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October 27, 2013
On a family trip to Hawaii this summer, the hike on the beginner's trail felt more like a fight for survival. Desmond Martin noticed his lack of energy and struggled to catch his breath. When a former college football player says, "I was lagging behind elderly people", that's not good.
A month later, the 21-year-old Martin would find himself in a hospital room, vomiting, running fever, struggling to keep food and water down.
But the pain and suffering that Desmond, the younger brother of Baylor star running back Glasco Martin IV, endured changed his life's plan. The new plan was to live after doctors diagnosed with him aplastic anemia. The Mayo Clinic describes it as a "rare and serious" bone marrow disease that leads to high risk of infection, uncontrolled bleeding and, in severe cases, death.
Nobody expects this kind of news, least of all a young, healthy and fit person like the Desmond. The diagnosis shook the Martin family. For the last three months, the Martins have truly learned what it means to trust in something greater than themselves.
"It blindsided me," says Desmond's mom, Lavernita. "I was not expecting it. I have never looked at myself as a really strong person, but through this whole thing, I've really been strong, and God has given me the strength to deal with it. I just reflect back on His word, and that it says 'all good things come from God, and through God.' So I know that whatever we're going through at this point, it's all going to work out together for good."
The brothers Martin
Just less than 15 months separate Glasco IV, the first-born of Glasco Martin III and his wife Lavernita, and Desmond. Growing up with such a small gap in age, the two brothers naturally were pretty close.
"They're close, but they're obviously different people," says their father, Glasco III. "Glasco's a little more outgoing. Desmond's a little quieter person, but they have a good relationship."
The two shared at least one thing in common, other than their DNA. Both were stadnouts on the football field.
The brothers starred on the two most successful teams in the history of Round Rock Stony Point's football program. In his senior season in 2008, Glasco IV rushed for 1,613 yards and 25 touchdowns, leading Stony Point to the Class 5A state semifinals for the first time in the school's history. The following season, Desmond, a safety, had 70 tackles and 15 broken up passes, helping his team get back to the state semis.
Glasco graduated in May of 2009, a few months after Baylor fought off some big-time programs for the 4-star recruit's signature on 2010's signing day. The following February, Desmond would also sign a scholarship with a major program. He wasn't recruited as much as Glasco IV, though, and his dream school actually passed on him.
"I always wanted to go to Baylor," Desmond says, "but they never offered."
Instead, he signed to play safety at Texas Tech, but persistent knee injuries derailed his career before the 2012 season.
Just as his career was ending, his brother's was truly beginning at Baylor. Glasco IV played sparingly until 2012, when he and fellow tailback Lache Seastrunk had breakout seasons.
The duo was especially great in the second half of 2012, two of the biggest reasons Baylor closed the season winning its final four games, including a 49-26 win over UCLA in the Holiday Bowl. Their ascent had many a sportswriter believing that the Martin/Seastrunk backfield was the best in the Big 12. Maybe the nation.
But Martin had a setback, an offseason ankle injury that forced him to miss fall camp and eventually limited his playing time (or kept him out of the game entirely) the first month of this season.
Martin has since returned and looked as strong as once before. He's rushed at least 11 times in the last four games after just nine total carries in the first three.
At the time of his ankle injury, however, it was a blow to Martin's senior season. Yet he had no reason to believe his injury would pale in comparison to what Desmond would soon experience.
The first signs
That family trip this past August first revealed something was off. Glasco IV couldn't go with his family -- even with his ankle injury, he needed to be at Baylor's practices -- so Glasco III, his wife Lavernita, Desmond and his younger sister Tiffany set off without him on what they likely assumed would be a dream vacation.
On a typically beautiful day on the island, the family planned a relatively easy two-mile hike up a mountain. Less than halfway up the trail, Desmond stopped, unable to keep up with his family.
"We kind of noticed he was lagging behind, and he sat down and wanted to take a break," says Desmond's father, Glasco III. "We thought that was kind of odd, being that he played college football before."
