Butt, just days after suffering a stroke.

MOUNT PLEASANT — Tylin McDowell is a miracle — a 6-foot-3, 230-pound miracle.

That’s what the Mount Pleasant High School football player’s mother will tell you.

That’s the only way, Crystal Rodgers-Butt said, that mere days after a stroke took motor and cognitive skills from her otherwise-healthy 16-year-old son, he’s smiling and communicating and doing so much on his own now.

A bona fide miracle.

A week ago, Crystal wouldn’t allow herself to imagine saying such a word, not after some of the personal struggles she’s endured.

But after seeing her oldest child lying in a cold emergency room, effectively paralyzed one night and then hearing him utter the words, “Hey, Mama,” the next day, she’s convinced: Miracles do happen.

And, according to Crystal, it was certainly a higher power that personally gave her a miracle when Tylin began to look and act like himself.

“I will tell you the truth of this: I have struggled for the past couple years in my faith,” Crystal said. “ I have struggled being a Christian, and I have struggled with the world in general. But I’ll be honest: I saw the power of prayer. I SAW it. I FELT it.

“It’s indescribable. It’s brought me back to God. It’s brought me closer to God than I’ve been in years. It just made me feel the power of prayer. I can deny God and Christianity all day, but it all went back to my faith. I know it sounds so cliché to say that ‘During the darkest times, you find God,’ right? But it really is a miracle what’s happened with Tylin.”

A nightmareNo one expected something like this would happen to Tylin.

Not a stroke.

Not for a big, strong 10th-grader who tossed iron around in the weight room like it was dirty laundry and then excelled as a defensive lineman on the Tigers’ football team on Friday nights.

Strokes — supposedly anyway — happened to older people, folks with underlying health conditions.

But all that was proven wrong last Saturday night when Tylin was hanging out with his girlfriend, Lillie Spratling, at her house in Mount Pleasant.

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Tylin lies in a hospital bed shortly after having surgery to remove a blood clot from his brain.

It was the day after Mount Pleasant fell to Maiden in the second round of the state playoffs. The Tigers lost, 46-13, that night, but it’d been a great season, and it seemed like all the players left the field healthy. And several Mount Pleasant athletes, including Tylin, were preparing for the upcoming wrestling season.

But then, just as Crystal was headed out to see some clients for work Saturday night, her cellphone rang.

It was Lillie’s number.

“I said, ‘This can’t be good. Why is she calling me?’” Crystal recalled. “And sure enough, she said (Tylin) had passed out, and he was unresponsive, and they had just called an ambulance, and they were going to Atrium.”

Crystal phoned Tylin’s father, Tim McDowell, and his wife, Joy, to apprise them of the situation, and then she headed to the Concord hospital herself. But as she drove, all she knew was that Tylin had been found unresponsive.

She knew it could be bad, but her mind never considered … a stroke.

“I honestly thought it was something from football because he had just played the game the night before,” Crystal said. “I thought, ‘I bet he has another concussion.’ I just immediately thought ‘football.’”

Crystal actually beat the ambulance to the Atrium Health Cabarrus campus.

After what seemed like an eternity in the waiting room, they were allowed to go back to see Tylin.

It was a harrowing sight.

This wasn’t the controlled man-child who’d earned a second-degree black belt in Taekwondo; this was their worst nightmare realized, and they still didn’t know exactly what was wrong with Tylin.

“When I got back there in the emergency room to be with him, he was lying there, and he was twitching and kind of jerking,” Crystal said. “I was holding his hand, and one of the nurses said something about numbness. I said, ‘What do you mean?’ And she was like, ‘From the stroke.’ And I said, ‘What?!’

“I didn’t know that they had already done a (CT) scan on him. They had the screen images there, and they showed me where the damage was — and the potential damage.”

Crystal takes a deep breath to gather herself as she recalls the moment.

