Not that they need a specific day for that, but Brentley and Leonard have a lot to thank for. Luckily, Brentley, a 10-year-old fifth grader from Buford whose favorite subject is math and likes Zaxby, has his health and the love of a large family. Leonard, a junior in his second season as a starter whose prized possession is his gray Ford F-150 pickup named Betty, also has his health, the love of his family, and a role in the Jackets’ midseason surge behind interim coach Brent Key.
Last but not least, they are friends.
“Probably not a week goes by that (Leonard) doesn’t text him and see what he’s doing,” Russell said. “It was really something special.”
When Leonard first met Brentley, the football-loving kid was deep in his battle with acute myeloid leukaemia, a cancer of the blood and bone marrow. He was diagnosed in December after suffering from debilitating headaches, neck pain and a loss of energy.
At the time, Brentley was in the midst of three chemotherapy treatments, each of which kept him in the hospital for three to four weeks. It would be understandable for an active boy to be grumpy about his fate away from his friends. That wasn’t Brentley’s choice as he spent time in one of the hospital’s play areas.
“He came out of there, kind of sat down with us,” Leonard said. “He was one of the less shy kids, was kind of out there. That’s how we made the connection.”
Leonard couldn’t help but notice part of Brentley’s attire that day – a red Georgia cap. (You thought it was Thanksgiving, didn’t you?)
Said Leonard, “I was like, ‘Man, what is that?'”
Leonard and his friends — former teammates Jordan Yates and Jamal Camp were among the other attendees alongside Neuber — handed out tech bracelets and played Uno. Before leaving, Neuber and Leonard made sure they exchanged numbers with Russell, Brentley’s grandmother.
The three kept each other up to date via text messages. When Brentley was hospitalized again for a bone marrow transplant, Leonard and Neuber were unable to visit him because of the health risk. So Leonard organized a FaceTime visit.
“He showed me the dressing room and all that,” Brentley said.
The texts and FaceTime chats continued for weeks and months. This diligence was particularly important to Ashley Chastain, Brentley’s mother.
“Brentley saw a lot of people, but the follow-through was way above that,” she said.
Leonard said: “It’s kind of something that I made a point where I wanted to keep up with him because he brings a lot of good in me and vice versa. His mom always says he lights himself up and runs down to his room when me or Cole text him and stuff like that. In that respect it was a pleasure.”
On his birthday in August, Leonard and Neuber paid him a surprise visit to a Ronald McDonald house and showered him with tech gear. Chastain, Brentley’s mother, recalled people asking her who the football players were and if Brentley got autographs.
“Brentley says I just hang out with my friends,” she said.
After returning home, Brentley took his family to his first college football game. Unfortunately, the Jackets played their worst game of the season that afternoon and were shut out 42-0 by Ole Miss.
It didn’t matter to Brentley, who recalled that the day was hot and noisy. But at the end of the game, Leonard came into the stands and gave his gloves to Brentley.
“Excited,” he said. “Very happy.”
Even in the crushing disappointment, the memory of his sidekick is one of Leonard’s favorites.
“It comes from that perspective that maybe I feel really bad about myself but even though we lost his day was made and he’s happy,” Leonard said. “Maybe it was worth it. I mean, it’s not worth getting your ass kicked, but it’s worth having him around to make his day.”
Russell said, “Even victory or defeat, those gloves meant the world to him.”
He made it back for more games at Bobby Dodd Stadium. The overtime win against the Blue Devils was his favorite. He screamed himself hoarse, he said, and “my ears hurt for a few days.”
It’s a sweet treat for a boy who’s been through a lot – After chemotherapy, he was hospitalized for a further two months for a bone marrow transplant – and was a champion.
“Brentley is a fighter and he never complains,” said Chastain, Brentley’s mother. “He’ll be the last to tell you he’s no good.”
Leonard saw the same thing.
“He’s a fighter,” he said.
Brentley’s explanation for his hiring: “You have to do something fun. You have to keep your heart moving.”
The relationship goes on. Brentley sent a congratulatory message to Leonard after the Jackets’ excitement in North Carolina. A package arrived at his home on Tuesday – a white tech jersey with Leonard’s number 2 and his name on the back.
While he continues to take medication and visits a clinic at Children’s Egleston Hospital weekly to increase his red blood cell count, Brentley has been declared leukemia-free. He hopes to play football again next season.
“Thank God we think he’s healed,” Russell said.
Of course friendship is one thing. Clean old fashioned hate is another. Whose team colors will he wear on Saturday?
“I don’t know about that,” Brentley said.
In a friendship marked by loyalty, there can certainly be a day in the year when you can stay true to your team.