MOUNT VERNON – Just after 10 o’clock on a crisp Sunday morning in mid-October, a thunderous man – with a farmer’s hands and a lumberjack’s shoulders – stood before a packed church congregation and shared one of his most embarrassing childhood memories.
It occurred when he was in middle school, on a summer night of flashlight tag, a game created before the lure of Play Stations and iPhones.
The night had been going fine – better than that, actually, because he fancied himself one of the better flashlight tag players in his Eastern Knox County neighborhood – until he tried to impress a girl who was watching on the deck that served as home base. When the time was right, his plan was to smoothly slide onto the deck, safe from any incandescent beams, and say, ‘Hey, ladies....’ like he’d seen done in the movies.
It was sure to win her over.
He didn’t consider the fact that he was wearing only underwear under his tear-away basketball pants, a late 90s wardrobe essential. When he found an opportunity, he took off for home, slid across the deck and…
The next thing he knew he was standing there, in front of the girl, in just his tighty whities. His pants had snagged on the deck and done what they were advertised to do. He was mortified. He ran off to the basement and didn’t come back.
Was the congregation ready for this? It was still relatively early. The church smelled like coffee and sunshine, which leaked in through the side doors. And for the first half hour of the service, before this booming man took the stage, the mood was relatively monotone. People had come to learn about how they could better themselves through the teachings of the Bible, and this minister was here to guide that discussion. But in this way?
They were ready.
As the man with the microphone reached his punchline, a young man in the back row slapped his pamphlet program against his khakis, unable to contain his laughter. A woman near the middle clapped her hands in approval. An older gentleman near the back, who had yet to smile since entering the nave, slowly began to grin.
The crowd was engaged. The man on the stage was vulnerable.
This is Andy Beatty.
The man with the Texas-sized shoulders and endearing voice wore a purple and yellow shirt that morning that had “Faith, Family, Football” printed across the front, a link to the other half of his life, when he’s not reenacting scenes from his childhood where he ended up in tighty whities.
Beatty is in his fourth season as the running backs and defensive line coach for the East Knox High School football team. He’s also who head coach Cody Reese calls the “emotional leader” of the team, quick to apply perspective to adverse situations.
It was there, on that Sunday morning at Central Christian Church, where Beatty discussed ‘fear,’ a topic he’d focused his sermons on for the last four weeks. He preached about how to overcome it, and the importance of “breaking down walls of intimacy.”
On that summer night, for example, he should have confronted his vulnerability – maybe even laughed at himself – instead of running away from it. While it’s easier said than done, sharing our vulnerabilities makes us stronger, not weaker, Beatty preached.
As he delivered this message, Beatty took pauses in between his thoughts. Fear was something he’d dealt with more and more in recent weeks. This message, like the previous three, hit home.
He was preaching to the congregation, yes. But Beatty needed his own message now more than ever.
Everything was fine until one sweltering day in August, midway through two-a-days. The practices were hot and intense; the Bulldogs had high expectations entering the 2018 season, and they weren’t going to let Mother Nature slow them down.
As Beatty jogged across the field in between drills, though, he began to lose feeling in his feet. It felt like they were asleep.
“I was like, ‘Man, my feet feel weird,’” Beatty recalled. “And I just kind of thought, I need to get rid of these shoes and buy better shoes or something.”
But it got worse. It began to creep up into his legs, and he started losing feeling from his belly button down. It wasn’t the first time. Three years ago, similar symptoms occurred. When he finally went to the ER after struggling to walk, doctors found lesions in his neck and spinal column. But not much came of it – his symptoms began to regress and he was diagnosed with transverse myelitis, not nearly as bad as it could have been.
This time, the symptoms progressed at a much quicker pace. After a brief period of treatment, things weren’t getting better. When Beatty went to see a specialist, he was told the shocking truth.
“He saw it and he’s like, ‘Yeah, this is MS,’” Beatty said.
Multiple sclerosis, as defined by the Mayo Clinic, is a “potentially disabling disease of the brain and spinal cord.” The immune system attacks interior layers that protect nerve fibers, causing communication problems between the brain and the rest of the body. Permanent nerve damage becomes a real concern.
According to Beatty, it’s rather unclear what initially causes it. But it is clear that flare-ups are generated by stress, heat, exhaustion and dehydration – all daily realities for a high school football coach.
