Oct. 26, 2000

“No one understands what William Bratton is going through. How could they?” – Toledo Head Football Coach Gary Pinkel¬†

It usually begins as a pain in his lower back. Next it moves to his joints, creeping slowly into his elbows and knees. By then, William Bratton knows it’s coming. And there is nothing he can do to stop it. All there is left to do is get to the hospital as quickly as possible and hope it’s not as bad as the last time.

In the jargon of sufferers of sickle cell diseases, it’s called a “crisis.” For Bratton and thousands like him, it means only one thing: excruciating pain.

“It’s unbearable,” said Bratton, a junior tailback on the University of Toledo football team. “Some people who have it just want to stop living. That’s how bad it is. The morphine doesn’t help, nothing helps the pain. Morphine eases it for about 15 minutes, then it’s back. Constant pain. You don’t sleep. There’s no way to describe it.”

Bratton suffered one of his worst crises two years ago in his campus dormitory. By the time he recognized the symptons, he could barely walk. A 220-pound rock of a fullback, Bratton had to be helped to the hospital by two of his teammates. He was hospitalized for nearly a week. “When I was a kid, I cried non-stop from the pain,” said Bratton. “I’m 22 now and I try not to cry. That was the only time I cried since I’ve been at Toledo.”

After that incident, his crises became less frequent–until this past summer. Bratton suffered three crises before August two-a-day practices, then another during two-a-days. Each time he had to be hospitalized. Each time he came back, 10 pounds lighter and considerably weaker. Bratton, who can bench press 370 pounds when healthy, found he could barely lift 200 pounds upon his return to the weight room.

Not surprisingly, Bratton questioned whether a person with sickle thalassemia, his particular type of sickle cell anemia, ought to be playing Division I football.

“I wondered if I should keep playing,” said Bratton. “I hate to be the weak link in the chain. I told (teammate) Chester (Taylor), `I don’t know if I can go on.’ He told me, `Do what you can. We’ll always back you up, whatever you decide.’ I came here with (tailbacks) Chester, Antwon McCray and Mike Sickles. We’re all close. They knew I was feeling bad. They told me everything would be alright,
so I decided to stick it out. I told myself I would keep trying. I’ve been playing well so far this year, and haven’t had any more crises.”

Team medical personnel determined that Bratton’s string of crises was caused by simply overdoing it. “We found out he was taking classes, working a job and doing summer conditioning drills,” said UT’s head trainer David Huffstetler. “It was just too much for him.”

Bratton rested, got better, then fought his way back into shape in time to play in Toledo’s second game of the season, a 51-0 win over Weber State. He carried the ball five times for 25 yards and one touchdown. He has played in every game since then, rushing for 95 yards on 24 attempts as the team’s third-string tailback and short-yardage fullback. His playing time is down from his sophomore season, when he ran for 486 yards and four touchdowns. But just playing is a
triumph for Bratton.

Bratton has been living with sickle cell since he was diagnosed at age eight, about the same time he began playing pee-wee football. But it didn’t stop him from having a normal childhood. Bratton went on to star at Lima (OH) High School, where he ran for 1,862 yards as a senior and attracted the attention of numerous college recruiters. He was up-front about his condition, but that did not discourage the Toledo coaching staff from offering him a scholarship. They promised to make any accomodations he might need.

It was at UT that Bratton learned the name of the specific type of sickle cell disease that afflicted him. Sickle thalassemia is a hereditary anemia that can cause blood cells to become sickle shaped instead of circular. This odd shape can make it difficult for blood to flow to many parts of the body and result in severe pain. In some cases, patients are afflicted with permanent anemia, making simple physical tasks difficult and athletic exertion impossible. In Bratton’s case, his sickle cell count is usually low enough to allow him to participate in college football. He must make certain concessions to his disease, however.

“I get tired quicker than others,” said Bratton. “My oxygen cells will only allow so much in-take. Most players can do 15 straight plays in a drive, no problem. I can do maybe four or five. I’ve done about 10 or 11, but then it takes me a long time to rest and get back in.

“I don’t know how people with asthma feel, but I think this is much worse. There are some people on our team with asthma, and they don’t get tired like I do. I’m gasping for air. I’m so tired I can’t even drink water. It takes me two or three minutes before I have enough strength to go back out there.”

Though the physical limitations resulting from Bratton’s condition means he likely will never be a star, he has won the admiration and respect of his coaches and teammates.

“William has tremendous courage,” said Pinkel. “He has a tremendous desire to be a part of an athletic team. He’s a great example for those with sickle-cell problems, or frankly for anybody facing some kind of health-related adversity. Hopefully, his example will give desire and courage to others.”

Pinkel said Bratton has already provided inspiration to his teammates. “A player might have a physical problem, but then he can take a look at William and suddenly his problem doesn’t seem so huge,” said Pinkel.

If Bratton’s story helps others, then he feels his efforts have been worth it. He frequently talks to young people suffering from sickle-cell diseases, hoping his status as a college football player might inspire them to greater heights.

But for now, Bratton is simply one of the tailbacks on the Toledo football team, trying to earn some playing time. “We have two great running backs, and there are only so many footballs to go around,” said Bratton. “I feel if I keep practicing hard, I’ll get back in the mix and get more carries.”

Even if Bratton never carries the ball again for Toledo, no one would disagree that his career has already been a success.

“For me, just making it through a practice with sickle cell is an achievement. I’ve been asked, why take a chance? Why put yourself in a position where you could end up in a hospital? Look, I know if it gets too bad, I’ll step away.

“I just figure if you can tough it out, and you have the athletic ability to play football, then you should do it. I don’t know anyone else that plays with sickle cell. I feel blessed that I can come out and compete and play football.”