Casey Roffler, a sixth-grader who loves basketball, baseball, Nerf guns, Wii and Florida State, has Treacher Collins Syndrome. TCS, a genetic disorder, presents a variety of challenges. Among them is that the jaw, nasal passages and ears dont grow as the face does. The jaw can recede, block airways and impede breathing.
Hes had 15 surgeries in 12 years, Lesa Roffler says about her son. Hes had to have his jaw cut in half; doctors move it forward.
Caseys most recent surgery was 2 1/2 weeks ago, when extenders were placed on each side of the jaw. A day after surgery, Casey was still struggling, still exhausted. Lesa was in Caseys room at Levine Childrens Hospital when Esther Feather walked in. Feather is the interim headmaster at United Faith Christian Academy, near the Arboretum on Providence Road, the only school Casey has ever attended.
Casey, 12, did not notice her.
Ill tell him you were here, Roffler said to Feather.
Well, let me read you this email I got from Ian, said Feather.
Ian is Ian Miller, a junior guard at Florida State. Miller led United Faith to two N.C. 1A basketball championships and was twice the Charlotte Observer Player of the Year. Feather knew Casey was struggling and asked Ian if hed write.
The email is 251 words. As Feather read Casey remained impassive.
Then she reached the end.
Wrote Miller: Fight each and every day to achieve a task that people dont think you can reach because that is how I am where I am in life today. Love you and will see you when I get a little break to come home, or would you like to come to the uncc game and sit on the bench with us at the bobcats arena December 22.
The patient awoke.
Says Feather: His eyes were huge and his mom said, Now thats what we needed to get him awake.
On Saturday, Dec. 22, Casey and Lesa and father Travis and 11-year-old brother Luke arrive at Time Warner Cable Arena more than two hours before Charlotte and Florida State tip off.
Travis and Lesa were Miller fans before he committed to the Seminoles. They are bigger Miller fans now. Travis graduated from Florida State in 1992, Lesa in 96.
Their allegiance is apparent, especially on Casey. He wears a Florida State T-shirt, two rubber bracelets NOLE LIFE and FEAR THE SPEAR and will wave an FSU pennant.
Whats today going to be like?
Awesome! says Casey.
The NCAA has rules. Civilians cant sit on the bench, so Casey sits about 10 rows from the court.
Like a lot of 12 year olds, he loves sports. He plays pitcher and shortstop on the United Faith baseball team. He plays wing on the basketball team. He doesnt start. But when hes not in the hospital, he plays.
Do the surgeries hurt?
Casey, who speaks softly, starts to say no.
Tell the truth, says Lesa.
Sort of, says Casey. It hurts a lot, sometimes. But I get used to it.
United Faith has 260 students in kindergarten through 12th grade. Casey has 18 students in his class. He got As and one B+ on his report card despite missing three weeks because of the surgery. Casey was disappointed about the B+.
Lesa says theyre fortunate that TCS does not limit her sons performance in the classroom or on the court. Casey often is in the gym, shooting and dribbling and watching the bigger kids play.
Before heading to Tallahassee, one of those bigger kids was Miller.
I kept seeing a lot of myself in him, Miller says. He was always playing around and I just fell in love with him. Hes just a kid and a kid going through some tough things. I tell him this all the time he might be tougher than I am. I dont know if I could go through this, you know?
I ask Casey about the email Miller sent, the one Feather read to him in the hospital.
He said I make him want to work harder and be a better person, says Casey.
What else did he say, asks Lesa.
When Casey doesnt respond, she says, You are his
Hero, Casey says.
Miller doesnt play against the 49ers. He sustained a stress injury to his right foot, and could be out another week. So he watches from the bench as Charlottes Ivan Benkovic puts up a long three at the buzzer. Benkovic, too, played at United Faith. The shot misses, and the Seminoles win the tense game 79-76.
Family and friends of Florida State gather in a room next to the arena concourse.
When Miller enters almost everybody looks up and reaches out, congratulating him or asking about his foot. Wearing a gray Seminole warm-up suit and blue walking boot, Miller moves through the crowd until he reaches the Rofflers. He offers his left hand to Casey and his right hand to Luke.
I stand a few feet away with Julian Miller, Ians father, and ask how his son could attain such empathy and even wisdom at 21.
Thats what everybody tells me, says Julian. But Ill tell you this. When he gets home today hes got to feed the dogs. I have nine of them, big ones. I rabbit hunt. That fake walking boot might fool Florida State but it doesnt fool me. Hes got to feed all nine.
Miller looks up.
Im not feeding the dogs, he says.
Oh, youre feeding them, Julian says with a deep laugh.
Miller huddles with Casey. Heres a young man who spends too much time in the hospital and a basketball player who finished the past two seasons in the NCAA tournament. Yet theres no barrier; they could be members of the same family.
When they finish Miller and I find a quiet corner next to a thick black curtain.
Hes like a little brother to me, Miller, who has an older brother, says of Casey. The email lifted him up at a time he needed it and was something I loved to do. It made me a better person. Wherever I play, if I play at the next level, or it might not be basketball, Ill always be part of Caseys life.
Sounds as if you both gain from the relationship.
I meet a lot of people, says Miller. Ive met Michael Jordan, LeBron (James), Muggsy (Bogues). And none of them really inspired me how Casey inspired me. Just to know you got to wake up every day and you got to hit it head on and you cant worry about the bad things in your life.
Youre still breathing and you still got a lot to live for. And Casey is just showing me that, and that inspires me to go out every day and work hard in practice and better myself as a man and as a basketball player.
Will Casey inspire you to feed all nine of your dads big dogs?
Miller smiles a pained smile.
Yeah, he says. "Ill feed them."