Marshall Column: Turning Tragedy Into Triumph

Little Sydney Gran was to be laid to rest today, her race on this earth run before her sixth birthday. She never spoke a word and never took a step, but she touched more lives than many of us ever will.

I got the sad news Wednesday as I was preparing to leave for Tallahassee and Auburn's baseball regional at Florida State. Suddenly, I wasn't thinking anymore of whether Auburn had enough pitching to make a serious run or whether the lower half of the order could provide some offensive production. I wasn't thinking about what to expect next football season or who Auburn might schedule for a 12th game in 2006.

I picked up the telephone and called the residence of Eddie and Rosemary Gran. Rosemary answered. Her voice was strong. I wasn't surprised. Eddie, Auburn's running backs coach, and Rosemary are strong people. More importantly today, their faith is strong.

Sydney was born with Holoprosencephaly (HPE). The overly simple description of that affliction is that her brain quit developing in the first three months of pregnancy. She wasn't expected to live more than six months.

In October 2000, I talked with the Grans for a story in The Huntsville Times. I was struck then by their strength and faith. As the years went by, I was overwhelmed by it.

In July 1999, Eddie and Rosemary got the news that would test them as they had never been tested and ultimately bless them as they had never been blessed. The neurologist at Children's Hospital in Birmingham had said the words coldly, almost matter-of-factly. Little Sydney, not yet a week old, had a rare birth defect. She probably wouldn't live six months, he had told them. He handed them a slip of paper on which he'd written the name of the condition and left.

"I'm sitting there with that piece of paper in my hand looking down at my baby," Eddie said. "He just gave us that sheet of paper and walked out of the room. Talk about turning your life upside down. You don't know what to say. You don't know what to do."

As the Grans wept and prayed on the two-hour trip home, they had no idea that their little girl would so enrich their lives, deepen their faith and touch their very souls.

"She's changed our family so much for the better," Gran said. "I treat my other girls different. I coach different. I'm a better father, a better husband and a better friend. The Good Lord gave her to Rosemary and me for a reason."

Rosemary, left with so many questions and so few answers, researched HPE on the Internet. Chette Williams, Auburn's team chaplain, and George Mathison, the pastor at Auburn United Methodist Church, were there to help the Grans deal with the emotions that swept over them.

Gran said he will never look at football, at life, the same. That hit home in the 1999 season when Auburn had a suffered a gut-wrenching 18-16 loss to Mississippi State, losing a 16-3 lead in the final minutes.

"It was one of my worst defeats in 13 years of coaching," Gran said. "I went into the locker room and was feeling sorry for myself. I came out and my wife was standing there holding Sydney. She was having seizures. When a baby has seizures, it's a bad sight. I grabbed that baby, put her in my arms, and we went and got in the van. I didn't think about the game again that evening.

"It puts it in perspective. Yeah, you hate to lose. Every coach does. Your job is to win football games, but there are also other things that are pretty important."

Sydney defied the doctor's predictions. She was a regular visitor with to the Auburn athletic department with her two older sisters. Last year, another daughter was born into the Gran family.

Early on, Eddie and Rosemary came to the realization they couldn't handle it alone. They got on their knees and put their little girl in the hands of God.

"If she were to die tomorrow, I know for 17 months she's had the best life she could have," Eddie said on the summer day five years ago. "That I can go to the grave with. I know she'll be in a better place."

And indeed she is in a better place today, a place where there is not pain and no suffering, only joy.

"Somebody said to me that the children we have are all God's children anyway," Eddie said. "You are the bearer of them and should thank Him for that every day, but you are just a person taking care of His children.

"If you look at it that way and believe that, you can go on."

Eddie Gran receives a hug from former Auburn cornerback Carlos Rogers.

Auburn's athletic family rallied around the Gran family. Eddie said. Williams, the remarkable man who has influenced so many, was instrumental in bringing light into the darkness. Head coach Tommy Tuberville was unflinching in his support.

"Only he and Rosemary know how it really is," Tuberville said. "We all think we know, but we don't. They've handled it a lot better than I could have handled it.

"We're such a tight-knit group. We are like family. As everyone has gotten married, their wives join the family. Everyone shares in the joy when good things happen and in the pain and agony when bad things happen."

As that first summer wore on, Tuberville and his staff were preparing their first Auburn football team for the season. Sydney had surgery during two-a-day practices.

"Rosemary had her all day at the hospital," Eddie said. "I'd go right after practice and spend the night. Our friends, our neighbors, the Auburn community, our church have all been touched by her. They took care of the other kids, brought food to Rosemary.

"There are some staffs that would have made this a real bad deal, where maybe you even lose your job. Tommy makes it so good. All these guys have been so supportive. That's the only way you can get through it."

There will be tears and sadness today, but there will be no regrets. Little Sydney came into this life bearing the greatest gift of all, the gift of love.

***

The Gran family has formed The Sydney Gran Foundation to help support children with serious illnesses and their families at Children's Hospital. I will be sending a check. I can think of no better way to honor little Sydney's life than to do something to help others in need.

The family asks that donations be made to the Sydney Gran Foundation at Children's Hospital in Birmingham or to Auburn United Methodist Church.

(Those wishing to donate to the Sydney Gran Foundation, which will provide financial help for families of very ill children at Children's Hospital, should send them to Children's Hospital at 1600 7th Ave. South, Birmingham, AL, 35233.)


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