Illini fight alongside Walker family as son Braylon deals with epilepsy

Illini fight alongside Walker family as son Braylon deals with epilepsy

CHAMPAIGN — Braylon Walker’s face lit up with a smile when he walked onto Lou Henson Court. That in itself isn’t a surprise. Ask anyone. He’s just a naturally happy kid. 

But you could tell State Farm Center is a place he enjoys. That was particularly true this Wednesday considering members of the Illinois men’s basketball team were still around getting some extra shots up that afternoon following the team shootaround ahead of that night’s game against Wisconsin.

Braylon had a wave for Aaron Jordan, as the Illini’s senior guard left the court for the locker room. Then a high five for Giorgi Bezhanishvili and a hug for Trent Frazier.

Braylon is a basketball fan. That’s not much of a surprise either. The oldest son of Rebekah and Jamall Walker was born at midseason early in his dad’s tenure as an assistant coach to then Illinois coach John Groce. He grew up in the gym, around the game.

So, of course, the Illini are Braylon’s favorite team. He also enjoys playing with his friends and watching cartoons on TV. Pretty standard for the 6-year-old set.

But Braylon’s life got complicated almost two years ago. On Jan. 29, 2017. That’s when he had his first seizure. The second came two weeks later. Then the diagnosis. Epilepsy was going to be a part of his life — a somewhat different life than most 6-year-olds experience.

ABOVE: Illinois basketball assistant coach Jamall Walker, wife Rebekah, son Braylon and youngest son Andrew at State Farm Center.

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Rebekah said she was “pretty overwhelmed” after Braylon’s epilepsy diagnosis. She didn’t find much information locally. A Google search for former Southern Illinois, Northern Illinois and Minnesota football coach Jerry Kill — who also has epilepsy — led her to the Epilepsy Foundation and Athletes vs. Epilepsy.

That was the first step into organizing two events this past November to raise awareness. The Orange Krush set up a dodgeball tournament in early November. Then Illinois hosted an Epilepsy Awareness Day during its game against Mississippi Valley State on Nov. 25 — an Illini win.

“My wife, she got connected through (Athletes vs. Epilepsy),” Jamall said. “We kind of discussed it, and she spearheaded it all as far as trying to find something to help other people dealing with some of the stuff we were dealing with. My wife is the true champion in this whole deal. She’s Batman, and I’m just Robin. I may be less than that in this deal.”

Jamall worked with Illinois’ marketing department for the Epilepsy Awareness Day.

“It’s a plan that came together in late summer, early fall,” he said. “I just wanted something to draw awareness to epilepsy. It’s something we’ve kind of put our emphasis on. It affects us every day, and there’s millions of Americans who deal with it as well. We just wanted to draw some awareness to it more than anything.

“Where I am thankful for the University of Illinois is that they supported our cause — me and my wife’s — and epilepsy to bring awareness to it. They didn’t have to do that, and I’m fully aware of that. That kind of shows there is a family atmosphere.”

The feedback from both events has been all positive. The goal of raising awareness was important to the Walkers, and it worked. Both Rebekah and Jamall had people from all walks of life reach out expressing their thanks and appreciation for the events.

“You get fans or just regular people who may not even follow Illinois would email or call or text whatever the case may be,” Jamall said. “They reached out saying thank you. That’s what we’re here for really. Sometimes we get caught up in doing other things when, really, you’re here to serve others. This continues to affect our family, so we wanted to help others. Using the platform like the University of Illinois and the platform of me being a college coach and sometimes in the media spotlight is good for us to use it for a positive.”

Illinois coach Brad Underwood said having the Epilepsy Awareness Day in late November was “pretty special.”

“I think anytime you’re touched personally by it, it’s always going to have a much more impactful moment,” Underwood said. “When the place you work and the program and the fans and the state and the university recognize it, that’s very, very important.  You have a coach who’s near and dear to everybody and their son’s dealing with that. I’m sure it has meant a lot to them.”

ABOVE: Rebekah Walker, the wife of Illinois basketball assistant coach Jamall Walker, son Braylon, rear, and youngest son Andrew greet Illinois freshman Giorgi Bezhanishvili at State Farm Center.

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Simply raising awareness was the Walkers’ biggest goal. 

More than three million people in the United States live with the challenges of epilepsy, which is the fourth most common neurological condition nationwide, according to information from the Epilepsy Foundation. One in 26 people will develop epilepsy at some point in their life, with children and older adults the fastest-growing segments of the population with new cases diagnosed. 

“There’s no cure for epilepsy, so I think raising awareness is really, really important because people don’t always know what to do,” Rebekah said. “You don’t want somebody to be scared. The chances of you running into somebody who may be affected — just any average person — is pretty high, and you wouldn’t necessarily know it. Raising awareness is just really important because people want to be treated fairly and the same. I think that part is important.”

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Braylon’s diagnosis happened during a tumultuous time for the Walker family. Groce had two years remaining on his contract, but was on the proverbial hot seat heading into the 2016-17 season. He was ultimately fired on March 11, 2017, and while Jamall served as interim coach during the Illini’s run to the NIT quarterfinals, his job status was up in the air.

