- Associated Press - Sunday, October 12, 2014

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) - Seventeen months ago, when University of South Florida offensive lineman Quinterrius Eatmon looked at his newborn daughter, Melaynna Savannah, he instantly knew she was the most beautiful sight he had ever witnessed.

So, why did he also feel overwhelming sadness?

“She couldn’t see my face,” Eatmon said. “I was right there, but she couldn’t see me. It was all I could do not to ball up and cry.”

His daughter was born blind.

Thirty days later, a pediatric neurologist delivered a sobering diagnosis. Very likely, she would never be able to see anything.

Eatmon learned to believe in persistence when he overcame the abject poverty of a tiny town in coastal Alabama, where he was nearly swallowed up by the crime and drugs. He learned to believe in goal-setting when he arrived at USF as a 360-pound project, then worked himself into shape. He learned to believe in destiny when he met an indifferent woman in math class, slowly won her over, then proposed on a Valentine’s Day dinner-cruise excursion.

Now he believes in miracles.

His daughter can see.

It happened slowly and unexpectedly. She reacted to a camera’s flash and appeared to be tracking the light. After surgery in New York, her improvement hit new levels. When Eatmon holds out a toy, she reaches for it.

In the last month, she began walking and now she’s creating toddler-like havoc, opening doors by herself, sprinting circles around the family’s apartment and chasing the dog. Her first word was “dah-dah” and her vocabulary is growing.

Melaynna can see objects within six feet. Doctors, baffled by the turn of events, now believe she will eventually be able to read large-print books.

“We had no hope,” said Eatmon’s wife, Melyza. “We kept looking at options, but there was no realistic hope. We’re not sure what’s ahead, but I am good. We’re going to deal with it and be strong. She’s going to get what she needs and have a great life.”

Melaynna was born without a corpus collosum, a band of tissue that connects the two halves of the brain, and her optic nerves were so unusually small that doctors immediately predicted she would never be able to see. The condition, Septo-optic dysplasia, has a reported incidence of 1 in 10,000 newborns.

In the first year of the baby’s life, Eatmon said he was constantly distracted and it carried over to the field. There were almost daily medical appointments and the baby was undergoing four separate therapies to aid her development. There was the chasing of second opinions and a scramble to find the right doctor for their insurance. Most days, the parents were either frantic or exhausted.

“I woke up crying and I went to sleep crying,” Melyza said.

“Going home was like walking onto death row,” Eatmon said. “All we had was each other.”

As it turned out, that was enough.

Eatmon has a lot going for him. He’s on track to start 47 career games - only one player in USF history has more - and in December, he’s scheduled to graduate with an economics degree. But the biggest thrill is when he returns home these days. He gets a smiling, gurgling reminder of what faith can accomplish.

“Melaynna is still (classified) legally blind, but you can’t tell me she can’t see,” Eatmon said. “When my baby, my angel, my princess looks into my eyes, I feel like I can conquer the world.”

____

 

Eatmon, listed at 6-foot-6, 313 pounds, has a head full of dreadlocks, a carefully cultivated growth of about six years. He’s all business, a speak-only-when-spoken-to type of guy. Some people see an intimidating-looking football player, pretty serious demeanor, an air about him, and conclusions are reached.

It’s what Melyza Daniel thought she saw that day in math class, when she had forgotten her contacts and sat in the first row so she could see the board.

“You’re sitting in my seat,” Eatmon said to her as he wandered into the classroom.

Your seat? She reminded him there were no assigned seats. So he defiantly sat beside her.

“When I first met him,, I thought he was probably a shallow, semi-arrogant, not-too-smart football player,” said Melyza, a first-generation Cuban-American from Miami, whose parents are senior vice presidents with the same Fortune 500 company.

Before long, Eatmon found out where she ate breakfast and joined her table. Three times, he asked for her phone number. Three times, she said no. When she instead asked for his number, he said, “OK, but I bet you won’t use it.”

She set her jaw. “That’s where he got me,” she said. Game on.

They began dating, first at the movie “Rio,” then lunches, dinners, maybe just hanging out.

The truth came to her in layers. She thought he would surely switch from his major of economics. Nope. He did the work. He didn’t drop classes, or fail them. Melyza, who finished top 10 in her high school class and received a full academic scholarship to USF, realized Eatmon was smart. And he was really more shy and soft-spoken than aloof or arrogant, showing a humble personality that got her attention.

She wondered, too, why Eatmon wore only USF gear. Simple. None of his clothes fit. From summer to Christmas, he lost 70 pounds.

“For a long time, I was in denial,” Melyza said. “I got to see the person he really was. After a while, I started thinking, ‘Where am I going to find someone better?’?”

Meanwhile, Eatmon was plotting. He bought a ring and planned a yacht excursion. That night, he was nervous and kept going to the bathroom, then continually checked his pocket, making sure he hadn’t lost the ring. Melyza thought he was getting seasick.

On the dance floor, once “Stay” by Tyrese came on, everyone else cleared out on cue, leaving just the two of them. He dropped to one knee. He had rehearsed a speech, but froze up and forgot every word. She said yes anyway and burst into tears.