The doctor told Beatty about the growing lesion in his brain and the ones in his spinal column, and about “a bunch of new ones that had kind of popped up somewhat recently.” Beatty could go blind within the next couple of years if a brain lesion keeps growing, the doctor said. He could become paralyzed from the neck-down if the lesions in his C3 and C4 vertebrae flare up large enough.
Beatty, 32, listened to all of this and broke down. He began to choke up. He thought about his family – he and his wife, Jill, have three children between the ages of five and nine years old. He thought about his team, which was already two weeks into the season.
He thought about the unknown, and he was terrified.
One of the first players to text Beatty after the team learned of his diagnosis was junior quarterback Kadden Lester.
Lester sent him a picture that a parent had snapped at the Danville game last year. In the picture, Beatty and Lester are hugging near the sideline, just before halftime. Lester had just fractured his leg and tore his MCL on a bang-bang collision. He was done for the season, and the Bulldogs were tied with their rivals going into the locker room.
Before Beatty walked off the field at halftime, Lester stopped him and asked him a question.
“I’m really kind of worried God’s going to be mad at me…” Lester said.
“Well, why’s that?” Beatty asked.
“Well, when I was praying, I was pretty mad and I was hurtin’, and I might have said a cuss word in my prayer,” Lester said. “Am I OK?”
Beatty told him that he would be fine – “the important thing was that he was talking to God” – and the two leaned on each other in prayer as the rest of the team ran off to the locker room.
“He looked at me and he told me, ‘Everything’s going to be OK, it’s part of the plan. I promise you will come back better than ever next year,” Lester remembered. “‘We still got this. Have faith.’”
When Lester heard of Beatty’s diagnosis, he sent him the picture and wrote under it, “Hey, I’ll never forget that. Praying for you. We love you.”
The text meant the world to Beatty, but it was only the beginning. In the coming weeks, he would be blown away by the support of the East Knox community, which responded to Beatty’s diagnosis by helping in any way possible.
On the second night of his six-day hospital stay, Lori Gallwitz – a team parent – broadcasted the Utica game on Facebook Live so that Beatty could watch. Beatty had his phone in one hand and his iPad in another while laying in his hospital bed, watching the game and simultaneously messaging those at it.
D&B Designs, a custom t-shirt shop in Howard, made shirts that honored Beatty’s courage. “You never know how strong you are until being strong is the only choice you have,” they read. Students wore them to the games. On the day of the Mount Gilead game, players wore them to school instead of their jerseys.
Friends pitched in to help Beatty accomplish his daily routine, which became exponentially harder during his recovery. When he and his family decided to move from their creaky, old farmhouse just outside of Howard to a home in Apple Valley two weeks ago (the new set-up is easier for Beatty to maneuver), seemingly the whole community got involved.
“I mean, we have three kids, I have all sorts of equipment from farming and working, and we moved in like two hours because we had so many people from church with trucks and trailers,” Beatty said. “It was crazy.”
The team surprised Beatty by showing up to his September 23 church service in full force, wearing their orange-and-grey shirts. They had organized the appearance themselves and had also planned a team lunch at Fiesta Mexicana afterwards. Beatty said it left him speechless.
“That’s one of those memories I’ll never forget,” he said afterwards.
When Beatty returned to practice the week after his treatment, he had hoped to keep it lowkey. He wanted to stop by for the last 20 minutes (he was eventually allowed to stay longer as time passed), but he didn’t want to make a big deal out of it.
“I just kind of wanted to slip in somewhat anonymously, kind of give them some hugs, tell them I loved them, and slip out,” Beatty said.
But when he got out of his car, one player saw him. Then another. Then they began running.
“I look up and the entire team is just in a dead sprint – like, fastest some of those kids have ever run in their playing career,” he said, laughing. They embraced Beatty and he began to “cry like a baby.”
It all came back to him at that moment. Less than a week since his life had been turned upside down, he was overwhelmed not by fear – but by love.
Last week, just two days before East Knox was set to face Highland, Beatty ambled down the steps and into the locker room after practice. He took it slow, no need to rush, but his gait was visibly hindered.
Almost two months since his August 30 diagnosis, Beatty said his recovery is as good as it’s going to get.
