GREENSBORO — Though it was only a Monday, Northern Guilford’s football team already was having a bad week.
Shortly after school ended on Sept. 30, the Nighthawks’ coaches told the players that their 49-7 win over Williams was forfeited because too many junior varsity football players participated, retro actively ending the high school’s winning streak at 31 games.
A mixture of shock, frustration and anger permeated the practice field in the immediate aftermath that afternoon, and the disappointment of the decision set in later that night.
Three days later, on Oct. 3, those players took a knee in the school’s parking lot to listen to Darrell Haymore, a 47-year old man diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Head coach Brian Thomas invited him to share thoughts about overcoming adversity, but Haymore gave them a new perspective.
“It’s hard when the doctor looks at you and says, ‘I wish you had cancer,’?” Haymore says now. “Because then they could treat it.”
The Nighthawks routed Eastern Alamance 29-6 the next night, but that was only the beginning. His message sparked a relationship, one that has lasted the season and one that continues to grow as the team continues to advance in the playoffs.
It’s a Tuesday afternoon, and Haymore sits in his wheelchair in his usual spot in the living room. A Christmas tree wrapped in lights dominates his sightline, and two stockings hang side-by-side above the fireplace.
A red-and-white N.C. State blanket neatly covers his legs, and his hands rest comfortably on a pillow on his lap. Haymore wears a tan-colored long-sleeve shirt with a picture of two palm trees. A man lies in a hammock, grinning, between them, and a simple message reads “Life is Good.”
His voice is still strong, but a clear mask covers his nose and wraps around his head. Haymore’s diaphragm no longer works, so he wears the mask at all times to help his breathing. His wife, Denya, says he used to only wear the mask while he slept, but now he can’t go 10 seconds without it.
Haymore is in his 13th month since being diagnosed with ALS, a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. There is no cure, but he has beaten three prognoses by doctors. The most recent estimate was that he would not live past the last week of November.
He can only move his head, but he and Denya consider even that a blessing. As his ALS progresses and more muscle groups are affected, Haymore eventually will lose his ability to swallow. He sparingly leaves the house, usually only to go to Gospel Baptist Church on North Church Street.
He and Denya take turns talking so he can rest his voice, and the only time his throat catches is when he recounts the emotional roller coaster of the past year.
While Denya dabs tears from his eyes, he insists that his emotions are not out of sadness, but with the peace he has found with God. Their beliefs ooze with almost every word.
Darrell is on “God’s time” now, they say.
“We go to Duke to the ALS clinic, and you see the other ALS patients, and I can see and feel the pain and the anger they have because it’s very drastic when a doctor just looks at you and says, ‘There’s nothing I can do,’?” Haymore said. “That’s not the mentality we have.”
Life didn’t used to be like this. Darrell and Denya were accomplished employees at Cone Health, they were active, and they loved to travel.
But in January 2012, Haymore tore a muscle in his leg, and it wouldn’t heal, even with physical therapy. Over the next four months, the weakness worked its way up his leg and to his hip, he experienced twitches throughout his body, and he started losing weight. Haymore saw a neurologist in September 2012, and after an exhaustive series of tests, the ALS diagnosis came that November.
He used a walker to get around, then he stopped walking for good in February. He continued to work from home until March, and by then Denya had left her job to become his caregiver.
Before this year, Darrell and Denya didn’t have any relationship with Northern Guilford despite living in the same neighborhood as the head football coach.
Then, in early August, Northern’s players stopped at the Haymores’ house to sell discount cards as part of a team fundraising project.
Britt Thomas, son of head coach Brian Thomas, was one of the three who greeted Denya. She mentioned that Darrell played college football at Ferrum and Elon, and she told them about his condition. Britt described the visit with the Haymores to his father, and the two returned a few weeks later.
Thomas and Denya broached the possibility of Darrell speaking to the team, and Thomas set it up on the day of the forfeit.
Haymore referenced his own fight in his words to the team. Unfair things happen in life, he told them. It’s how you respond that makes the difference.
“There’s things you can’t control, and when the things you can’t control happen, then you can’t get angry because nothing good comes from anger,” Haymore said. “They basically needed to look beyond this.”
He spoke for about 20 minutes. That night, he and Denya wondered whether they had made a difference.
They didn’t wonder long.
Thomas called them Friday morning to make sure they were coming to that night’s game, and on the way to the field, the players stopped one by one to thank him for his message.
“Darrell came home that night and was sitting right here, and he cried, just tears pouring down his face,” Denya said. “He said, ‘Now I know that God’s not going to take me until he’s through with me.’?”
Haymore hasn’t missed a home game since.
“It really put things in perspective because he was facing so much,” linebacker and running back Chris Ripberger said. “It kind of made us realize what we were facing wasn’t really anything and we can overcome it.”
Haymore’s words stuck with them for the rest of the season, even after they had to forfeit another win.
“His overall message is there’s something a lot greater to life than football, and you never know when it can be taken away from you,” quarterback Austin Coltrane said.
Since that day, Haymore and Northern Guilford’s team have seen each other about once a week. Darrell and Denya have hosted two team meals, and they visit practice on occasion in addition to attending the games. Thomas has visited the Haymores on several Saturdays, and he and Darrell will sit together those days to talk football and life.
The Northern coaching staff and a handful of players attended his testimonial at Gospel Baptist on Oct. 30, and Haymore still gives advice to the players before and after their games.
“If you impose your will on the other team, nothing can go wrong,” said offensive and defensive lineman John Wagoner of Haymore’s go-to motivational line.
The Christmas tree in the Haymores’ living room is a gift from the team. They delivered it from the lot of Wagoner’s father, Bruce, and Thomas’ family helped decorate and string the lights.
Darrell said his message to the Nighthawks never has been to win a game for him. Rather, his words are about bouncing back and not holding grudges with the past.
Even with near-freezing temperatures for Northern’s quarterfinal game, Darrell was there, wrapped in blankets, to see every minute of it. He doesn’t get to feel the elements very often anymore, and to him, watching the Nighthawks is worth the cold.
“It was amazing, honestly, hearing that,” Ripberger said of Darrell’s testimonial. “His life is running short because of this, and they’re looking at it as a blessing and trying to find the benefits of the situation. It’s pretty amazing.”