“It rocked my world when they told me that,” she said. “I knew people who had strokes before. My father-in-law has had a couple, and it’s not good.

“The first thing I thought was, ‘At least he’s alive. Thank you, God, for my baby. He’s alive.’ But I just thought of the road ahead. I thought, ‘He just got his driver’s license, and now he won’t be able to drive.’ This is what’s going through my mind. ‘He’s got his whole life ahead of him, and now he’s had a stroke.’ It was a lot.”

The scene was equally jarring for Tim.

Although he and Crystal were no longer dating and each had gone on to have happy marriages, both were major parts of Tylin’s life. Tim and Tylin had a special connection through football. Tim had been a player in his native Oklahoma, and his boy adopted the same passion.

And now, Tim couldn’t do anything to help him but pray.

“It’s terrifying because he’s lying on the table, and he’s not in a frame of mind,” Tim said. “He had no idea we were there. He was unable to move the right side of his body. His left side was just flopping by muscle. It was very hard to watch, and it was very hard to control him because he’s such a big kid. That was very tough to deal with.

“They told us they found a blood clot on his brain,” Tim continued. “The blood clot comes from a carotiv, a section in the neck. Google says, basically, the artery split in two through trauma.”

Tim said that’s when the family began to wonder: Was it indeed football that had them in the emergency room praying for Tylin?

“It’s not confirmed, but we believe it came from a hit he took Friday night in the football game during a play just before halftime where his helmet was knocked off,” Tim said. “Upon further review, coaches said they didn’t see a blunt hit. You see where he was face-masked partially, but it still caused Tylin’s neck to jerk to the side.

“It’s scary. Mount Pleasant just got new helmets before the season, and you try to keep him as safe as you can. But at the end of the day, it’s still football. It was really disbelief. You just don’t hear of anyone his age having a stroke.”

Added Tim, “Some of the other surgeons were thinking that maybe he had an underlying health condition that went undetected, but all reports from CMC are leaning toward trauma.”

According to Tim and Crystal, neither of them has a history of strokes in their families.

Either way, Tylin would require emergency surgery to remove the blood clot.

A community works together

News about Tylin began to spread fast, especially in a small, close-knit town like Mount Pleasant.

Football players are beloved here, and Tylin, with his cherubic smile and his brute strength on the field, stood out. Crystal also spread the word by posting updates on her Facebook page, and many of the town’s citizens shared it, asking for prayers.

It was overwhelming.

Pretty soon, football players and coaches from all over the state were posting well-wishes and their own pleas for prayer on social media. And the citizens of Mount Pleasant drew even closer, with so many reaching out to Crystal and Tim — and even Lillie — offering their assistance in whatever form they needed.

Tylin’s teammates cried for him and got on their knees to send up more prayers for him.

By the time Tylin was flown to Levine Children’s Hospital, much of Mount Pleasant was wanting to be in Uptown Charlotte by his side. But since the number of visitors allowed was limited, they at least wanted to be near him. They wanted to let Tylin — as well as Tim, Crystal, Joy, and Crystal’s husband, Matt Butt — know that they were there, one way or the other.

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A poster circulated in support of Tylin

Many in the town have adopted the slogan “Tylin Strong.” His name, paired with praying-hand emojis, has flooded sites like Facebook and Twitter.

Acts of selflessness and caring have been everywhere.

When Tylin was first moved to the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit, families were giving four arm bands to be admitted. Those armbands couldn’t be distributed to different people; it had to be the same four.

As Tylin’s stepfather, Matt was one of the four who had an arm band. But then he and Crystal talked and decided that if Tylin could see Lillie, it might be inspiring to him and help his recovery.

Matt gave his arm band to Lillie.

“And it worked,” Crystal said. “It worked tremendously.”

Tim and Crystal have been humbled by it all.

