Oct. 11, 2011
- Anthony Anderson playfully stiff-arms Aiden Stuteville." />
- Anthony Anderson gets a hug from Meghan Stuteville before Aiden's game at John Tarleton Park." />
- Anthony Anderson talks to Aiden before his South Knoxville Cherokees team takes the field." />
- Anthony Anderson puts his hands on Aiden's helmet just before Aiden's game." />
- Anthony Anderson and his family watch." />
- Anthony Anderson chases Aiden Stuteville before one of Aiden's practices." />
- Anthony Anderson gets ready to juke Aiden Stuteville." />
- Anthony Anderson and Aiden Stuteville talk." />
- Anthony Anderson watches as Aiden Stuteville and one of his teammates play before practice." />
BY DREW EDWARDS
Like any 8-year-old boy, Aiden Stuteville has a hero. And like most 8-year-old boys around here, his hero plays football for the University of Tennessee.
When the Stutevilles take a trip to Walmart, Aiden goes straight at the rack of magazines, flipping through the ones with football players on the cover and looking for his favorite player. He'll dig through racks of jerseys, searching for one that might have his hero's number -- No. 36 -- embossed in white.
"He keeps looking for his jersey," says Todd Stuteville, Aiden's dad. "We see a lot of 11's and 28's. I try to tell him they're not going to have Anthony's. We'll probably have to get one specially made. He looks, though."
He won't stop looking any time soon.
That's how it is with heroes, and it's hard to imagine a better one than Anthony Anderson. On the field, Anderson, who grew up in Knoxville, isn't a star, but he doesn't lack admirers. Aiden Stuteville leads the charge.
Unlike a lot of kids, though, Aiden knows his hero. He's had dinner with him. Lunch, too. They've shot hoops, and they've thrown the football. He's cheered his hero on from the stands in Neyland Stadium, and his hero's cheered him on, too, from behind a chain-link fence at John Tarleton Park.
Aiden's hero played Duck, Duck Goose with his little sister. How cool is that?
Before the family moved to Tennessee last year, his dad used to tell people he was a Gators fan. That was mostly to give his wife grief -- and to mess with a buddy who cheered for Miami. Now, though, Todd's a Tennessee fan. He can't help it. Neither can Noelle.
How they arrived in Knoxville, though, is a little complicated.
Once upon a time, Todd Stuteville was a police officer. Noelle was a special ed teacher. Their life was pretty normal.
Until one day it wasn't.
"When Aiden was 5, we took him to his physician (for an annual checkup)," Noelle Stuteville said. "He has the cafe au lait spots on his back. Just due to his complexion and the freckles and the hair coloring, we just thought they were birthmark type of things. They're not very dark. Abby, our oldest, has spots where she has so many freckles where they just look like birthmarks."
In Aiden's case, they weren't just freckles or birthmarks. The spots were a series of cancerous growths, and they weren't even the worst of it. The family's doctor referred them to a pediatric neurologist in Orlando, who diagnosed Aiden with neurofibromatosis, a condition that causes tumors to grow on the nervous system.
An MRI revealed two tumors, each roughly the size of a fingernail, on Aiden's 5-year-old brain. Subsequent MRIs revealed six more tumors about the same size.
When Noelle got the results, she immediately called her husband. He didn't answer, which usually meant he was on a call. With the kids still in her mini-van, she drove straight to Todd's sector to find him. Eventually, he picked up the phone.
"I had just finished my shift, and I just sat in the parking lot," Todd said. "You're supposed to be this big old, macho guy... I sat there just crying in the parking lot for an hour or two."
It didn't get any better when he got home.
The same day, the Stutevilles found out the home they were renting in the Orlando suburb of St. Cloud had gone into foreclosure. The family had 30 days to find a new place, just as Noelle went back to work and the kids went back to school.
"Seriously? On a day like that?" Noelle says. "But then again, you start to think of it, OK, so we had to pack up and move. Really? It wasn't the best time to be served with those papers. But you had the whole thing about perspective. Big deal."