His legs still feel heavy, like they would the day after a grueling lower-body workout, and they cramp unexpectedly. His feet have yet to fully regain feeling.
He can tell whether it’s going to be a good day or a bad day by rolling his neck forward. When he looks down, he can feel the lesion in his T1 vertebrae (upper spine) because “it just starts going crazy and I go numb.” If it goes all the way numb, he’s going to have a bad day. If it just tingles a little bit, things will be alright.
“It just gets my nerves firing,” Beatty said. “It’s really weird.”
Beatty still has the same long-term fears that he did at the time of diagnosis – blindness, memory issues, and a plethora of other concerns that tie back to nerve damage.
The goal is trying to prolong the time in between flare-ups. It took nearly three years before the last one came about, and now – with medicine and knowledge of what he’s dealing with – the goal is to extend that timeline.
Despite being handed a life-altering diagnosis, Beatty was able to return to his main two passions relatively quickly. He missed just two Sunday church services before coming back, and he chose to coach from the press box for two weeks before returning to the sideline at Cardington-Lincoln in Week 5.
Beatty said having MS has taught him how to be a more effective communicator. On the football field, he knows his “bank of energy” is limited, so he has to be more efficient and intentional with his messaging.
But as the team’s emotional leader, little has changed. Beatty has still been the heartbeat of the team, someone who players can talk to. Now more than ever, though, he excels at putting things into perspective.
At halftime of the Northmor game, after the first half ended on a widely contested goal-line call that cost East Knox six points (and would have swung the game for either team), the Bulldogs ran into the locker room as fans booed and shouted at the officials. This was a huge game, and the home side felt they’d been shorted.
By all accounts, the East Knox locker room should have been filled with rage. There should have been curse words and locker-slams and everything expected of a group of teenage boys in the heat of the moment.
But that wasn’t the case. In a way that only he could, Beatty disarmed the group with a simple message.
“So much that happens in our life that’s beyond our ability to control. And I’ve been living that first-hand, and that call was a pretty good example of that,” Beatty said, reflecting on the situation weeks later. “What we can control is, ‘How do we respond?’ So that was really my message.”
After each game, win or lose, Beatty always talks to the team at midfield. While Reese may talk about the game – what went right, what went wrong, what needs work – Beatty is there to provide context. He’s a living, breathing example of, ‘What’s next?’
“Beatty’s the type of guy that, his world could be falling apart and he will come in and act like he’s having the best day ever,” Lester said. “He’s awesome.”
In the moments following East Knox’s 62-point home win over Strasburg-Franklin earlier this fall, Reese walked from player to player as they stretched in a circle.
He bent down to hug each player – and not just a bro hug, the real thing. Then he told them he loved them, and that he was proud of them – every single one.
This wasn’t unusual. In fact, it happens after every practice or workout as well. It was a change that Reese instituted two years ago, when he took over as head coach. He wanted to put an premium on love and the open expression of it, something not often found in the coach-player relationship.
“I feel that if people had an approach with love in mind, it doesn’t always make it the best or the easiest, but maybe it will help to better understand people along the way,” Reese said.
For the East Knox coaching staff, it was a religious commitment they made long ago. And while they don’t force that belief upon their players, it lies deep in the motivation for how they live their lives.
“It comes from God,” Beatty said. “And I’m not saying anything about any of the other programs, but (for) each and every one of us coaches, God is the most important relationship in our life. And we made a commitment that that’s going to come through.”
In the end, the coaches preach the same mindset that Beatty has used while battling MS. Love conquers fear, every time.
“That’s what we always tell our boys, that love is the strongest thing that you will ever have,” Reese said. “And we always tell the boys that we want you to play for the love of one another and play together, and that’s going to be our strongest bond and our best weapon going into each and every week.”
Players and parents will say they see evidence of this relationship benefitting the team’s play on the field. By establishing a deep bond with their players, the coaches are able to gain their trust and respect, thus enabling both sides to more effectively do their jobs.
“When we’re in the heat of the moment, they’re going to know we’re getting on them because we care about them and we want them to be successful – not only in football, because football carries over to life,” Reese said. “So they know going in that we love them, and we’re going to get on them because we care. And if we didn’t care, we wouldn’t get on them.”
