It wasn’t the players in front of him that got him worked up.
Nor was it the upcoming game with West Carrollton.
He had looked down the Stebbins’ sideline and seen 18-year-old Ebonie Sherwood in her pink shirt and pink hair tie with a Canon camera pressed to her eye as she captured one Friday Night Lights moment after another.
A year ago, she’d been on these same sidelines in pads, a helmet, and a red No. 82 jersey. She was a Stebbins defensive player.
Six months ago — almost to the day — she lay on a University of Cincinnati Medical Center operating table, undergoing a 12-hour heart transplant as her mom, Beverly, Stebbins head coach Greg Bonifay and Lofty had huddled in the waiting room, worrying, praying and worrying some more.
Now, here she was on the Indians’ sideline — as she’s been most games this season — taking over the duties of her 38-year-old mother, who has been the unofficial team photographer at Stebbins sporting events in recent years.
“Ebonie is the epitome of what we tell our kids all the time,” Lofty said quietly. “You need resilience because you’re going to face adversity, not just in football, but in life. She faced the ultimate adversity, and she hasn’t wavered, hasn’t questioned.
“In her mind, she’s going to come back all the way. She’s going to be a track athlete again. She’s going to go and compete at Tiffin (University) like she’d planned.
“I don’t know if I can find the words to describe what she means to this team, this school, this community.”
For a couple of seconds, he struggled to keep his composure and when he finally spoke, you started to understand:
“I’m a parent of a now 6-year-old daughter who looks up to her. When your 6-year-old looks at you and says, ‘Yeah, when it gets tough, you just keep fighting…like Ebonie!’
“That’s a life lesson you can’t pay money for. You can’t find it anywhere else other than right here. It’s what makes Ebonie’s story so powerful.”
Ebonie shared some of that story Friday morning at Stebbins when she took part in a discussion with students about the importance of learning CPR.
She went into more detail the other afternoon as she sat with her mom and me on the patio of their home in Riverside and talked about the rugged saga that began 6 ½ months ago:
March 7 was the first day of track practice at Stebbins and she was excited for the new season to begin.
Although she was a three-sport athlete, throwing the discus and the shot put had been where she’d’ stood out. She’d been voted the girls track MVP as a sophomore and, as a senior, she was a captain of the team.
This fall she was supposed to head to Tiffin to compete in the field events for the Dragons.
Although she’d led calisthenics that day last March, she wasn’t feeling well at the end of the workouts and headed to the training room, where Emily Martz and Alex Brummett, both trainers with the Kettering Health Network, were on call.
Once there, she collapsed into Emily’s arms and Alex jumped in and helped lower her to the floor.
Ebonie had no pulse, Beverly said, so Alex began chest compressions while Alex grabbed the Automated External Defibrillator (AED), pressed the paddles to her daughter’s chest and tried to shock her back to life.
“If it weren’t for Emily and Alex, Ebonie wouldn’t be here today,” Beverly said. “She would have died right there on the floor.”
The Riverside EMS arrived and rushed her to Dayton Children’s Hospital as Beverly, trying to tamp down her terror after the trainers’ phone call, sped up I-75 from her job as a financial specialist for Miami Township, whose offices are on Lyons Road.
Ebonie is Beverly’s only child. She’d had her when she was just 19 and has raised her as a single mom ever since.
The two aren’t just mother and daughter, Beverly said, they’re best friends.
“Alex shocked Ebonie twice and when they put her in the ambulance, I’m told they shocked her four or five more times,” Beverly said. “She was completely out 35 minutes before they got her pulse back. She died and was brought back three times. It’s a miracle she didn’t have any brain damage.”
At the hospital, doctors discovered she’d suffered a “widow maker” heart attack, meaning the biggest artery to her heart was blocked and her life hung by a thread.
After spending the night at Dayton Children’s, she was taken by CareFlight to Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. Although on a ventilator and an ECMO (extracorporeal membrane oxygenation) machine that allows the heart and lungs to rest, she didn’t respond to treatment and was soon transferred to the UC Medical Center.
Some 11 days after Ebonie’s heart attack, Beverly said doctors were discussing the next steps that needed to be taken when Ebonie’s heart “started going crazy.”
Her heart rate jumped up to 240 beats, then 280, and when it wouldn’t come back down, Beverly said they had to “keep shocking her.”
Although Ebonie doesn’t remember all this, she said she has a sobering souvenir: “I have burn marks on my back from it.”
Beverly said doctors finally told her her daughter needed a heart transplant — immediately.
“Some people are on the transplant list for years waiting for a match, but I got a call 12 hours later and was told a heart was on the way (by helicopter),” Beverly said.
She said she and Ebonie don’t know the origin of the new heart. They must wait a year to make an inquiry through a third party and see if the donor’s family wants to make contact.
The surgery was conducted by Dr. Louis B. Louis, director of cardiac surgery at the UC Medical Center, and Beverly was told it went perfectly. She said she didn’t find out until some two months later that her daughter wouldn’t have lived more than a couple of more days if she hadn’t gotten the transplant. In the two months following the transplant, Ebonie said she dealt with “every complication you can think of.”
Her mother was at her side, sleeping in a chair next to her bed and only leaving to take a shower or have a private conversation outside.
Ebonie and Beverely were buoyed by people like Bonifay and Lofty and Stebbins track coach Eric Spahr, who would come to Cincinnati each Wednesday with his wife.