Desmond says he didn't feel concerned. His knee had been acting up again, so he had taken the last month off from going to the gym. "I thought maybe I was out of shape," he says.
But the symptoms only intensified once the family returned to Texas. Glasco IV says his brother would get "drained and wiped of energy" just trying to wash his car.
He finally decided his shape wasn't the problem. He shared his feeling with his mom, who decided to take him in for a routine physical that, thankfully, included some bloodwork. Once their family doctor had processed the results, a phone call to the Martins immediately followed.
"He told (my wife) to drop what she was doing," says Glasco III, "and get Desmond to the hospital."
Lavernita followed the orders, and what followed was a couple weeks of tests, CAT scans and the like to try to determine what was ailing Desmond.
The doctors at their nearby hospital in Austin correctly diagnosed Desmond with aplastic anemia, but the family didn't get a sense that this doctor was equipped to handle the case.
"She was a knowledgable doctor," Glasco III says, "but she wasn't quite at ease with it, so we started asking about pursing treatment at M.D. Anderson in Houston."
The hospital facilitated moving Desmond from Austin to Houston, where more tests affirmed the diagnosis. The doctors devised a treatment plan that included the need for a bone marrow transplant. That required a donor, and after doctors tested his siblings, it was determined Tiffany, who turned 18 this past week, was a match.
On September 30th, Tiffany had surgery to extract the bone marrow that would help save her brother's life. The doctors made a quick turnaround, performing the surgery on Desmond to introduce the his sister's stem cells through an IV to Desmond.
But before doing so, the doctors brought in a priest to say a prayer over the IV bag. The Martins, a family of very strong faith, appreciated the act. But when every nurse and every doctor involved in Desmond's case also stepped into the room to join in the prayer and places their hands on the IV bag, they were overwhelmed.
"They had told us from Day 1 we were a team with this treatment plan, but to do that -- that actually demonstrated that they were all in, and that they had faith it was going to work," says Glasco III. "It was just a powerful moment. I don't know if they're Christians or not, but to see them all come in and bow their heads and participate in the prayer," his voice stops, trailing off. It as indeed a powerful moment, perhaps too much so for words.
Faith aiding the fight
Imagine you get a cold, and the doctor's only advice is to take a drug that prevents you from healing. It wouldn't make sense, but it's exactly what Desmond had to go through for the transplant to work.
A body's natural reaction is to reject anything foreign, and Desmond's body was telling him his sister's transplanted cells -- introduced to save his life -- were going to do the opposite. They were going to kill him. So his body fought back, and it fought dirty.
Post surgery, Desmond couldn't hold down food. He vomited anything he took in. And when he wasn't vomiting, he was wishing he was. It just didn't seem right that this was the necessary treatment. Suffering, sadly, wasn't a side effect -- it was part of the cure. This went on for nearly five days.
"This was 10 times worse" than any pain he had felt before, Desmond says. "It was the worst experience of my life."
Meanwhile, his parents could only stand by and watch.
"It's extremely tough," Glasco III says. "Every parent's initial reaction is that you would rather it be you than your child, because you've lived a semblance of a life. You feel like you can take on the stress and pain a lot better. That's your initial reaction: 'I wish it was me.'"
Wishing he could replace his son led to an epiphany for Glasco III. He said when asking "why us?" early on, God answered him with 'Why not?'
"It could've been anybody in this world," Glasco III says he realized, "so let's just move forward and have faith and heal Desmond and let this be a testimony for his life. I've never looked back from that moment on."
Lavernita said the strength that she's found to be there for Desmond, while trying to keep their regular lives in order, came as an answer to prayer, prayers that had started before Desmond contracted the disease.
"I knew I had faith, I just didn't know how much faith I had," she says. "God has been working with me for a while to build my faith up. I think that's because He knew what was down the line. He knew we needed to be strong for Desmond. I have relied very heavily on my faith."
Meanwhile, in Waco
Just as much as his parents, Glasco IV has relied on his faith. He's had to. Hours away from his brother in Houston and his family in Austin, and with the demanding schedule of being a student-athlete, rare is the chance he gets to visit with Desmond.
