Dallas Cowboy Cooper Rush befriends Charlotte boy with rare disease
CHARLOTTE - Gavin Miller lives just a few hours from Ford Field. His family spent years watching and rooting for the Detroit Lions.
If geography and family history are any indication, he should be a Lions' fan.
He's not. For more than a year, Gavin's loyalties have gone to another team.
The 8-year-old is a die-hard Dallas Cowboys fan and with good reason.
His friend, Cooper Rush, who grew up just across the street from the Miller family's home in Charlotte, is a back-up quarterback for the NFL team.
When the Cowboys play, Gavin, a Parkview Elementary third grader, cheers from his living room.
An autographed photo of Rush sits by his bedside, and, when Miller has to spend time in the hospital, he takes it with him.
"He's a good player," Gavin said. "We're neighbors, and we're good friends."
"The first word that comes to mind is 'fighter,'" said Rush, a Lansing Catholic graduate. "I'm here playing a game and he's in Charlotte struggling to walk. He's tough."
Gavin was 4 when he was diagnosed with Perthes disease, a condition that affects one in 1,200 children. There wasn't enough blood traveling to the thigh bone in his left hip, and its cells began to die.
Running became difficult. Walking became a challenge. Playing the sports he loves, like hockey and football, became impossible.
Gavin's friendship with Rush has been a bright spot, said Karen Miller, his mother.
A rare condition
Gavin was taking part in a hockey class in Dimondale when symptoms of Perthes disease first presented themselves.
Gavin began complaining of knee pain. Then he started limping.
Karen Miller and her husband, Edwin took him to his doctor, who suggested it could be a muscle strain.
"I just knew that wasn't it," she said.
The Millers sought the opinion of a specialist, who diagnosed Gavin with Perthes Disease, also known as Legg-Calve-Perthes disease.
Over time, the blood supply to the thigh bone of children with the condition returns, but treatment before that happens can be intense, Karen Miller said.
Gavin has had three surgeries in three years, followed by lengthy hospital stays. He's spent considerable time in a lower-body cast and a brace worn overnight for a year.
The Miller family's frequent trips to see doctors and undergo procedures at Texas Scottish Rite Hospital for Children in Dallas, Texas, have always been challenging.
The family has juggled the travel expenses and time commitments with other health issues — Edwin spent more than five months on leave from his job at General Motor's Delta Assembly Plant after a back injury — and the demands of their other two children, Collin, 4, and Dylan, who is nearly 2.
In May, a fundraising dinner held in Charlotte brought in $5,000 for Gavin's family — and it connected them to Rush, who donated a signed shirt and football for the event.
A unique friendship
Rush's first meeting with Gavin is a lesson in just how small the world really is, he said.
Cooper Rush grew up just across the street from Gavin in the house where his parents, Matt and Fran Rush, still live.
"I think there's something special about that," Cooper Rush said. "That two people in different situations can have that kind of connection. It's really cool how our two worlds came together."
During a visit to his hometown last summer, Rush visited Gavin and his family. The pair tossed a football back and forth in the yard and talked sports, Karen Miller said.
Then they stayed in touch. During a trip to Dallas last year for medical appointments, the Miller family attended a Dallas Cowboys' game, meeting up with Rush afterward at the stadium.
Gavin's been a loyal Cowboys fan ever since, Karen Miller said.
"Cooper is someone to look up to, and he's such a success from such a small town," she said. "He sees Gavin whenever he can. He's gone out of his way for him."
Rush makes it a point to visit Gavin whenever he's back in Charlotte, and last weekend he was Gavin's personal tour guide at AT&T Stadium before a pre-season game Saturday.
The Millers were in Dallas for a follow-up appointment with Gavin's doctor. Miracle Flights, a national charity that provides free plane tickets to help children battling rare and life-threatening conditions reach medical appointments, paid for the family's flights.
Allowing fans on the field during warm-ups is rare, Rush said, but Gavin made the most of the opportunity
"Just seeing him light up on the field was really special," Rush said.
Gavin and his family watched Rush play, met Rowdy, the Dallas Cowboys mascot, and ended the trip to Texas with good news.
Gavin's doctor told the Millers his condition is improving and his mobility is on its way to getting better.
"I want to play all the things I used to play," Gavin said.
Rush can't wait to watch him recover.
"I want to continue to see the progress," he said. "Every time he comes down here, we'll try and get him on the field."
And their friendship?
"It can grow into something awesome," Rush said. "I can't wait to see him grow up."
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Contact Rachel Greco at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @GrecoatLSJ.
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