“It was a tough time — a really, really tough time,” Jamall said. “You’re dealing with the team. It was a difficult time for my family, but we persevered. I think because of (Braylon’s) strength and our faith that allowed us to get through.”

The two seizures in quick succession, though, created more uncertainty. Then came the diagnosis and trying to find the correct medication that would help treat the symptoms and hopefully alleviate the seizures.

“It’s not a solid definition, but if you have more than two seizures, then you have epilepsy with no cause,” Rebekah said, which is contrast to other seizure-inducing events like trauma or a high fever. “If you have two or more unprovoked, I think at that point it was a little more scary. At that time, we were also in the middle of a basketball season that wasn’t going well. The stress level and the anxiety, there were a lot of things playing a part.”

Rebekah said what her family was dealing with during that time, though, paled in comparison to what Braylon was experiencing. As a 6-year-old, he still struggles at times, she said, expressing what he’s feeling in relation to his epilepsy. That was even more of a struggle at 4 years old.

“I remember before his first seizure he had said a couple of things that I didn’t think anything of,” Rebekah said. “Looking back on it I think, ‘Well, was that him knowing something was off?’ You don’t know what it really means to live with epilepsy on the day-to-day unless you know somebody who’s living it or you are. It’s so much more than just the seizure. The seizure is what everybody else sees, but nobody sees the medication side effects or the anxiety of trying to get your seizures controlled. Those first six months with Braylon were hard.”

Braylon has been seizure free since last spring. While he had what Jamall called a “subtle episode” in the summer, the last seizure either he or his wife saw was during Final Four weekend last April. The medication he takes, though, has side effects.

“I think maybe the hard part for him is those medication side effects and not being able to express exactly what that is,” Rebekah said. “The No. 1 side effect for most anti-seizure medications is depression and anxiety, so not being able to convey what that feels like, I think that’s challenging for him, but he doesn’t know that’s what it is.”

Braylon isn’t quite to the age where he fully understands what his epilepsy diagnosis truly is. But he’s getting closer, and regular trips to Peoria and OSF Children’s Hospital of Illinois are starting to reinforce that.

“He doesn’t quite know,” Jamall said. “He’s got to get blood draws, and he doesn’t like that, obviously. No kid likes needles. He thinks it’s cool to go to the hospital, and they put the little things on his head and he gets to stay the night in the EEG (lab).

“He thinks that stuff is cool, but when he has his seizures, it’s not cool for anybody, and he doesn’t really remember. He just kind of wakes up and realizes how tired he is and he’s in a hospital. That’s tough for him to kind of comprehend at this age.”

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Braylon got up some shots of his own at State Farm Center after Wednesday’s shootaround. Regulation ball. Shooting on the 10-foot hoop. 

He doesn’t quite have the strength to get it all the way to the rim, but the form is spot on (with a reminder from dad about his follow through). Coach’s son, after all. 

Braylon eventually starts playing with Andres Feliz. The Illinois guard makes a hoop out of his arms, and Braylon starts making shots while falling backward. 

Jamall asks him which Illinois player made a three-pointer falling down. Braylon knows Illini hoops, and Jamall is expecting him to answer Rayvonte Rice’s Braggin’ Rights game winner.

Braylon’s answer?

“Clayton Jones,” he said confidently, remembering the former Champaign Central standout’s four-point play against Valparaiso in the first round of the 2017 NIT.

Braylon is just as quick when Rebekah asks him who his favorite Illini (at least right now) is.

“KN,” he said.

Kipper Nichols feels the same way about Braylon.

“My man,” the Illinois redshirt junior forward said with a smile. “Ever since I first got here, Braylon, he’s a light in everybody’s life. He’s got such a big heart and is always making people smile. It’s really infectious. Probably the smartest little kid I’ve ever met in my life.

“All credit to Coach Walk and his wife and the fantastic job they’ve done of raising him. He clearly gets what the importance of treating people kindly is and having compassion and loving everybody.”

Rebekah and the Walker kids — both Braylon and younger brother AJ — didn’t come back to State Farm Center on Wednesday night for the game against Wisconsin. As much as Braylon would want to watch the Illini, the 8 p.m. tip just doesn’t work anymore.

“There are no two people who have the exact same story who are living with epilepsy,” Rebekah said. “Everybody has different triggers. For Braylon, a big trigger for him is a lack of sleep. That’s what we’ve come to find out throughout this process.

“Maybe in the past I would have taken Braylon. But I know this week he’s said he’s really tired, so I’m not going to take him because I know that he needs to sleep and he’s got to go to school the next day and he doesn’t like to be late to school. We’ve changed the way we do things a little bit from that perspective.”

So those moments with the players after shootaround were a little extra special Wednesday. 

A little extra time with a few of what Jamall called Braylon’s 16 older brothers. And they’re noticing how their “little brother” is handling living with epilepsy.

“He’s super strong,” Nichols said. “The way he’s built — his DNA — regardless of his age I don’t think he even has the capacity to be negative. I’ve never seen him down despite his hardships and his plights with that stuff.”