But Desmond is never far from his mind. If you have looked closely at Glasco IV these past few games, you'd see the reminder of his brother's struggles that he wears on game days.
"I actually wear a piece of tape on my left hand just to make sure I'm playing for him," he says, "just to keep his memory in my mind when I'm playing."
The coaching staff and his teammates have taken on the role of surrogate family, supporting Glasco IV since the day he heard about his brother's illness and left practice early to visit him.
As much as that helps, the response from Baylor Nation has been a bonus to the entire Martin family. After the diagnosis of Desmond's disease, a family friend set up a web site (click on the picture below) to post updates on Desmond's status as well as to raise money for the costs not covered by insurance.
"All the people that have donated, I'd like to say thank you to that," Glasco IV says. "Really, Baylor Nation getting behind me and supporting my family, because the bone marrow transplant is one of the most expensive transplants there are. We aren't exactly sure how much insurance will cover. But just them donating money -- we're extremely grateful."
More than $5,000 has been donated to help the Martins. Many of the pledges have come with words of encouragement
"It's definitely overwhelming to see the outpouring of caring, and the generosity is definitely something I never would've dreamed of," says Glasco III. "I'd like to know each and every name of people who have given. A lot of people have gone anonymous, but I truly believe they will be blessed for reaching out and helping somebody they don't really know.
"It gives us faith that there are good people out there. You hear so much about bad things, but there are good people out there who care."
Road to recovery
Since the day Desmond first went to MD Anderson in Houston in late September, his parents have been staying with him in shifts. Both work full time, so for one week, Glasco III will stay behind in Round Rock to keep life in order at the household (Tiffany's a senior at Cedar Ridge High School with plans to become a nurse). Lavernita, meanwhile, will spend that week in Houston with Desmond.
On Friday nights, they make the switch -- one drives to Houston, the other returns home to Round Rock. It's not how life was or should be, but it's the only way to make things work.
The parent that happens to be in Round Rock for the weekend gets the bonus of going to watch Glasco IV play. Yes, despite working full-time one week, driving to Houston the next to be with Desmond, Glasco IV's parents still make time to see him play.
"I was able to make it to the (Iowa State) game (last) Saturday," Lavernita says, "because my husband and I switched out Friday. One of us is always at the game. My husband was at the Kansas State game the previous week. We're supporting Desmond, but we're also supporting our other children as well. One of us tries to be at the game, one of us tries to have a stable life for our daughter. We try to manage things as best we can."
Desmond estimates that he has up to three months left of treatment remaining in Houston. He's out of the hospital, but he has to check in daily for tests to ensure the treatment is still working.
Despite all he's gone through, he remains decidedly upbeat.
"After everything that's transpired, I'm actually feeling really great," he says. "I've lost a little bit of muscle and strength from the ordeal and just being in the hospital for so long. I'm slowly trying to rebuild my mind. But honestly, I feel a lot better now than I did in August when we found out I was sick.
"I don't know how much you've heard, but I would constantly be exhausted, get really winded just walking down a long hallway. So yeah, I'm pretty happy I don't feel like that anymore."
When he's finally released, he plans to return to Texas Tech. He was on pace to graduate in four years, so he wants to make sure he gets his degree. He's contemplating either entering the job market or staying in school to get a Master's degree.
Little did he know he'd have a lot more time to decide.
One of Glasco IV's biggest fans, Desmond watches his brother on TV. He obviously can't make it to games, not even when Baylor plays Texas Tech at Cowboys Stadium in early November.
Baylor might not have offered Desmond a football scholarship, but he has absolutely no hard feelings. There's no doubt about who he wants to win.
"Given that I'm finished playing football, I'm a pretty big Bears fan," Desmond says. "I'm loyal to the Red Raiders when they're not playing the Bears, but I've got to root for family."
Baylor Nation, let's keep returning the favor.
SicEmSports videographer Stephen Cook contributed to this story