That perspective is what landed the Stutevilles in Tennessee, and it's part of the reason Aiden's hero wears orange and white instead of garnet and gold.
He's chasing Aiden Stuteville and one of his South Knoxville Cherokees teammates across the patchy grass outfield on one of the baseball fields at Maynard Glenn Park in Island Home. The two throw the football. Anthony kicks it, and Aiden fields it. He chases Aiden. Aiden chases him.
At times, it's hard to tell which one of them is playing Grasscutters and which one's playing in the SEC. They're both kids. Anthony's just a little bigger.
"Aiden, man, he's a blessing," says Anthony. "He's my little brother, my blessing from above that loves me, and I love him to death. I try to do my best because I know he has his eyes on me."
It hasn't been a whole lot different the other times Anthony and Aiden have hung out together. Aiden rode shotgun in Anthony's shiny black sedan, when he joined the Stutevilles for dinner one Friday night in early July at Applebee's. Later that night, he came over to the family's apartment and played basketball with Aiden and his sisters.
That morning, Anthony ran and lifted weights with his teammates at a 5 a.m. workout and went to a three-hour class. Noelle was the one who had to tell Anthony it was time to go home.
"We were the ones saying, `OK, 15 more minutes... It's getting late...'" Noelle said. "It was a Friday, and I'm sure a 22-year-old young man has much better things to do on a Friday evening than come hang out with an 8-year-old. But that was really impressive."
"Just a very humble heart," Todd says.
By the time he left, Anthony had given Aiden a pair of sunglasses, the orange-and-white lanyard he carried his keys on, a signed photo and a pair of Tennessee shorts. Not to be outdone, Aiden signed one of his football photos for Anthony, who keeps it inside his locker at the Neyland-Thompson Sports Center.
That's the most tangible thing Aiden gave Anthony. It's far from the only thing.
"The joy of Aiden makes my day. There's not much that won't make my day, but seeing a kid who smiles so much and just loves being around you -- doesn't matter if we're wrestling or playing basketball or throwing, tossing, kicking the ball, he takes every day like it's his last day," Anthony says. "He just has a ball. It just proves to me that you can't take life for granted. Anything that God leads you to, don't ask questions. Just see what it brings to you."
Many people with neurofibromatosis, also known as NF, have endless surgeries. Some lose limbs or suffer varying degrees of paralysis. In some cases, it's fatal. Others never feel the effects at all.
Todd left the research on NF to his wife. He couldn't think too much about it, because the possible outcomes were enough to drive him crazy. Before Aiden was diagnosed, he wasn't in love with being a police officer.
And now more than ever, he didn't want to arrest people. He wanted to help them, particularly the homeless. So, after a little research and a lot more deliberation and discussion, he moved the family to Tennessee, where he enrolled in the urban missions program at Johnson University.
"That was one the reasons for getting out of law enforcement," Todd says. "I realized I wasn't really happy with that. It puts life in a whole new perspective. You see things in a new light. I was like, `I feel like this is what God's calling me to be.' "
Todd's on pace to graduate in three more semesters, but his change hasn't been without a price. Money is tight, for one, and free time is hard to find. While Todd's in school full-time and working part-time, Noelle's finishing her master's degree online. For the next year and a half, the Stutevilles -- all five of them -- are getting by on little more than Noelle's teaching salary. And counseling the homeless isn't exactly the most lucrative profession, either.
Some things, though, are worth more than money, like the look on Aiden's face on that July evening in the park as he and Anthony shot baskets.
"You're sitting there watching all these people driving nice cars and all that, and I was a little bummed," Todd says. "But when (Anthony) came over and played, just seeing Aiden's face and seeing Anthony play with Meghan, just to see that, I would trade a million dollars, two million dollars to see that again.
"Spending that time with us was worth more."
He's in his fifth and final year with the Vols' football program, having switched to wide receiver at the end of fall camp after spending most of his career as a defensive back. He's become a major special teams contributor, and he's one of Tennessee's senior leaders. In just a few months, Anderson's playing days will be finished. But he's making sure that he's spending that time making the most of his status as a Tennessee football player.