“It’s a blessing to know that, for as quiet of a family as we are, Tylin is so loved and so well known in the community,” Tim said. “And then, fortunately and unfortunately, he has my wife, who has been through hospital stays and had to go through therapy and rehab, so she understands the battles. She can relate to what he’s going through and what he’s about to go through.

“We appreciate the entire faculty and coaching staff at Mount Pleasant High School. (Tigers head coach Daniel) Crosby was on the phone with me personally about an hour after the news broke throughout the community. And several coaches have come and stayed at the hospital, even though they couldn’t see Tylin. They were there just to get updates and talk to us.”

The road to recovery

Despite the support, that first Saturday night stay in the Intensive Care Unit had been brutal.

Nobody really knew what Tylin’s prognosis would be. Doctors were still puzzled by a 16-year-old athlete having a stroke, and his parents had trouble blocking out the negative thoughts.

“The first night, he was completely paralyzed on the right side,” Crystal explained. “He was unconscious still, but you could see his mouth was pulling on the right side. You could see he had a stroke in his face, and he couldn’t keep his eyes open. It was just terrible.”

The next day, Crystal went home to get a quick shower and try to rest for a few hours. It was hard, but she finally calmed herself enough to take a nap.

When she awoke, she noticed that Tim had texted her a video.

Her heart skipped a beat — the good kind.

“I said, ‘If he’s sent me a video, something good has happened, because when I left, Tylin was still unconscious.’”

It was indeed good news. It was footage of Tylin standing, with the assistance of two nurses, and taking small steps.

“The video was just amazing,” Crystal said. “I just busted out crying. I got my clothes on, and in 10 minutes I was out the door back to the hospital. When I walked in the hospital, he said, ‘Hey, Mama.’ It wasn’t very clear, but you could tell he said, ‘Hey, Mama.’ He looked me right in the eyes, and I thought, ‘Praise God! This is amazing!’

The miracle was already taking shape.

With Tylin and with Crystal.

And it got better and better.

Within a few days, Tylin was standing on his own. He wanted to try to do other things by himself, too, even though the professionals were telling him that he needed to be careful; he was very much in the early stages of the healing process.

But even though there was so much more work to be done, he was starting to show glimpses of the old Tylin.

“(On Tuesday), the ER nurses came to see him, and they were amazed how far he’d come in three days’ time,” Crystal gasped. “I mean, it blew them away. They had seen him right when it happened, and it wasn’t good.”

But his early progress only intensified his desire to go home.

“(Monday), when I went to leave, he was crying — hysterically crying,” Crystal said. “He didn’t want me to leave, and it was very hard to leave. His dad was there, and I said, ‘I’ve got to go take care of your little brother (Joshua). I’ll be back in the morning.’ But he was sad and didn’t want me to leave.

“He was sad when his girlfriend left, he was sad when his sisters (Carli and Macy) left. It was just hard for him because he knew he had to stay there and couldn’t leave with anybody.”

The next day, Tylin was equally sad that he had to stay in the hospital. He had become aware of his situation, and it was affecting him.

That’s when Crystal sat beside him and had the most honest conversation they’d had since he’d gotten there.

“I just talked to him about what could’ve been,” Crystal said. “I said, ‘I know this is hard on you, Tylin, and I couldn’t imagine having to learn to talk again. I can’t imagine that. But you could’ve died, son.’

“I showed him a video I took of him when he was intubated. I said, ‘This is what you were, and look at you sitting here today, eating your pizza and drinking tea.’

“He’s in a much better place now. And I think, in his head, he sees the plan ahead: Get through these couple days and then rehab, and then he can sort of get a semblance of normal.’ He’s sad about it, but he’s in a much better spot.”

Better days

There have been plenty of high moments, though. Some days, he seems to enjoy the rehabilitation process with his nurses, whether it’s throwing a ball back and forth or trying to keep his balance as he plays cornhole. Other times, it’s simply seeing the progress he makes as he tries to walk over obstacles in the hallway and keep his balance for extended stretches.

And then there have been the visitors from Mount Pleasant.

