Bronco returns to camp, joins football team

We check in with heart transplant recipient who is subject of documentary.

Bronco Reese could hardly wait for a new school year to begin. The Woodstock middle schooler couldn’t wait to see his friends and teachers after the summer break. And there was something else fueling the enthusiasm for seventh grade — football.

On the first day of school at Mill Creek Middle School, 12-year-old Bronco, wearing jeans and a camouflage shirt, looks outside to a view of gray skies and drizzling rain, which suddenly builds into a deluge.

"They have not called off practice yet," says a hopeful Bronco about a scheduled afternoon football practice.

Being on a team sport is a rite of passage for many school-aged kids. But for Bronco, being part of the football team is another example of how Bronco, who underwent a heart transplant just three years ago, doesn’t let health challenges get in the way of living a full life.

Bronco Reese runs sprints with his teammates as he begins football practice at River Ridge High School this summer. CURTIS COMPTON / CCOMPTON@AJC.COM

Bronco, a child with deep brown eyes and a sweet smile, was born with four congenital heart defects.

In 2015, Bronco was admitted to Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, where he waited three months for a new heart. While in the hospital, he was nourished through a feeding tube. Oxygen levels dipped to critically low levels. His skin developed a bluish tint. He was barely hanging on.

Bronco finally received a transplant three summers ago. The operation was considered a success. Since then, he’s faced some setbacks. Four months after receiving a new heart, Bronco was diagnosed with post-transplant lymphoproliferative disorder, a form of lymphoma that can develop in people who have had a transplant. He underwent chemotherapy treatments for four months and is now in remission.

Bronco Reese, overcoming many of his fears over the past year, is the first to ride the zip line from his cabin while attending Camp Braveheart at Camp Twin Lakes on May 31 in Rutledge. CURTIS COMPTON / CCOMPTON@AJC.COM

Last summer, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution was given special access to document Bronco's experience at Camp Twin Lakes for Children's Healthcare of Atlanta's Camp Braveheart, a camp for children with heart defects and heart transplants. It was Bronco's first summer camp at Camp Twin Lakes, a remarkable place 50 miles east of Atlanta.

We were there to witness Bronco settle into Cabin No. 9 and engage in a playful water fight, leading Bronco and his cabin mates to name themselves “The Super Soakers.” We chronicled Bronco going on daily treks to the medical lodge, making new friends, scaling a climbing wall and attending a much-anticipated dance.

The AJC was given special access again this summer to document Bronco’s second time at Camp Braveheart — Bronco reconnected with campers, made more new friends, went to another fun-filled dance and was the first to ascend a tower and ride the zip line from his cabin.

Bronco Reese whispers in the ear of Katherine McGuffin-Noll during lunch at Camp Braveheart at Camp Twin Lakes. Bronco took Katherine, who is a year older than he is, to the dance last year. This year, she graduated to another group attending a separate event. CURTIS COMPTON / CCOMPTON@AJC.COM

And also, Bronco, a year older and growing stronger, is playing football.

Channel 2 WSB-TV is airing this special documentary as a prime-time special at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 15.

Bronco's father, Scott Reese, said he supports Bronco playing a team sport, which was discussed — and approved — by Bronco's doctor at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta. In an e-mail to the AJC, Dr. William Mahle, medical director of the Heart Transplant Program at CHOA, said, "Bronco can definitely play football. It just goes to show that kids who have had a heart transplant can live a normal life."

For Bronco, a longtime, die-hard University of Georgia football fan, who will likely play as a wide receiver or a defensive back, getting to play the game is a dream realized.

A year older and growing stronger, Bronco Reese lifts weights with teammates during football practice at River Ridge High School in June in Woodstock. CURTIS COMPTON / CCOMPTON@AJC.COM

“Playing football is a really big thing for me,” said Bronco, who is a fan of the Atlanta Falcons and the Atlanta Braves.

Danny Billingsley, head coach of Bronco's middle school football team, the River Ridge Junior Knights (a feeder program for the high school program), said Bronco works hard and has a positive, can-do attitude.

“It’s unbelievable Bronco is even out there playing,” said Billingsley, “but Bronco is like any other player on the team. He’s got the same determination and work ethic.”

Bronco may not have played organized sports as long as his teammates. And at just 5 feet tall and 89 pounds, he may not be able to match their size either.

But he’s strong. He’s a fighter. Billingsley also said Bronco and his teammates encourage one another.

“He’s a little guy, and over half of the players tower over him,” said Billingsley, “but he gives everything he’s got.”


Last summer, photographer Curtis Compton, videographer Ryon Horne and reporter Helena Oliviero spent a week following Bronco Reese, who underwent a heart transplant in 2015, at summer camp at Camp Twin Lakes. The AJC returned this summer to share more special moments. The video is a funny and heartwarming film that captures the joy of summer from a young boy's perspective.

Channel 2 WSB-TV is airing this special documentary as a prime-time special at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 15.

Camp Twin Lakes was established in 1992.

Nestled in the woods of rural Morgan County, Camp Twin Lakes is one of a handful of camps in the nation designed exclusively for children with extraordinary medical needs.

Each week, special camps are held. Bronco went to Camp Braveheart, which is for children with heart defects and heart transplants.

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