For Anderson, that's spending time with Aiden.
"Some days I don't want to do a thing. But my dad says, sometimes it's not about you," Anderson says. "You've got to step outside your comfort zone, step out of things that you wouldn't ordinarily do."
That's how he wound up meeting Aiden in the first place. His mother, Jean, teaches with Noelle Stuteville at Ritta Elementary School. That's when Noelle mentioned how football-crazy Aiden, who started playing ball when he was 4 years old, really was, and that he'd love the chance to meet someone who played for UT.
Anthony swung by the school last spring and had lunch with Aiden, who asked for -- and received -- permission from his mom to have Anthony sign his t-shirt. Aiden, who also has a mild form of pervasive development disorder, was quiet at first.
"He didn't say two words and then he finally opened up to me when we were sitting there eating," Anthony recalls. "Then he was attached to me, like the little brother I never had."
The attachment went both ways. Soon, Anthony was hanging out with the family, and he's been to two of Aiden's games at John Tarleton Park, the same place he played as a kid. Watching Aiden, who plays center and defensive tackle, and his teammates, Anderson fell right back into a kid's mindset for football.
It's one he'd like to share.
"They take full advantage. They're out there busting their tail, tackling each other -- even if it's their teammate -- giving their all for the 30 minutes of a game," Anderson said. "I wish I could take some of my teammates out there to see the way they play, because sometimes some of them don't understand how much of an opportunity they have to be at the University of Tennessee, a big school and a nice program like this one.
"You can learn a lot from a child that's 8 years old. That doesn't quit. That doesn't mope because he was sick. He kept living life like nothing was wrong with him. Some of the guys need to see that."
What Anderson sees is a new little brother.
See them together, and it takes about 5 seconds to realize how Aiden feels about Anthony.
"Little kids just think we're super heroes, like we're iron men, something that can't be broken," Anderson says.
He speaks from experience. When he was 4, Anthony met his older half-brother, Jeremy Stewart, then a 16-year-old living in Memphis. Stewart, now a coach at Kirby High School, went on to play football at Memphis. He even sacked Peyton Manning during the Tigers' upset of UT in 1996.
"I was so nervous to meet him," Anthony said. "I was like, I don't have a brother; I just have my twin sister. I knew I had somebody to look up to. He just does the small things you think an older brother should do. I try to go see him when I have off weeks. We're still so close.
"I was attached, like instantly. It's like something that you'd always wanted, and it came true."
Aiden's attachment to Anthony is a lot like Anthony's was to his older brother. Though the gap in age is a little wider, brothers isn't much of a stretch. If any.
"(Noelle) says, `This is your second family.' I've claimed that. I've brought that inside my heart," Anthony says. "They've changed my life in a matter of 2 1/2, 3 months. I feel like I need to give back. I don't know how to give back yet... But if it's my time, I feel like that's an important part. If that's all I can give back right now, that's all I can give back."
He's given lots of time, and there's not a lot to spare, as most Division I athletes can attest, especially those who play football in the SEC.
He's shared more than time, too. Just last month, he joined in one of the family's most joyful moments.
Anthony got a text message from Noelle Stuteville that, according to Aiden's latest MRI, the eight small tumors on Aiden's brain had disappeared.
Reggie White, a former Vol and one of the best defensive linemen to ever play in the NFL, was one. Deon Grant was another. Grant was the first one Anderson ever met in person. After a game during Tennessee's run to the BCS national championship in 1998, Grant gave Anderson a game-worn wristband.
Anderson took it home and displayed it with an already sizable trophy collection. He'd still have it today, more than likely, if the family's black lab, Jason, hadn't gotten hold of it.
"I thought it was like something that was going to cost millions of dollars. They went on and won the championship that year. I thought that he was the best person in the world. He was my idol. It was a UT football player," Anderson says. Then he breaks into a grin. "If Deon Grant ever heard that, he'd probably crack up."
Or maybe he wouldn't. Here's betting that once upon a time, Grant knew what it was like to have a hero, too.