Scan the sideline at any AU football game and you will find 14-year-old Drew Sheets, the team’s littlest member. Sheets, who became a Raven through the organization Team Impact, is battling sickle cell anemia.
Team Impact visits hospitals like Riley Children’s Hospital, where Sheets has spent a large portion of his childhood, and connects kids to college sports teams. Sheets was “drafted” onto the football team in January of 2014.
Jennifer McClelland, Sheets’ mother, says his relationship with the team came along “at a time that saved his life.” Sickle cell anemia is a disease that turns blood cells, which normally flow freely through the body, into a “C” shape. This causes them to scratch and tear vessels, veins and arteries, resulting in constant pain.
Sheets has a form of sickle cell anemia in which none of his blood cells are normal; therefore, when he gets sick, there is potential for every one of his cells to sickle.
McClelland explains that her son has endured over 150 hospital stays throughout his young life. “He’s had 17 blood transfusions, and three of those were exchange transfusions where they gave him all new blood,” she said.
Additionally, Sheets has had brain surgery and spleen removal surgery. His right lung has collapsed twice and he has suffered through acute chest syndrome as a result of sickle cells tearing his lungs and letting fluid inside.
On the football field, you would never know that Sheets has a life characterized by sickness and pain. “He is a completely different child when he’s with his team,” says McClelland. “I tell him we’re going to the football field, and his face lights up.”
As a member of the football team, Sheets attends every practice, game and team meeting he is able to. Players’ families often drive McClelland and her son to away games. Coach John Sala explains that “Drew views the players as his friends, and they really like hanging out with him.”
The relationship goes much deeper than games and practices. Sheets spent last Thanksgiving in the hospital, and Coach Sala, his sons, former player Brandon Duerksen and his girlfriend delivered Thanksgiving dinner to him and his mom.
McClelland explains what a blessing the players and their families are, especially during Sheets’ extended hospital stays. “Sometimes the moms will ‘kidnap’ me and take me to get coffee while the boys are visiting with Drew,” she says. “It’s like an extension of our family. They’ve been there for me just as much as they’ve been there for him.”
Several players have become extra-special friends of Sheets, including senior Trey Boor and junior Jason Rowland. One of Sheets’ favorite memories is staying overnight with Boor and playing hide-and-seek in Smith Hall.
“Drew is like a little brother,” says Boor, “and spending time with him and watching over him has brought me a sense of humility that keeps my head leveled.” Boor explains that Sheets has impacted his life by helping him learn to appreciate everything God has blessed him with.
Rowland agrees, stating “I’ve learned that playing football is definitely a privilege. It’s not something I’m entitled to or deserve to be able to do.” He says Sheets brings him and the team joy and a renewed sense of passion for the game.
Rowland remembers a time that he and Sheets got in trouble during practice for laughing and joking on the sideline. “You can never tell he’s having a bad day,” he said. “He gives off an energy that puts everyone in a good mood.”
McClelland, Coach Sala and Boor all mention the impact Sheets’ relationship with the team has on his sickness. “The more involved Drew is with the team, the less pain he seems to feel,” says Sala. “Being in and out of the hospital so much definitely takes a toll on him, and during season he’s a lot happier and actually ends up being healthier,” adds Boor.
McClelland is grateful for the football team’s presence in Sheets’ life and wants them to be recognized for everything they have done for her family. “They’re not doing this for any kind of recognition,” she says. “They’re doing it because it’s in their hearts.”
She believes that “people often only see wins and losses” when it comes to the Ravens, or to any collegiate athletic team. “They are all such special people, and Coach teaches them so much on and off the field. That’s what’s important,” says McClelland.
She is often told that Sheets is making a difference in the players’ lives, but says that “the difference they’re making in our lives is unexplainable.”
Sala says, “Young people have a tendency to see 10 feet in front of them, and this is a good way to put things in perspective. They are healthy and able to play, and they see that not everyone has that privilege.”
This encourages players to count their blessings, he says.
Even in the midst of great challenges, McClelland is counting her blessings, too. “Drew is the reason I smile,” she says. “It’s hard for him to grasp why bad things happen to good people, but I know that whatever God has planned for him, it’s big. And he’s gotta make him strong to get through it.”
Drew’s outlook on his situation shows wisdom beyond his years, in part due to the incredible influence AU’s football program has had on him over the past four years.
“You just have to remember that when life puts you down, you won’t always be down,” he says. “You can rise back up.”