Wapahani Senior Brad Clayton has been honored by the Indiana Boys Basketball Coaches Association as the 2017-2018 “Heart of a Champion” Award. The IBCA selects one male basketball player and one female player who overcame significant adversity during their season and basketball career. Brad Clayton recently completed his 4th year of HS Basketball at Wapahani, lettering 2 years on the Varsity while living each day with Cystic Fibrosis. This is a tremendous honor for Brad Clayton and the entire Clayton Family.
No excuses for Wapahani’s Brad Clayton
SELMA — There are just 24.3 seconds left on the scoreboard. Barely enough for a possession, not that it really mattered.
The Wapahani boys basketball team has already sealed a win against rival Wes-Del, leading 64-47 on Dec. 18, 2015. A dead ball allows Wapahani coach Matt Luce to make a substitution.
In comes junior Brad Clayton. It’s his first seconds of the game, and only the second time he’s stepped on the court since the season opener.
He takes long strides onto the court, with his mother Maralee, father David and older sister Shelby cheering from the stands. They know the moment doesn’t come often.
There are some circles under Brad’s eyes, a side effect of the 20-30 pills he takes daily. Along with his inhalers, it’s what keeps him healthy and helps him fight the cystic fibrosis he was diagnosed with in November 2009.
“Brad’s never had ‘normal’ illnesses, like ear infections,” Maralee said. “He has problems with his esophagus, trachea, pancreas, lungs and sinuses.”
He’s been to hundreds of doctors appointments and too many surgeries to count. He was born with tracheoesophageal fistula, meaning his trachea and esophagus were attached. At just 12 hours old, he underwent surgery to have them unattached. At six months, he was rushed to the emergency room when he stopped breathing.
But he doesn’t like it when his family makes a fuss about him. To him, it isn’t worth worrying about. Cystic fibrosis is a part of him, but it doesn’t define him.
“Sometimes, I can do everything like normal,” Brad said. “Sometimes I have to take a break and rest for a few minutes.”
But now, he has no desire to rest. He’s been on the padded seat all game. Now, he quickly hustles to his spot on the court before the whistle blows to inbound the ball.
Each step on the hardwood is a reminder of how far he’s come.
Something isn’t right
Brad is no stranger to doctors offices and hospital beds. He loves playing basketball with his friends and started playing when he was in the third grade, and although his asthma made things difficult, he liked being active.
“I may have trouble running sometimes, but really it helps keep me healthy,” Brad said. “It keeps my lungs in shape and helps me breathe easier.”
One night, when he was in the fourth grade, he woke up in the middle of the night screaming. It felt like something ruptured inside of him.
“I’d figured he’d have surgery, he’d have his appendix out, easy,” Maralee said. “Oh, to have been so lucky.”
Instead, he was diagnosed with pancreatitis, an inflammation of the pancreas that causes severe pain. For Brad, the doctors said it was worse than labor pain.
He was taken to IU Health University Hospital in Indianapolis for two invasive procedures on his pancreas when his family was told cystic fibrosis could manifest itself as pancreatitis. For a year and a half, Brad made the trip from Selma to Indianapolis for tests, including genetic testing to see if he carried the gene.
With appointments early in the morning and late into the night, the route became routine for the Claytons, one they could have driven with their eyes closed.
“I probably did a couple of times,” David said.
With preliminary tests done, Maralee received a call in November 2009 from Riley Hospital for Children while at her job at Ball State. The news wasn’t good. Brad had the gene, meaning he could potentially have cystic fibrosis. His family isn’t sure where it came from. They’ve done genetic testing on both sides of the family and no one else has cystic fibrosis.
They’d have one more long day of testing ahead. The family went back to Riley, and he listened to his parents ask the doctors questions, listening to the conversations he could barely understand.
At 11 years old, most boys would be thinking about recess, riding bikes, or what girl they thought was cute. Instead, Brad waited to do one final test, a sweat test, that would show whether or not he had cystic fibrosis.
Soon, he’d hold onto a bar and walk around the hospital, building sweat up on the bar. If his sweat had an unusually high amount of sodium, it would prove conclusively that he had cystic fibrosis.
But as he waited, he curled up into the fetal position in the waiting room and rocked back and forth, emitting just one sentence.
“What do they think’s wrong with me?” he said.
Brad sat downstairs in his house on Nov. 13, 2009, watching TV. His parents were upstairs getting ready for Red and White night, the annual kickoff of winter sports at Wapahani. Shelby, a senior and cheerleader for the Raiders, was already at the school.
The phone rang. Maralee and David answered. It was Brad’s sweat test results. Positive.
For a moment, the family broke down.
“I was just in shock that my life just changed in a matter of seconds,” Brad said.
The family knew the diagnosis didn’t change much, other than now they had a name to attach to Brad’s symptoms. Daily life would still go on the same, but now they had an answer to what was causing Brad’s problems.
