It started out as a simple request on Twitter, from a dad hoping to comfort his son before surgery.
It ended up being the feel-good story of the week, complete with a fairy-tale ending — and a lesson in perseverance by a pretty tough 9-year-old.
Jason Rahn posted a Twitter plea to fellow Illini fans on Feb. 2, asking them to send messages of support for his son, Colton, 9, who has cerebral palsy. A huge Illini fan, Colton was scheduled for his second eye surgery on Feb. 6 and was "scared to death," according to his dad, who tagged his message "#ColtonCourage" and "#CPWarrior."
Colton wasn't scared of the surgery itself but the fact that he had to go under anesthesia again, said Rahn, who lives in Tuscola with Colton, little brother Hunter and mom Katie Parker.
"Anytime a child with cerebral palsy has to be put under, it makes basic procedures a high risk," Rahn said.
Rahn only had 50 Twitter followers at the time, so he figured he might get 10 or 20 messages that he could read to Colton the night before surgery to calm him down, so he could rest.
He was wrong.
Responses — 190 in all — lit up Rahn's Twitter feed, from Illini coaches and players, Illini basketball great Deon Thomas, even former head football coach Bill Cubit in Florida.
"Colton, be strong, all will be well," Thomas tweeted.
"You got this Colton, we are all praying for you," tweeted Illini quarterback Cam Thomas. "Come see the football team when your ready big fella #ColtonCourage."
"Never in a million years would I have guessed the response would have been like this," Rahn said.
He posted a tweet of thanks on Feb. 4, the day before the surgery, along with a link to his blog, cpdadtalk.blogspot.com, about his son's experience with cerebral palsy — a neurological disorder caused by a brain injury in childhood that affects body movement and muscle coordination.
Last Monday night, Rahn read Colton a selection of tweets to show him "there's lot of people behind you." Colton was thrilled to see messages from two of his heroes — former quarterback Chayce Crouch and wide receiver Mikey Dudek, whom he had met at a fan day.
"Colton, after meeting you I know you're so tough! You got this buddy. You ever need anything you let me know. You're a fighter and I have your back!" Crouch wrote.
The next morning came a tweet with a photo of Colton in his hospital gown, awaiting surgery and giving a thumbs up.
"He wanted me to thank all of the #Illini fans, players, coaches etc. And says 'He's got this,'" Rahn wrote. "#Illini nation is 2nd to none!"
Colton is checked in and waiting. He wanted me to thank all of the #Illini fans, players, coaches etc. And says "He's got this". From me. Thank you all for the outstanding and overwhelming responses. #Illini nation is 2nd to none! #ColtonCourage #CPWarrior pic.twitter.com/4ayCy56qBR
— Jason Rahn (@CPbloggerdad) February 6, 2018
Later came a second tweet, saying the surgery went well, though it took longer than expected for Colton to wake up after surgery.
"Thank you again #Illini nation from the father of the biggest, 'little' fan," he tweeted.
But Illini nation, and Colton, weren't quite done.
• • • • •
Colton has already overcome tremendous odds. When he was born in January 2009, his parents celebrated the "wonderful miracle" he was. But almost from the beginning, his mom noticed signs of trouble.
He wouldn't nurse properly. He held a bottle with his left hand but braced it with his feet. He didn't reach milestones other babies did. When he started to crawl, close to his first birthday, he didn't use all fours but would "literally Army crawl," his dad wrote in a blog post about his son's struggles.
Doctors counseled patience, urging his parents to give him time and not compare him to other children.
But Parker's maternal instincts kicked in, and she took Colton to an orthopedic specialist. Within a few minutes of seeing Colton, the doctor told Parker he suspected he had cerebral palsy. He urged them to see a neurologist.
Crying, Katie broke the news to her husband, and they both thought, "Why him, why us?"
An MRI confirmed the news. Colton had suffered a stroke on the left side of his brain shortly before or after birth. But in what Rahn describes as a "miracle," the blood clot on a main artery had stopped just before reaching the center of his brain, which likely would have killed him.
The pediatric neurologist had other devastating news: Because of the damage, she said, Colton wasn't likely to walk, talk or feed himself.
She obviously didn't know Colton, or his parents.
His mom immediately began lining up occupational, speech and physical therapy for Colton, who was then 16 months old.
It wasn't easy, with both parents working and therapy sessions twice a week 30 miles away at Sarah Bush Lincoln Health Center near Mattoon.