“From the outside looking in, maybe people would wonder how we ever got together,” Melyza said. “Maybe God has a sense of humor. I just think we fit.”

“I’m the lucky one,” Eatmon said. “I knew she was the one I wanted. I knew she would be a great mother to our children.”

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In Melyza’s second trimester, they were told about a problem with the baby’s brain development. Melyza poured herself into research, statistics and doctor’s recommendations. She grew despondent with the sobering probabilities, but Eatmon maintained hope.

He was mostly being strong for his wife. He worried, too, sharing the burden only with USF coach Willie Taggart, his position coach and a few teammates. Team chaplain David Lane became his biggest confidant. At the lowest point, he asked to see Lane, but couldn’t talk when they sat down. He needed to cry for 15 minutes.

Sometimes, Eatmon had to miss a practice or meeting.

“I was completely distracted and it carried over into games,” Eatmon said. “I was thinking, ‘Is my baby going to struggle the rest of her life?’ As a dad, if she scrapes her knee, I want to be there to clean it up. I want to be there for her always. But this thing, I had no control.

“There were plenty of times when I didn’t want to leave the house. I didn’t want to go to class. I didn’t want to go to practice. All I could think about was our baby.”

Only a few hours after Melyza graduated with her degree in sociology, she went into labor. Melaynna Savannah Eatmon was born on May 4, 2013, and the work had just begun.

Her blindness was immediately confirmed. Her corpus collosum was missing and no one could say what long-term issues that would create.

The first few months were traumatic. The baby also had Nystagmus - rapid, uncontrollable movements of the eye. She panicked when not in the arms of Melyza, who held the baby while studying or taking a shower.

They took her for surgery at New York University to correct the Nystagmus and, slowly, things began to change. First, she saw light, then could make out objects at a short distance. Every day, things seemed a little better.

Melyza is part of a Facebook group for parents of children with Septo-optic dysplasia. Melaynna is one of the more optimistic cases. Ninety-five percent of the children will need to learn Braille.

“Melaynna seems to be beating all the odds and we’re incredibly thankful,” Melyza said. “We’re hopeful. We don’t know what’s ahead. But we’re going to be fine. I believe that now.”

“I’m a man of faith and believe in God, but I got so low that I was questioning what’s God doing to me, to her, to us,” Eatmon said. “But I snapped out of it immediately because I thought about the environment where I came from. I really should either be dead or in jail, but I made it out. I thought the toughest part of my life was over, but I just needed to have some more faith.”

 

Eatmon grew up in Pritchard, Ala., where his mother was constantly working two or three jobs and his father was never part of their life. Bad influences seemed to be around every corner. Nearly all his friends fell prey.

“It’s just easy to fall in that trap,” Eatmon said. “It’s tough to get out. I don’t see a lot of vision there. But I always thought something better was out there for me.”

His home life was impoverished. The family, always behind on the bills, moved from place to place. Hurricane Katrina ripped the roof off one home, but they remained anyway because there was nowhere else to go. With his mother and two younger siblings, he lived in hotels and with friends. For a time, they stayed in a homeless shelter.

“Anywhere we can lay our heads really,” Eatmon said. “In high school alone, I think we moved about 10 times. I got to where I didn’t even bother to unpack.”

Football, he knew, would be the salvation.

He played for a powerful Pritchard program and thought he was headed to Auburn University. But Eatmon’s own health problems intervened.

After blacking out at school midway through his senior season, he required a cardiac ablation to correct a heart-rhythm problem. He scheduled a surgery in Birmingham, Ala., and as his playing time diminished, his scholarship offers all but vanished, too.

As his mother sat with Eatmon in the surgery recovery room, she received a call from Larry Scott, then a USF assistant coach. When Eatmon woke up, he took the phone. Soon he realized that the Bulls were still there for him, while others dropped out.

He signed with USF, where his journey has been defined.

Back home, people are proud of the man everyone calls “Q.” He’s a four-year starter with designs on the National Football League. Soon, he will complete his degree. He has a wife and child who he adores.

“It’s a long way from Pritchard, man, a long way,” Eatmon said. “I’m a big guy, but I think I used to be kind of weak (mentally). Now I’m strong. I can handle whatever comes my way because I know that we’re all going to be OK.”

Eatmon said he knows the trials aren’t done just yet, but that’s real life. Since his daughter was born, he has been exposed to children with all sorts of medical maladies, causing him to grieve and give thanks at the same time. One day, he wants to establish a foundation to help children.

“It has made me a better person, a more humble, grateful person,” Eatmon said.

He might look like just another football player. Looks can deceive.

“You see him play, but no one knows who that person is inside the helmet,” Eatmon’s wife said. “What kind of human being is that? Well, I’ll tell you this. I think my husband is one of the strongest people you’ll ever meet.”

It’s more than sheer earth-moving power that manifests itself on the field. It’s the quiet time after a long day of school and practice, when he’s holding his daughter, when she gives that smile of recognition, when she knows all is well in daddy’s arms.

It’s the moment when he knows how they’ve all come through the fire, when he looks around at his happy family and Melaynna peers into his eyes. It’s the feeling a man gets when he already has conquered his world.

___

Information from: The Tampa (Fla.) Tribune, https://www.tampatrib.com

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