Vital sign: Linebacker's impromptu trip brings mutual inspiration

The Shorter family talks about what it meant to them that LB (1:13)

The Shorter family talks about what it meant to them that LB Martrell Spaight befriend their son Isaiah last December as he went through cancer treatments. Spaight has maintained contact with the family. The story of their mutually beneficial friendship will appear Sunday. Video by John Keim (1:13)

COLUMBIA, Pa. -- The handmade sign stuck with Washington Redskins linebacker Martrell Spaight. Ninth-grader Isaiah Shorter held it up before a game at FedEx Field in December, sharing a message that Spaight couldn’t shake. It’s easy to see why.

"Fighting chemo, but cant keep me from my team.”

Nineteen Redskins autographed Isaiah's sign. But for Spaight, it wasn’t enough just to scribble his name for the youngster decked out in Redskins garb.

“On game day, I’m usually so locked in; you don’t pay attention to the stands or the outside things," Spaight said. "But something inside me made me want to do more. The whole game, I kept thinking about it.”

Two days later, wearing a boot to protect an injured foot, he drove two hours north on his day off in a rental car that few men of his age in the NFL would dare to drive: a minivan.

Spaight stayed for three hours, praying with Isaiah, his five siblings and his parents. He has maintained regular contact with them ever since.

“He took time out of his day just to see me. ... It feels like I’m someone that he noticed," Isaiah said this summer.

It meant just as much to Spaight, who is fighting for a roster spot in his fourth NFL season: “I can’t express enough that they did more for me than I could possibly have done for them.”

Small gestures, big impact

Striking up a friendship with an NFL player helped Isaiah push through a difficult period after doctors found a malignant, nonperipheral nerve sheath tumor in his brain. He had another doctor’s appointment Friday to make sure the cancer hasn’t returned. The rising high school sophomore had a good checkup three months ago.

Spaight doesn't just communicate with Isaiah; the linebacker sometimes plays online video games with members of his family, and they update each other through text messages. Spaight gave workout tips to Isaiah’s older brother Devon, a high school linebacker. They are small gestures, but they add up to a big impact.

“Not just to Isaiah, but to me as well as a father going through all this,” Tim Shorter said. “It’s really special.”

It started when Isaiah attended the Cardinals-Redskins game on Dec. 17. The Shorters had been a house divided: Tim rooted for the Cowboys, his wife backed the Eagles and their six kids had various NFL allegiances. But Isaiah is a Redskins fan whose favorite player was tight end Jordan Reed -- and once upon a time, Robert Griffin III.

Doctors discovered the tumor last fall after Isaiah complained about being sick and having headaches. Once a sure-handed wide receiver in youth football, he started dropping passes and coaches wondered why. On a third visit to the doctor, he got an answer: an MRI revealed the tumor. Doctors told the family they needed to see a specialist immediately. The aggressive and fast-growing tumor already was the size of a fist.

Isaiah's football season was over after three games, but doctors were able to remove 90 percent of the tumor during a six-hour surgery. By the time he attended the Redskins game in December, he already had endured three months of chemotherapy.

“He never showed fear throughout the whole thing,” said Isaiah's mom, Nancy Shorter. “He’d say what he has to do and I’d say, ‘Are you scared?’ And he’d say, ‘No, I just have to do it.’ He was tough. He didn’t falter at all facing anything. Every procedure or everything that was an unknown, he’d say, ‘I don’t have any fear.’ And I’d say, ‘How can you not have any fear?’ ‘Well, because I know where I’m going if it doesn’t work out.’”

“I know I’d be with God if I died,” Isaiah said.

His parents, seated at a counter in their kitchen, tear up. Their faith is evident, from crosses on the wall to the Bible verses on their wristbands. It guides them; it’s not about wearing it on their sleeve as much as living a certain way.

The Shorters' community rallied around them. When Spaight arrived, he was another person trying to help. He also did something that would have once been unthinkable to Tim Shorter: He turned him into a Redskins fan.

