USC Family to Rally Around Wolford's Cause

Gamecock fans have followed the improvement of USC's offensive line this year under first year o-line coach Eric Wolford, but the greatest challenge Wolford deals with has been at home, where his son Stone faces significant developmental challenges. This Saturday, come join the other Gamecock fans for a pancake fund-raiser for the Wolford's foundation, which helps others facing similar challenges.

The birth of a couple's first child is almost always exciting, but Eric (known even by his wife as "Wolf") and Melinda Wolford faced immediate challenges after their son Stone was born. The first sign was an inability to move his neck, and then they realized his vision was severely impaired, to the point where he was all but blind until he was six months old. He had difficulty feeding, and seemed unable to gain weight.

Then he was diagnosed with a heart condition known as pulmonary stenosis. His mother shared that "Every time I would take him to a doctor for one concern, I left that doctor's office with more." For just over two long years and consultations with over 40 specialists in multiple fields, the Wolfords found no definitive answers. Finally, they were hit with the devastating news that Stone had a genetic condition called Cardiofaciocutaneous Syndrome (CFC Syndrome). CFC is a rare genetic condition affecting around 300 children worldwide. Most CFC kids have a heart defect, including Stone. It also affects their facial features and skin. Children with CFC syndrome usually have distinctive features that suggest the diagnosis, such as relatively large head size, down-slanting eyes, sparse eyebrows, curly hair, areas of thickened or scaly skin, and small stature.

Melinda wrote on the foundation website that "To be honest, I was mortified, I was horrified and I was devastated. Any hope left that my baby would "grow out of this" was shattered and now I had to live with the reality that his issues were not going away. I grieved again. My husband grieved again. We grieved together. Then something almost magical happened. We began to realize how blessed we really are. We started verbalizing to each other how much our lives had changed because of Stone and how very much we have learned throughout this experience. We have a completely new perspective on life. One day, Wolf said to me, "Has Stone been happy? Has he brought us joy? Has he changed our lives for the better?" The answer to all of these questions was and is a resounding 'YES.' Then my incredible husband made a profound statement. He said, "I will take every day that I can with him."

Raising a developmentally challenged child is one of the greatest challenges parents will ever face, yet Eric and Melinda Wolford feel God has prepared them for the task, and they view their son as a gift. Stone will never grow up to have a "normal" life and play football with his dad, but "Stone is his father's motivation in life," according to Melinda. She says, "Stone is what drives him, he gives him more focus."

Wolf's career as a football coach brought him many challenges that perhaps prepared him for what he would one day face with his son. During his first year coaching at Arizona, one of the players he recruited died in his arms the first day of practice. The next year, one of his "big time" recruits was shot. Though the player's football career was over, Wolf's commitment to nurturing the player and his family through the aftermath of that violent act had just begun. Melinda said it helped that her husband grew up in a family that was very committed to each other.

Melinda also grew up facing daunting circumstances that helped prepare her for the challenges they would face with Stone. Her parents were missionaries in Africa, and her mother died in childbirth, giving birth to her fifth child. At the age of ten, Melinda was faced with the responsibility of raising her four younger siblings, including a newborn. Her father remarried, and she helped raise her two new two step-siblings as well. Melinda spoke of how it prepared her for being a coach's wife, as well as for raising Stone. "I was used to moving around, used to getting into new environments, used to doing things on my own. I had faced daunting challenges in life before Stone came along."

But Melinda said there is one thing that makes the greatest difference in facing their challenges: their faith. Speaking of her husband's strength, she said, "He is a Christian, I'm not afraid to say that out loud. He gives all of his praise to God. He defers to God. That's how he lives his life. Stone has made him more driven. He believes that God gave him Stone for a reason, and I totally stand with him on that."

Melinda talked about how her husband's relationship with their son contrasts with what people see of Wolf on the football or practice fields. "They see that he is this passionate, very energetic person," she said. "The picture I'm thinking of is the picture of him in the paper, of him screaming. You can see every muscle in his face. When he walks in the door, with Stone he is a soft, gentle giant. He handles him very well. He loves him with all of his heart, and Stone is his motivation in life. He is a very generous person and that's how he is with Stone. A lot of men have difficulty dealing with a child who has a disability. He has been there, and he has supported me, even though he is not home very much because of his job requirements."

