BEAVER — Renee White doesn’t spend a lot of afternoons in the stands watching the Beaver High football team practice.
But a couple of weeks ago, she couldn’t resist.
Three years after doctors told her son Gideon that he would never be able to play jarring, contact sports because of a dangerous medical condition, he was doing just that.
“I went to practice and watched him that first week when all he had was a helmet,” she said. “He looked like a bobblehead doll because he wasn’t wearing pads, but it was so fun watching him. Guys were slapping him on the back, and he had a great big, goofy grin on his face. ... It was so fun.”
Gideon White, like his father and older brother, loves sports. But football, maybe because it is his father’s passion, was Gideon’s favorite.
Which is why it seems particularly cruel that it is the one sport that he was forbidden from playing when he was diagnosed with spondylolisthesis, a condition in which a vertebra slips or is displaced, causing pain that can be debilitating.
“He’d started complaining about his legs hurting,” Renee White said of her second-oldest son and third of six children. “We thought he was growing too fast.”
A trip to the pediatrician sent them to an orthopedic specialist in Southern Utah, where he had an MRI. It was then that they discovered just how severe his situation was. Doctors rate the problem on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the worst. He was “over a 4.” As it turned out, one of his lumbar vertebra had slipped completely out of alignment, which also caused his pelvis to tip backward.
Doctors told him he’d never play football again.
“It was heartbreaking,” White said. “I came home and just cried. He came home, went to bed and turned his face to the wall. He wouldn’t get up.”
And while he may have been disappointed, he never showed it.
"He was an incredible example to me in positive attitude," White said. The family had been struggling since the White's youngest son, Jubal, was killed in an ATV accident in 2008. So as a mother, seeing her second son suffer seemed even more unfair. "I was focused on getting him fixed and able to go on with life, but I was still very resentful that any of it had to happen."
The family saw several doctors, including one in Las Vegas.
“We’d been told several different things,” White said of the various trips to doctors' offices. She decided to take him to Primary Children's Hospital for one last opinion.
That’s where they met Dr. John Smith, who scheduled surgery immediately.
In October 2010, Gideon had two rods, six screws and a piece of cadaver bone inserted into his lower back. Doctors were able to completely realign his spinal cord, which is rare, White said.
After the repair, Gideon faced a long, difficult recovery.
He had a month at home, while his buddies and his older brother played football. He slowly tried to regain strength and coordination while his friends played basketball and baseball.
His mom decided that he needed to stay busy, even if the activities weren’t the ones for which he was aching.
“When he lost football, part of it was that he couldn’t do anything,” White said. “That’s when he started showing pigs in 4-H. It gave him something to be working toward. He had to train it, gentle it, feed it, care for it.”
It wasn’t until the end of his freshman year that he was able to play sports at all. He was cleared to play baseball, and he was grateful for it.
In fact, Gideon is quiet and reserved. He has rarely mentioned, let alone complained, about losing the game he loved.
“Once a year, he would say, ‘Mom, I really wish I could play football,'” she said. “And I would just say, ‘I know bud.’”
He went to the games to watch his older brother Kendell White play.
“He absolutely loved watching the games,” White said. “This past year, he’s said a little bit more. He once told me, ‘What makes me mad is kids who don’t play when they can just because they don’t feel like it. I would give anything to play.'”
Even though Gideon missed football, Renee White saw blessings because he was unable to play.
“He’s gotten a really good relationship with his dad,” she said, pointing out that her older son couldn’t go hunting with her husband because that conflicted with football season. “He and his dad would go hunting and it’s made them really close. Now they are hunting buddies. To me, that’s been worth all the heartache.”
That heartache ended unexpectedly this fall.
Gideon and Renee travelled to Primary Children’s earlier this month for their yearly check-up with Dr. Smith. The doctor told him the fusion was complete and that he was free to do whatever he wanted.
“I was just joking and I said, ‘Even play football?’” White recalled. “And he said yes. I was just completely stunned. I kept asking him again and again. (Dr. Smith) had a huge smile on his face. Gideon was just grinning from ear to ear.”
There are precautions, some imposed by doctors, others by mom. He couldn’t return to his original position of running back because of the demands and the hits he might take.
Gideon told his father, and Larry White immediately began making phone calls to find out if his son could play this season.
The Beaver football team welcomed Gideon back as if he’d never left. The 6-foot-2 junior is playing defensive end for the team and helped them win their first playoff game Friday night.
“It’s completely crazy,” White said. “The funny thing is, I’m not worried. I’ve never felt uneasy about him playing. It just felt good. I’m excited for him. I’m absolutely thrilled.”
Gideon worked hard in the weight room to regain the strength he lost after surgery. And that hard work played a role in his ability to be ready to play varsity football within weeks of being cleared.
The Whites have missed seeing their son engage in a sport that teaches young men so many valuable life lessons. But more than that, they’ve missed seeing that smile on his face.
“The first night after he came home after the game, I said to him, ‘How did it feel to play football?’ He got the biggest grin and said, ‘It felt soooo good.’”
And when he mentioned, a little regretfully, that if he’d found out in August that his back had healed, he could have played an entire season, his mom was quick to remind him that every game is a gift for which he should be grateful.
“You take what you can get,” she said.
Which is a lesson Gideon illustrates every day, on and off the field. His mom said that last New Year's Eve the family was engaged in their yearly tradition of sharing what they're grateful for, and she was "amazed" at Gideon's answer.
"Gideon said he was grateful that we found out about his bad and had gotten it fixed as soon as we did," she said. "He never once complained about what he couldn't do. ...He was positive and he threw himself into what he could do."
Life is made up of sweet and sour. Sometimes we live our dreams. Other times, we suffer disappointment and heartbreak that doesn’t just hurt us — it changes us.
The real victory is doing what Gideon White managed to do, with the help of his parents — find happiness in whatever life hands you. That way, when life serves up the good stuff, you’ll not only recognize it, you’ll remember to savor every second.