They wouldn’t dwell on the phone call or the result. It wasn’t what Brad wanted. They drove to Red and White night.
A diagnosis wouldn’t stop him from living his life how he wanted to.
Living with it
Between the time he was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis and when he reached high school, Brad learned of different ways to keep himself healthy. He received a vest that connects to a machine with a hose. It fills with air and vibrates quickly and powerfully, loosening the mucus inside of his lungs.
“It literally beats the snot out of me,” Brad said.
Cystic fibrosis causes a buildup of mucus in the lungs and pancreas, which is why Brad’s pancreatitis was a red flag for doctors. Germs can get trapped in the mucus, causing illness. By using the vest, he’s able to breathe better and lessen the chance of getting sick. In elementary school, he’d use it after lunch at school. Now, he uses it for 30 minutes after he wakes up in the morning, and then for 30 minutes at night if he’s sick.
Over the years, Brad’s gotten used to the vest. One day, Shelby walked into a room where he was using it. Brad was lying on his back. He had fallen asleep.
“He needs guidance, and I want to be able to help guide him,” Shelby said, looking at her brother and smiling.
“She’s just bossy,” Brad said.
Bossy, in a good way, right?
“Sure,” Brad said, grinning.
A couple days after her 18th birthday, Shelby told her family she was getting a tattoo that would be a quote, but she didn’t know what.
Truth was, she knew exactly what she was getting, but she wanted it to be a surprise. She had the cystic fibrosis slogan, Just Breathe, tattooed on her right foot.
It was something that even her mother, who didn’t want her to get a tattoo, couldn’t complain about.
“I’m not a fan of tattoos, but I love that Shelby did that in honor of her brother,” Maralee said.
When his pancreas isn’t causing problems, his diet is normal. When it’s flaring up, he has to go on low-fat diets or even liquid diets.
Those cake doughnuts with cream cheese icing from Concannon’s? Not a chance, if he’s not feeling great.
He always pushes himself during basketball practice, but also knows when to step back. His raspy voice is a side effect of the cystic fibrosis.
He’s learned how his body works and what he can’t tolerate. Smoky environments exacerbate breathing problems and he avoids them. If he has a friend whose parents smoke, he can’t go to their house.
It took years for his parents to let him go to bonfires, significant social gatherings for teenagers, because the smoke could cause problems for him.
“For us, it’s always ‘What can we do to keep Brad healthy, what can we do to keep him here,” Maralee said.
After playing on the freshmen team his first year at Wapahani, he went to varsity tryouts and received a spot on junior varsity. One year later, he’s playing varsity.
When the season began, Brad was winded easily. He said it was because he wasn’t in good enough shape at the time, not because of his condition.
“He doesn’t make excuses and he never has,” Luce said. “He doesn’t back down and he doesn’t want to stop pushing.”
He plays basketball year-round, as it helps him stay healthy. It’s harder during the summer, as the heat and humidity make breathing more difficult.
Early in the season, Luce told Brad to sit out from a drill to rest. Resting wasn’t on Brad’s mind. He told Luce he was OK, and jumped into the drill, executing it perfectly.
“He humbles me and I’ve learned to trust him,” Luce said. “He knows how to handle himself. He doesn’t use it as a crutch, he pushes through it.”
The shot heard round the gym
Just 11 days after Wapahani’s win over Wes-Del, Brad would get another chance on Dec. 29.
With Wapahani holding a large lead over Central Christian and less than four minutes remaining, Luce put Brad in the game.
He hadn’t scored a point yet in the season, but the ball quickly found him. From just outside the left wing, he let a shot fly. It clanged off the side of the rim.
Two possessions later, he found the same spot on the court. Another shot. Teammates Drew Estep and Peyton West rise to their feet on the bench.
The shot rolls around the rim before bouncing out. The crowd reacts with an audible “oh”, as it appeared the shot was going in.
He needed one more chance. In a life of setbacks and curveballs, he’s learned to be resilient, if anything.
On the next possession, with the defense concerned with trying to trap Jarrett Randolph, Brad came open in the left corner. As Kaleb Cook handled the ball, West sprung up from the sideline, frantically pointing to Brad, who was wide open.
Cook passed to Lucas Chalfant, who shoveled the ball to Brad, who took one, final 3-point attempt.
He drained it, the crowd and sideline exploding, the first points of his varsity career.
“I felt happy and amazed that I hit the shot, and it helped me gain some confidence.” Brad said.
Although he wasn’t happy it took him three attempts to score.
“I kept shooting and one finally went in,” he said.
Still no excuses from him, not when practice is hard, not after his first two attempts didn’t go down. The only solution he knows is to work harder.
The next time he steps on the basketball court, he’ll be going full speed, holding nothing back and leaving no doubt that he wants to reach his full potential.
He doesn’t want to slow down. That’s not Brad.
Contact prep sports reporter David Polaski at (765) 213-5848. Follow him on Twitter @DavidPolaskiTSP.