Crosby was one of the earliest ones to get in to see him, and lately some of his teammates have gotten in.

“It was awesome just walking in the room and seeing the smile on his face,” Crosby said. “It was awesome to see how well he was doing. You’d shake his hands, and you could feel the strength. It was a really good feeling to see that he was OK in that moment and things were looking up going forward.”

Crosby said he already respected Tylin, both as a football player and a young man. But the fight he saw in Tylin’s eyes Tuesday when he visited has taken it all to another level.

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Tylin McDowell and Mount Pleasant football coach Daniel Crosby just days after Tylin’s stroke.

“He’s a very strong young man,” Crosby said. “He seemed very optimistic when I was with him. He’s very determined, and he’s going to have a ton of support, from our football family to our school family to folks in the community.

“He’s already receiving lots of prayers. A lot of people are checking in on him, supporting him, and he’s going to have all that going forward. I know he’ll be strong, and I’m sure he’ll have some tough days ahead. But he’s a tough young man, and he’ll get through this.”

At this point, few people doubt that, not with the progress Tylin has made in just a week.

Tylin’s out of ICU. He’s on a regular floor in Levine Children’s hospital, and he’s in the rehabilitation process full throttle. Each day, he is making progress, Crystal and Tim said.

Still, there are emotional hurdles to clear.

Doctors still aren’t sure exactly when he’ll be able to go home. Just the other day he was told he wouldn’t be able to drive for at least six months. And his body is still trying to adjust to the blood thinners that have become a part of his life.

But at some point, as Tylin gets stronger and more anxious, Tim and Crystal know they’ll be faced with The Decision: If Tylin makes it all the way back to 100% and wants to play football again, would they agree with it?

Tim paused a moment and then gave, “As the dad, it’s hard for me to say, ‘Well, he may never play again,’ but I accept that. I’ve never tried to push him toward football. That’s something that he’s found and loved. That’s something I’ve tried to encourage him in along the way, of course. But if he’s no longer able to play, I’m OK with that.”

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"As a sophomore, he played a huge role for us," Mount Pleasant football coach Daniel Crosby said of Tylin McDowell. "He started and rotated on our defensive line. He was the kind of guy who, when he wasn’t in there, you could tell a difference. He missed a game earlier in the year with an injury, and when he wasn’t in there, we were noticeably not as good."

Crystal shudders at the thought of her son out there on the field, basically engaging in car crashes every 40 seconds. It’s the mama in her. But that same mama in her is what took joy in seeing the smile on her son’s face before and after ball games.

It is a bridge, she said, that they’ll cross when they get there.

And the great part, after a tragedy that changed all their lives, is that it seems Tylin will get there.

“I was talking to Matt about it,” Crystal said. “(Tylin) loves it so much, and I mean, he’s good at it. But I think, and this might be just for today, I feel like if he can make a full recovery, I have no problem with him playing again. The only reason is because he identifies as an athlete, and he’s good at it. I don’t want him to lose that. For him, I would let him continue playing.

“It would scare me to death, and I can barely watch the games now as it is because I just hate watching him get hit. But …”

Her voice trails off, and you can tell she’s just happy about the juxtaposition. A week ago, she was imagining her son might never walk again, and now she’s weighing if she would ever let him run around on the football field again.

It doesn’t make sense.

But then, it does.

It kinda works that way with miracles.

“It’s funny,” she said. “The first night (at the hospital), I was praying. In my head, I was talking to God. I said, ‘I don’t even know if you’re real. I don’t even know WHY I’m praying, but I feel like I HAVE to pray.’

“It chokes me up now just thinking about it. I just sat by his bed holding his hand, and I just prayed. I’m talking to God. I said, ‘I don’t even know if you’re real, but I’m believing that you can heal my son.’ It was pretty intense, and I’m different now. I absolutely believe it was a miracle.

“A living, breathing miracle.”

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