Greg McElroy has a national title on his resume and a thriving career on ESPN and the SEC Network as a college football analyst.
But Monday, Kolbe Thornbury had his number.
“I think you might have met your match,” Kolbe said after smoking McElroy in a game of cornhole out on the patio at Children’s of Alabama.
Just a few minutes earlier, the two had battled it out in air hockey, with Kolbe celebrating the game-winning goal with a fist pump and a, “Yeah!”
McElroy had indeed met his match, but Kolbe’s future depends on one. He’s a patient at Children’s of Alabama, one of the nation’s premier pediatric hospitals.
That’s what brought former Alabama and New York Jets quarterback McElroy and fellow SEC Network analyst Laura Rutledge to the hospital to meet some of the young patients at Children’s, the main benefactor of the Regions Tradition played this week. The Regions Tradition is the first major tournament on the PGA TOUR Champions schedule.
“Seeing these kids and knowing that the Regions Tradition benefits Children’s Hospital is amazing,” Rutledge said. “When you interact with these children, you realize they are so much braver and so much tougher than what all of us are.”
Rutledge and McElroy wasted no play time. As soon as they arrived, they were escorted to the Room of Magic where they were met by dozens of children and their families in a playroom filled with games.
“I think it’s wonderful that we have an opportunity like this to mix what is an incredible event with sports and athleticism,” McElroy said, “but also to be able to bring the philanthropic side of it is really special.”
Here are just a few examples of why the Regions Tradition supports Children’s of Alabama:
He was first diagnosed with a heart ailment at two days old. Just over a week later, he was undergoing his first open-heart surgery. His third surgery came before he was 3 1/2 years old.
“They told us he would need a heart transplant someday,” said Ashley Williamson, his mother. “We were able hold off on that ‘someday’ for almost 15 years.”
Last summer, Kolbe developed leg cramps that his mother, a nurse, originally attributed to a potassium deficiency. But lab work showed the problem was more serious — congestive heart failure.
Kolbe is now waiting on a match for a heart transplant. “We’ve been on the list since October and he hasn’t left the hospital in four months,” she added.
Ashley still has four children at home. She lives in Sylacauga, which is an hour away from Children’s downtown Birmingham campus. It’s not a bad commute, but it’s constant. So are the hospital visits that have consumed Kolbe’s life since the day after he was born.
“There are wonderful nurses and doctors here, and they’re on top of everything,” said Ashley, who was motivated to pursue her degree by seeing the dedicated work. “Even the child life specialists at Children’s go above and beyond to help these children.”
While Kolbe’s latest hospital stay has been long, the visit by McElroy and Rutledge offered a welcome distraction for the Alabama fan. The hope is to find a donor that could ensure Kolbe’s health for years.
“There’s a lot of anxiety and stress, and it’s daily, but the people at Children’s always keep you positive,” Ashley said.
The 2-year-old lives with her family in Chatom, a small town about 65 miles north of Mobile in the southwest corner of the state. That means that even a routine visit to Children’s is, at a minimum, a four-hour commute.
“It’s a tough drive,” said Michelle Bedgood, Reese’s grandmother. “But to know that we have something like Children’s so close is a comfort.”
Born premature at 27 weeks, Reese has been in and out of hospitals, which have included visits to Boston and Atlanta. “She’s our little miracle,” Michelle added.
Reese’s mother, Johanna Bedgood, juggles her job as a lab technician for a chemical company around caring for Reese, her twin brother and fitting in numerous doctor’s appointments.
“It’s hard on a career and it’s difficult as a mother,” Johanna said. “We are constantly on the go. In fact, our longest stretch at home was just nine weeks. But, I wouldn’t trade what we have here for anything. It has been a Godsend.”
Ezavion Johnson steered the car as Laura Rutledge leaned in and worked the gas pedal with her hand. It was a partnership that neither probably expected when the visit to Children’s began. But just like Rutledge’s willingness to help, there have been many good surprises for a young man who’s been in and out of the hospital for more than a year.
“This round of chemo has been better than the last time,” said his father, Rob. “Last year was hard.”
But the people and the workers at Children’s have been there the whole time, from Ezavion’s diagnosis more than a year ago, to rounds of chemo and treatment for lung cancer. Traveling to Birmingham for treatment from Fayette, Alabama, the five-day visits for treatment are made easier by the staff and support their family has received from Children’s.
“We’re just so thankful, for him and for what Children’s has meant to our family,” Rob added.