The postgame hugs, the open reciprocation of love, it all fit into Beatty’s message on that cool Sunday morning in October. There’s a sense of vulnerability there, because “breaking down walls of intimacy” takes that.
Several of Beatty’s players attended church that morning, including Lester and his family. But there are more coming. Treyton and Caiden Slone, both linemen, recently became members of the church. That morning, they sat with their family near the back.
Standing in the hallway following the service, Treyton and Caiden’s mother, Terasa, explained that the family wanted to become members of the church because Beatty’s messages were life-like and applicable. Her family was impressed by how he lived what he preached.
That carries over to the football field as well, Terasa said. And her boys are better for it.
“I think it’s amazing,” she said. “I think it lets them see leadership in a way it should be seen.”
In what has been a tumultuous year on the gridiron for East Knox – the Bulldogs have won the games they were supposed to, but couldn’t knock off the KMAC’s other top teams, Northmor and Highland – seeing Beatty battle MS with such resiliency has made the team stronger. It’s made them love each other more, if that’s possible.
“I think it’s done wonders for the boys because they see how something negative can be turned into a positive based off of your approach to it,” Reese said. “We always talk to the boys about how every game, you’re going to have mountain tops and valleys. You’ve gotta stick together, fight through the valleys to get to the mountain tops.”
So much has been taken away from Beatty over the past two months, both in the short-term and long-term, but he doesn’t think of it that way. He’s used his experience as a way to talk to people about fear, and that message has been spread throughout his church, his locker room, and the community as a whole.
“I want the church people to know, I want our football players to know, like if you stay focused, God will use even really bad stuff for good,” Beatty said. “We’ve seen that already in so many different ways.”
While Beatty walks slow, clearly in pain at times, he smiles wide. He remains optimistic about his recovery, noting that he was never in a life-or-death situation and that his form of MS, labeled ‘Relapsing Remitting MS,’ is “the best” of the four kinds. He hopes that each flare-up will be less damaging than the last, and that they will become less frequent as time goes on.
As much as Beatty has affected the outlook of those around him, he’s also experienced a personal change in mentality since his diagnosis.
“It’s really shifted my focus to loving each day, living in the present. Because nothing’s guaranteed and there’s so much outside of our control,” Beatty said. “It has motivated me a lot to be so much more intentional about talking about stuff that’s going to matter forever, rather than kind of the temporary things.”
Instead of holding him down, Beatty’s diagnosis has given him a renewed sense of purpose.
“Life is really only like 10 percent what happens to you. The rest of it is your response to it. And so you can sit and pout or you can dwell on the things that you have no ability to control, or you can get out there and do something about it, or make the most of every opportunity given to you,” Beatty said.
“So that’s kind of where I’m at right now. It’s like, ‘God, I don’t understand it, and you know what, I don’t even like it. But I’m going to use it, somehow, someway.’”
For Lester, who called Beatty his “go-to coach” for advice and a listening ear, this season has taught him about unity. It’s taught him that in small communities like Howard, battles aren’t fought alone.
“Not just in football, but in life in general, there’s going to be those ups and downs, the mountain tops and valleys,” Lester said. “You’ve gotta find who your people are that care about you the most, keep them beside you, and they’ll lift you up. They’ll be around you the whole entire time.”
Sitting in the home locker room at Chet Looney Stadium after practice last Wednesday, Beatty seemed drained. He had spent the afternoon attending the funeral for one of his best friends, Matthew Remillard, who died tragically the week before in an automobile accident.
This is usually enough to knock a man down. All he’d been through in the past six weeks, and now this?
But instead of sulking or complaining, Beatty thought only of others. He thought about the Remillard family, which has experienced unimaginable grief over the past two years. He thought about Matt and the times they had together, as both starred as defensive linemen for Mount Vernon High School back in the day.
And he reflected upon the Bible passage he had read to the funeral crowd that afternoon, which talked about love. Beatty said that “as big and scary as Matt looked, he was one of the most loving people that I ever met.”
Amid the sadness, this is what he held on to.
After a grueling day, on the heels of a life-changing two months, Beatty suddenly seemed reenergized. Now more than ever, he felt compelled to share his message.
As he walked out of the locker room that day, he moved slowly, but with a purpose. He held his head high. He smiled.
Love had won again.