Stone can't eat solid food, so they have him on "as nutritious a liquid concoction as they can come up with," things like PediaSure, Instant Carnation Breakfast, etc. Melinda has "invented a smoothie that includes whey protein that Stone can drink through his special bottle. Almost all children who have CFC are on a feeding tube. Melinda is actually Dr. Melinda Wolford, a school psychologist who specialized in working with kids with autism and other disabilities. Because of what she learned from the health specialists she worked with side-by-side to treat her patients, she learned how to be able to feed Stone as they do, and not be forced to put him on a feeding tube. She believes that Stone is healthier and more neurologically advanced than some CFC children because of being able to get nutrition in that way.

Stone has difficulty communicating and has just a few words he can say. He also has limited motor skills, which limits his ability to use sign language. There are times he communicates just fine though. His fourth birthday was November 26. His father said to him, "I love you!" And Stone said, "Luff! Luff!" Melinda shared, "It absolutely destroyed him when his son said I love you back." In describing her son, Melinda said, "He loves movies. He does walk, does run a little bit. He is a very happy boy, his spirit is always shining. When I walk into his school, everybody knows "Stone Man." Not sure where it started, but Head Coach Ron Zook called him that at Illinois, called him Stone Man. He adores people, and plays well together with his younger sister Marley. He loves her, and constantly hugs her."

Moving from Arizona to Illinois and now to South Carolina has been difficult, especially with the support system needed for Stone, and the myriad of doctors and health professionals he needs as part of his care, but Melinda says that the Carolina community and Columbia have been wonderful. "It's been wonderful because the people here have advised me well," she said. "I have connections with Melissa Spurrier (Steve Jr.'s wife) who is a pediatric nurse practitioner, and Kristy Speronis (USC director of football operations Jamie's wife) who also is a nurse practitioner. Eric's cousin, Jodi Shelton, is a nurse who lives in Columbia who also made connections for us. It was a difficult transition, but we're very happy about the move, very glad to be here."

The Wolfords also have a healthy 19 month old daughter Marlee, whom Stone adores. Melinda has been able to return to work, with Stone attending a special education class for half a day, where she says, "He's doing well in school, and then I have a wonderful nanny, Brittney Tibbs, who comes to the house and help us."

The Wolfords have started a foundation called "No Stone Unturned," dedicated to helping researchers find the cure to the condition, and to help other families facing similar challenges to what they face. They also are dedicated to a local organization called "Family Connections" that provides support for the families involved who have children with disabilities. You can learn more about the No Stone Unturned Foundation at www.nostonefoundation.org, and about Family Connections at http://www.familyconnectionsc.org/

A small act of kindness by a local restaurant manager turned into something much more recently. Melinda shared that with the coach's busy schedule it's difficult to find family time together, so they try to have a family dinner out once a week. They had gone into Fatz Café on Forest Drive for dinner. She said that Stone cannot sit still and cannot eat food. She said he's interested in food, and likes to lick it, but he tends to crunch it and step on it, and it ends up on the floor. Melinda shares, "He's laying on the floor there in the restaurant, food everywhere, and here comes the manager!" Melinda hurries to clean up the mess, telling the manager, "I am so sorry, he's special." The manager, Jonathan Tuten smiled and told her, "Don't you worry about it. Get up off that floor and stop cleaning that up. That's what we do! Typical kids do the same thing."

Not too long after that, Ron Morris of The State newspaper had a story about Stone and the "No Stone Unturned Foundation," and Tuten saw it. He contacted the Wolfords and volunteered to have a fundraiser at the restaurant for the foundation.

Fatz Café at 5590 Forest Drive will be having an all you can eat pancake breakfast fundraiser for the foundation this Saturday, December 5, between 7:30 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. Tickets are $8.00. Breakfast includes: pancakes, maple syrup, butter, sausage links and a fruit cup, with a choice of drink: coffee, tea or juice. Children under 4 eat for free. So Fatz can have an idea of how many people are coming, you are asked to call Jonathan Tuten at Fatz Cafe at (803) 782-1183 to let them know you're coming.

If you would like to make a direct donation to the No Stone Unturned Foundation, you can do so here: Donate to the No Stone Unturned Foundation

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