Unconditional Support

by Jeff Sherry

One day about four years ago, when Noah Reedy was 10, he scrawled some thoughts in a notebook.
“I wish I could do something,” he wrote, “but I can’t do anything.”
Everything seemed difficult to Noah back then. Writing sentences, solving simple math problems, making friends — daily life brought daily frustration.
Even now, as a 14-year-old with learning disabilities and health concerns, Noah is considered a bit of a misfit among the eighth-graders at St. Paul’s Expo Middle School. But none of that seems to bother him as much anymore.
Now he’s got the Gophers.
Over the past three years Noah Reedy and the Minnesota Gophers football team have developed a genuine, mutually beneficial friendship. Noah gives the team unconditional support and enthusiasm. The team gives Noah confidence and a sense of purpose.
“We think of Noah as a real focal point of the team,” Gophers senior Rodney Heath said. “We’re going out to win for our families, our coach and ourselves; we’re also going out to win for Noah. We’re real thankful he can look up to us, and that we can be a bright part of his life.”
Coach Jim Wacker says Noah is “the No. 1 fan in the world,” and it’s easy to see why. Each week Noah visits practice, writes letters and makes signs for the team. His family attends every home game and goes to as many road games as they can afford. The end of last week’s letter to the team exemplified his dedication: “I am saving my money for the bowl game. I am going with you. Your friend, Noah.”
Of course, it isn’t easy being a Gophers football fan. Saturday’s 27-9 Homecoming loss to Michigan State may have sent Minnesota on the way to its sixth-straight losing season. So, of all teams, why would he root so hard for the Gophers?
Noah’s personal and medical history provide the answer. He was born in the Philippines with birth defects. His right eye was closer to his ear than to his nose, and his brain had ruptured through his sinus cavities. His birth parents abandoned him as a baby and he was found in a pile of garbage.
A children’s shelter took Noah in, but could only help temporarily. When he was 13 months old he required surgery to relieve built-up pressure inside his skull. No one in the Philippines could perform the procedure, so the shelter appealed to then-First-Lady Imelda Marcos for an emergency medical passport. She granted it, and Noah was immediately put on a flight to the Twin Cities.
Licensed foster parents Hank and LaVonne Reedy awaited his arrival. They knew of Noah’s condition and agreed to look after him while he received treatment. But LaVonne said she decided to make the arrangement permanent the moment she saw him.
“The young man who brought him over was holding him, and Noah kind of pushed around his shoulder and reached for me,” said LaVonne, who later became his legal parent. “That was all it took.”
They rushed him to the hospital, where doctors gave him 12 hours to live. Plastic tubes were put under the skin on each side of his head to drain the fluid from his brain. Major reconstructive surgery followed more than two years later.
The surgeries were successful, but Noah still has his problems. He’s going blind and deaf on his right side, and has difficulty utilizing his long-term memory. The kids at school have made matters worse by calling him names like “Can’t-Read Reedy” and “Know-Nothing Noah.”
Then one Saturday in fall 1993, his parents took Noah to a Gophers football game to get his mind off his troubles. LaVonne and Hank both graduated from the University and went to a game on one of their first dates in 1949.
Noah was hooked. He enjoyed the game and met a friend of the family, former Gophers slotback Tony Levine, after the game. Noah wrote to Wacker and Levine, both of whom responded within the week. The relationships grew from there, as did Noah’s self-esteem.
“When you can’t do math and you can’t read and you can’t do what everyone else is doing, you give yourself a great sense of rejection,” LaVonne said. “Then he went over to football practice and said to me, ‘They don’t know I can’t read.’ But really, they don’t care whether he can read or not. They treated him so wonderfully that when they lost, he didn’t care.”
Although Noah still sticks with Minnesota when the team loses, he has started taking the losses harder — mostly because of everything the Gophers have done for him over the past few years.
It started with returning letters and signing autographs, and escalated into tours of the football facilities and trips to practice. Wacker and special teams coach Mark Tommerdahl even told Noah he could design some plays, which the team has run for him in practice.
But the biggest thrill by far came one afternoon in late February 1995. Noah had sent an invitation to the team around Valentine’s Day to come and see his bedroom, which is fully decorated with Gophers decorations and keepsakes. A couple weeks later, the doorbell rang and players started showing up in droves.
In all, 47 players visited Noah’s room, and they all autographed his wall. LaVonne said that before he went to bed that night, he stood on his bed and counted all the signatures, making sure to touch every one. He said he didn’t know someone could have so many friends.
“It’s important to have them as my friends because I don’t have any friends,” Noah said. “I always got bored of doing nothing. Now I can write them letters.”
Now he can do a lot of things. His neurosurgeon let him play sports for the first time this fall, and he joined a soccer team. His work at school has shown improvement, and he’s set goals of graduating, becoming a doctor and becoming one of Wacker’s assistant coaches.
But perhaps the biggest change can be found in his old notebook. One year after writing that he couldn’t do anything — and a few months after his first season with the team — Noah made up a story. LaVonne told what it said:
“He got a phone call from the football coach, wanting him to play. He told him, ‘I asked my mom and dad and they said it was OK.’ So he went in and played, and in the last minute he caught a pass to win the game.
“It ended with, ‘Then everybody knew I could do something.'”