Beverly said her daughter needed all the support she could get.
She watched Ebonie’s weight balloon up to well over 200 pounds and then plummet to just 120.
“Both of the spots where the ECMO tubes went into her sides didn’t heal, so she actually had to have surgeries where they pulled muscles over to cover her nerves,” Beverly said.
“Her chest opened back up, too. It wasn’t healing from the inside, and she had a wound vac on it. She also got cytomegalovirus infections — they’re called CMV infections.”
Yet, with each thing thrown at her, Ebonie just kept pushing through. Bonifay watched all this and got an even greater appreciation of her.
She’d been in the Stebbins football program for four years and twice won the Coach’s Award for being the ultimate teammate. She’d gone through two-a-days each year, off-season weight training, played on the JV team and finally got some line action on varsity as a senior.
“I always knew she was extremely tough and motivated,” Bonifay said. “But just when I thought I couldn’t appreciate her any more, she goes through all this with grace and grit and determination. It’s been unbelievable.
“She is one of the strongest individuals I’ve ever coached.”
Encouragement from Damar Hamlin
After two months in the UC Medical Center, Ebonie was determined to walk across the Nutter Center stage to get her diploma at the Stebbins graduation on May 18.
She certainly had earned the marquee moment.
She was one of the best-known students in the school. Besides athletics, she’d stood out in the classroom — she had a 3.7 grade point average — had been a member of the student senate, was the student body vice president, was a member of the Air Force Junior ROTC, worked on the lighting crew for stage productions and served as a peer counselor.
Some 10 days before the graduation ceremony, she got a video call from Damar Hamlin, the Buffalo Bills safety who’d had a heart attack on the field during a Monday night game against the Cincinnati Bengals at Paycor Stadum on Jan. 2.
A sold-out crowd and a national TV audience had watched his life and death struggle. Like Ebonie, he had ended up at the UC Medical Center and his recovery — from a heart dilemma not as severe as hers — had been called “a miracle” by many in the sports world.
When Ebonie was first stricken, Beverly said: Damar’s father, Mario, contacted her and said, ‘If you need ANYTHING, let us know.’”
Two months later Damar checked in.
“He was really encouraging with her,” Beverly said. “He told her he’d been in the position she was in, that he’d had a heart attack while doing sports and had been in the same hospital. He told her just to keep working hard.
“That was great, but a couple of hours later she was getting back into bed, and she just looked at me with this really confused look. She started coughing and I said: ‘Do you need a drink? What’s wrong?’
“And she was like ‘Excuse me.’
“I thought she wasn’t hearing me, but the more I asked, the more she just kept saying ‘Excuse me.’ That’s all she could say.
“I was like ‘Something’s wrong!’ And suddenly all these doctors come running in and within seconds they said, ‘She’s had a stroke!’
“For several days, she only said those two words: ‘Excuse me.’”
Beverly shook her head at the memory, then finally smiled:
“I was like, ‘Well, at least she has good manners!’”
‘She’s going to try to prove you wrong’
Ebonie remembered when she was a fourth grader and told some other kids how she was going out for football the following year:
“A boy told me I couldn’t do that,” she said with a smile.
He told her the game wasn’t for girls. That they couldn’t play.
She pushed that opinion aside the same way she treated rival linemen when she was playing varsity at Stebbins. She ended up one of the most beloved and respected players on the team.
“Whenever you tell her she can’t do something, she’s going to try to prove you wrong,” Beverly said.
That’s the attitude she took when, immediately after her stroke, she let it be known she was still planning on being at the Nutter Center for her graduation.
“In her mind, there was really nothing that was going to stop her,” Bonifay said. “No matter what people were saying, she was determined she was doing it.”
She was released from the UC Medical Center on May 17.
The following day she was in her red cap and gown. Relegated to a wheelchair, she asked Bonifay to push it.
“I was honored to be asked, but at the same time I was a little nervous,” he admitted.
He maneuvered her to the edge of the stage and helped her stand.
“I reached back to get everything she had to walk with — as far as the machines and the other stuff — and before I knew it, she’d taken off without me! Man, I literally had to run across the stage to catch up to her.”
The crowd erupted with applause and cheers and several people were in tears, including her mom, who was trying to take photos.
Since then, mother and daughter have settled into what Beverly calls “our new normal.”
Ebonie said her invite to Tiffin was put on hold, but she was told if she gets to where she can compete again, the offer is still there.
She’s enrolled at Sinclair and is taking four classes online. After she gets an associate’ degree, she’d like to go to Wright State and become an athletic trainer.
She wants to help others, just as Alex and Emily helped her, not only after her heart attack, but throughout her three-sport career.
Beverly works from home, which enables her to take her daughter to her physical therapy and speech therapy sessions around here and her doctor’s appointments — one to four a week, she said — in Cincinnati.
Ebonie has been drawn back to the Stebbins football program. She showed up on a walker at the team’s 7-on-7 camp in early summer and the players stopped and cheered her.
Most of all she looks forward to Friday night football.
“It’s a time when I forget all the rest of it,” she said. “It’s a time that feels normal. And it’s a place where I love to be”.
Tromping along the sidelines with her camera, she moves in and out and around “her boys.”
They give her space. They give her respect. And sometimes, they even give her a smile.