Georgia Tech’s Dylan Leonard finds a friend at Scottish Rite

As Ritchie Russell watched her hospitalized grandson play Uno and pingpong with some Georgia Tech football players making a visit to Children’s Scottish Rite Hospital in April, she was glad for him to have a diversion from his chemotherapy treatment but didn’t expect much more.

She didn’t know that two of them would befriend Brentley Russell, text and videochat with him, continue to visit him and be inspirations and companions in his recovery.

“They have been so gracious and compassionate and great to keep up with Brentley,” Russell said. “The texts really boosted Brentley’s morale while he was in the hospital. When he got the texts or they FaceTimed, I would read them to him, and it really helped his day.”

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Likewise, when Yellow Jackets tight end Dylan Leonard paid the hospital visit, brought along by friend and former teammate Cole Neuber, his own plans likely were limited. He had been happy to make visits to the Ronald McDonald House previously, making good use of the standing that being a college football player has given him, but he had never before struck up a friendship. Little did Leonard know that he would that day make a friend with someone who has inspired him with his fight and positivity.

“The kid’s awesome,” Leonard said. “He’s just so happy every time I see him. I would say that the biggest thing that he teaches me is perspective and how to be grateful for what I have.”

Not that they need a specified day for it, but Brentley and Leonard have much to give thanks for. Blessedly, Brentley, a 10-year-old fifth grader from Buford whose favorite class is math and likes Zaxby’s, has his health and the love of a big family. Leonard, a junior in his second season as a starter whose prized possession is his gray Ford F-150 pickup truck dubbed Betty, likewise has his health, the love of his family and a role in the Jackets’ midseason surge behind interim coach Brent Key.

And, not least, they have a friendship with one another.

“There’s probably not a week that goes by that (Leonard) doesn’t text him and see what he’s doing,” Russell said. “It’s really been special.”

When Leonard first met Brentley, the football-loving child was deep into his fight against acute myeloid leukemia, a cancer of the blood and bone marrow. He was diagnosed in December after suffering from debilitating headaches, neck pain and a loss of energy.

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At the time, Brentley was in the midst of three sets of chemotherapy treatments that kept him at the hospital for three to four weeks at a time. It would be understandable for an active boy away from his friends to be grumpy about his fate. That was not Brentley’s choice as he spent time in one of the hospital’s play areas.

“He came out there, kind of sat down with us,” Leonard said. “He was one of the less-shy kids, was kind of out there. That’s how we made the connection, that way.”

Credit: Photo courtesy of Dylan Leonard

Credit: Photo courtesy of Dylan Leonard

Leonard couldn’t help but notice part of Brentley’s attire that day – a red Georgia cap. (You thought this was going to be about Thanksgiving, didn’t you.)

Said Leonard, “I was like, ‘Man, what’s that?’”

Leonard and his friends – former teammates Jordan Yates and Jamal Camp were among other visitors along with Neuber – handed out Tech wristbands and played Uno. Before leaving, Neuber and Leonard made sure to trade phone numbers with Russell, Brentley’s grandmother.

The three kept up with each other through text messages. When Brentley was hospitalized again for a bone marrow transplant, Leonard and Neuber weren’t able to visit him because of the health risk. So Leonard set up a FaceTime visit.

“He showed me the locker room and all that,” Brentley said.

The texts and FaceTime chats continued through weeks and months. That diligence has been particularly meaningful to Ashley Chastain, Brentley’s mother.

“Brentley has seen a lot of people, but the follow-through has been over and beyond,” she said.

Said Leonard, “It’s kind of something that I made a point where I wanted to keep up with him because he brings a lot of good in me, and vice versa. His mom always says he lights up and runs down to his room when me or Cole text him and stuff like that. It’s been a joy in that respect.”

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For his birthday in August, Leonard and Neuber made a surprise visit to him at a Ronald McDonald House, plying him with Tech gear. Chastain, Brentley’s mother, recalled people asking them who the football players were, and if Brentley was getting autographs.

“Brentley’s like, ‘I’m just hanging out with my friends,’” she said.

After he was able to return home, Brentley attended his first college football game with his family. Alas, the Jackets played their worst game of the season that afternoon, getting shut out by Ole Miss 42-0.

It mattered little to Brentley, who remembered the day being hot and loud. But at the end of the game, Leonard came over to the stands and gave Brentley his gloves.

His reaction?

“Excited,” he said. “Really happy.”

Even in the crushing disappointment, the memory is one of Leonard’s favorites of his buddy.

“It goes back to that perspective thing, that I might be feeling really bad for myself, but even though we lost, his day was made, and he’s happy,” Leonard said. “Maybe it was worth it. I mean, not worth it getting your butt kicked, but worth having him there, making his day.”

Said Russell, “Even win or lose, those gloves meant the world to him.”

He made it back for more games at Bobby Dodd Stadium. The overtime win over Duke was his favorite. He yelled himself hoarse, he said, and “my ears were hurting for a couple of days.”

It is a sweet reward for a boy who has been through a lot after the chemotherapy, he was hospitalized for the bone marrow transplant for an additional two months – and has been a champion.

“Brentley is a fighter, and he never complains,” said Chastain, Brentley’s mother. “He will be the last person to tell you he’s not good.”

Leonard has seen the same.

“He’s a fighter,” he said.

Brentley’s explanation of his attitude: “You’ve got to do something fun. You’ve got to keep your heart moving.”

Credit: Photo courtesy of Ashley Chastain

Credit: Photo courtesy of Ashley Chastain

The relationship continues. Brentley sent Leonard a congratulatory text after the Jackets’ upset at North Carolina. On Tuesday, a package arrived at his home – a white Tech jersey with Leonard’s No. 2 and his name on the back.

While he continues to take medication and make weekly visits to a Children’s Egleston Hospital clinic as he tries to boost his red blood cell count, Brentley has been declared leukemia-free. He hopes to be back playing football next season.

“Thanking the Lord, we’re believing he’s healed,” Russell said.

Of course, friendship is one thing. Clean Old-Fashioned Hate is another. Whose team’s colors will he wear Saturday?

“I don’t know about that,” Brentley said.

In a friendship defined by loyalty, surely there can be room for one day out of the year to stay true to your team.