Three weeks in intensive care

After learning about the size of Isaiah's family, Spaight had rented the minivan just in case he wanted to take them somewhere.

“My first time,” he said of driving a minivan. “It actually wasn’t bad. I never thought I’d see myself driving a van. It’s not the ideal car, man.”

But there was no need to go anywhere. Instead, they hung out in the living room and talked. Spaight has a Bible verse tattooed on his biceps that comes from Isaiah 41:10 -- "So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God” -- which matched the statement the Shorters had on their bracelet for their son. That still gives the family chills. Spaight also brought hoodies and shirts for everyone in the family.

Isaiah needed the support. His tumor had continued to grow and had wrapped around a jugular vein and a facial nerve. Tim Shorter said no doctor wanted to operate because of the tumor's location. But through a connection with a pastor, they found a surgeon who said he would, though he had never performed that surgery on a child. In New York in January, Isaiah underwent 16 hours of surgery over two days -- three hours on one day to remove the carotid artery, 13 hours the next to remove the tumor. Doctors also removed Isaiah's cranial plate and put in a titanium screen. Because they had to remove ear bones, his left ear dropped four inches. Eventually, he’ll need surgery to repair that side of his face.

Before the procedure, Spaight talked with Isaiah on FaceTime, reminding him to stay strong. The Shorters were in New York for five weeks and Isaiah spent 21 days in the intensive care unit.

“We had several months where things were really dark,” Tim Shorter said.

After the surgery, Isaiah needed seven more weeks of radiation. When there was good news, Spaight would drop a line. When encouragement was needed, he was there, as well.

“A lot of times people go through those treatments and it ends up coming back,” Spaight said. “I wanted to be part of the whole journey. [Isaiah] taught me a lot about perseverance and to just keep fighting when all the odds are against you. He motivated me more than anything, just being around him and his family. When you meet people like that, it’s hard to not want to stay in contact with him.”

Still more obstacles

The road remains long for Isaiah. He might not play football again. He still needs to gain weight, having dropped to 113 pounds from 140. He’ll need more surgery on his face, though his mom said that pales in comparison to what he already has endured.

“Isaiah was just floating through this and waiting for the next thing on his list,” she said. “[Meeting Spaight] was a great moment in the midst of all those steps that broke everything up and gave him something to look forward to that encouraged him and gave him some motivation.”

Isaiah's father agreed.

“As parents, we can only do so much and say so many things to inspire and motivate them,” he said. “But these NFL players that the kids look up to, it means the world when they step out of their world and enter their world. It’s huge. It’s special.”

Spaight even texted Tim Shorter to say he was inspired by Isaiah. Spaight was struck by the family’s attitude.

“I just remember when everything was fresh,” Spaight said. “You expect him to be down in the dumps, not knowing what’s going to happen, him fighting for his life. [But] everyone seemed to be in good spirits -- wasn’t no one really down. Everyone seemed to be happy. Deep down, they may have still been kind of scared, but everyone kept a good spirit. It was phenomenal to see.”

Isaiah continues to have victories, with his dad proudly boasting of how his son rides his bike three miles to the pool, spends five hours swimming and then rides home. Isaiah confidently tells Spaight he can beat him in "NBA 2K."

Isaiah said the situation has taught him “how to be stronger.” It gave him confidence too. And a new friend. Recently, his parents asked him if, knowing the outcome, he’d go through this all again.

“He said, ‘I’m kind of glad I had it because I got to meet Martrell,'” his father explained.

Spaight was amazed at the thought.

“Wow, wow. That’s huge,” Spaight said. “I can’t express enough they did more for me than I could possibly have done for them. They told me a lot more about my faith. I had faith going through obstacles in my life, but seeing what they went through? Man. The constant faith. ... It’s on a whole other scale."

Spaight said it reminded him to cherish every moment. The Shorters say they’re humbled by his friendship.

“He needed it,” Tim Shorter said, “like we needed him.”