"But there was no way any of us was about to give up. And that included Colton," Rahn wrote. "This little boy who Army crawled everywhere and couldn't walk or talk surprised us all. It was Memorial Day weekend at a campground when out of the blue, Colton took his first steps" — not only walking, but on uneven ground, over and over.
"I'm not even going to lie, there were tears everywhere and from everyone," Rahn wrote.
Therapists began to work more on Colton's speech and flexibility, and it wasn't long before he started talking. Though he was born right-handed, he had to learn to do almost everything with his left; his right hand has a curl common to those with CP. He also walks stiff-legged from the hips down, tires easily and has to take medicine to control grand mal seizures.
But Rahn calls Colton his little "miracle." Colton goes to school every day, plays soccer with his friends, and his "goofy" smile lights up a room, Rahn said.
"He has shown me a strength beyond anything I could have believed any human can have," Rahn wrote in the February 2016 blog post.
"He lives life to the absolute fullest that a 7-year old can. And love? My God, this kid doesn't have a hate bone in his body. It's amazing to see someone that young who has been through so much not be bitter or spiteful. When people ask if I have a hero, I quickly respond that I do, and it's my 7-year-old son."
• • • • •
On Saturday, four days after his surgery, Colton was scheduled to play in his "Biddy Ball" basketball game at North Ward Elementary School in Tuscola.
Some unexpected fans showed up: about 30 members of the Illini football squad.
Coach Lovie Smith and Tre Stallings, director of player development, had reached out to Rahn, offering to visit Colton at the hospital on Tuesday. The weather didn't cooperate, and then Stallings found out Colton had a basketball game on Saturday.
He sent out a note to players, asking if they'd be available, and "they were like, 'Absolutely,'" he said.
The Illini players showed up as Colton and the other kids were warming up on the court.
"He saw Mikey Dudek, and that was game over," Rahn said. "He knew something was up."
Colton shook hands with the players and went back out on the court. Some of the Illini followed, joining in the shootaround.
For the first few moments of the game, coach Justin Gensler put in Colton and four of the Illini, who helped him make a basket, drawing cheers from the crowd. It was his first of the season.
For the rest of the game, Colton was on the bench, and the Illini players cheered every time a child on either team scored. Then, with a minute and 15 seconds left, they started chanting, "We want Colton! We want Colton!"
Gensler called a timeout, drew up a play he had been preparing for Colton all season and put him back in the game. The score was tied, 21-21.
"I was just kind of in shock. At that time of the game, even in Biddy Ball, it's very competitive," said Rahn, who forgot to even pick up his phone. "I just froze."
Then came the magical moment.
An in-bounds pass went to Colton. One of his teammates set a screen, leaving Colton wide open. He took a shot, and it went in.
It turned out to be the winning shot — and the very first basket Colton had made by himself, Rahn said.
"It was sweet. To do that in that moment — that was surreal," Stallings said.
The gym erupted. Colton jumped up and down with excitement. The Illini players held each other back as the opposing team took a couple of shots in vain. They counted down with the clock, then rushed the court and lifted Colton onto their shoulders, his grin a mile wide.
"There was not a dry eye in the house," Rahn said. "Even people who were kind of complaining because their game started late were crying."
After the game, the Illini took photos with Colton’s team and handed out autographed footballs and gloves. Illini tennis coach Evan Clark sent over an autographed tennis ball, picture, tennis hat and shirt.
"I can’t even put into words what it meant to me," Rahn said Sunday. "It’s been amazing."
For Colton, the whole day was "cool," especially meeting Dudek, whom he had gravitated to because of all his injuries.
On Sunday, his dad asked what the best part of the game was. "When I made my own shot," Colton replied.
Even more rewarding, Rahn said, has been educating people about cerebral palsy, especially because March is Cerebral Palsy Awareness Month. Many Twitter users, and even people in Tuscola, had reached out to him to find out more.
"While it has been overwhelming, it has been a blessing to bring awareness to some of the trials and tribulations that these children go through. And how this disability doesn’t have to define the child," Rahn said.
Colton has a message for the incredible #Illini fans and the @IlliniFootball team that has supported him through his procedure this week and game yesterday. #CPWarrior #ColtonCourage pic.twitter.com/wXsC4rpikJ
— Jason Rahn (@CPbloggerdad) February 12, 2018