Mallard Creek sophomore offensive lineman Eric Douglas Jr. watched his father have a stroke in the middle of a high school football game in September. Eric Sr. was put on a hospital gurney. As he was being taken to Carolinas Medical Center, the father told his son to “just keep playing.”
So Eric Jr. played, and played, and along the way he has helped Mallard Creek reach a second straight state championship game on Saturday in Winston-Salem.
His father was in the hospital for nearly a month following his stroke at the West Charlotte game. Each Friday while his father was hospitalized, Eric would text his dad around 3:30 while the team dressed for its game.
“Dad, I love you,” the text would read, “and I’m going to make you proud.”
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Just telling the story gets Eric Douglas Sr. choked up.
“It happens every time,” the father said.
Like father, like son
Eric Sr., 47, was a 6-foot-2, 300-pound lineman at S.C. State from 1987-89. He was all-conference his final two seasons and an All-American in 1989. His only son was born big like him. Eric Jr. was 11 pounds at birth and has always been bigger than his classmates. He’s now 6-4 1/2, 275 pounds and has received college attention from North Carolina, N.C. State and Clemson, where he took an unofficial visit the Saturday after his father’s stroke. It was at his father’s urging.
“Eric is a really good football player,” said Mallard Creek coach Mike Palmieiri, whose 14-1 team faces 15-0 Wake Forest Saturday at 8 p.m. in Winston-Salem. “He’ll be a three-year starter here. Eric has come a long way from last year and worked hard in the offseason getting stronger, working on his quickness. Everybody (recruiters) who comes in here loves his size. He’s definitely going to be a Division I player.”
Eric Jr., who turned 16 Dec. 2, played junior varsity and some varsity last season as a freshman. He played some fourth-quarter minutes last December in the Mavericks’ 59-21 state final win against Wake Forest in Raleigh.
“I got a ring last year, but this year I’m going to go out there and go get one for these seniors,” said Eric Jr., who has played a bigger role as a starter all season. “It’s like Coach Palmieri always says, ‘You gotta start these seniors’ lives off right.’ And people at school are coming up to me this week and to all the players, and asking, ‘Are you ready for Saturday?’ Yeah I’m ready for Saturday. It’s a different vibe this week, but we have a great fan base at the school and you can feel the support.”
Eric Jr. said he’s felt that support for months, ever since his father fell ill.
Eric Sr. remembers the day clearly. He dropped his 13-year-old daughter Charlee off at Northwest School of the Arts Friday morning and texted his wife Charlene during the day. One said, “I love you.” Another: “How you doin’?”
When Charlene arrived home at 5:15 p.m., the Douglases made plans to leave for West Charlotte at 6:15. But by the time Eric Sr. pulled into the parking lot, he didn’t feel well.
“I felt nauseated, light-headed, really tired,” Eric Sr. said. “Just walking to the ticket booth and walking to the stands, man, you would’ve thought I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. I couldn’t stop sweating. It looked like I had jumped in the shower and just ran out.”
After Mallard Creek scored the second touchdown in what became a 56-27 rout, Eric Sr. tried to clap to celebrate, but his hands wouldn’t connect. He couldn’t sit straight. Eric Sr. was seated next to Mallard Creek parent Mitch Gibson. Gibson and Eric’s wife kept asking if was he OK. He repeated yes, but finally Gibson ran down to the field for paramedics.
“It’s a good thing Mitch and my wife didn’t listen to me,” Eric Sr. said. “Next thing I know, the paramedics are asking questions and I’m laying on a gurney and I looked at my son.”
The visitors’ stands at West Charlotte are near the field and Eric Jr. could see everything unfolding. He didn’t know what was wrong. He only knew his father was strapped to a table, being taken to an ambulance and telling his son to “move your feet, protect the inside.”
“I’m on the gurney and I’m still coaching,” Eric Gurney said, laughing. “But I grabbed my son’s hand and I told him, ‘I love you.’ ”
At halftime, Palmieri led a team prayer for Eric Jr. and his family. In the second half, Eric Jr. made his father proud, handling his assignments and playing well.
“We just wanted him to stay focused, which is what his mother wanted,” Palmieri said. “He played awesome. He was focused and doing his job.”
Eric Sr. was in the hospital for 26 days. The stroke robbed him of motor function in his left hand, left arm and left leg. Some days, he had to communicate to his children via text message, because he was too weak to speak.
“I had to learn how to do everything all over again,” Eric Sr. said. “Everything you took for granted, I had to learn again.”
Eric Sr., walking with a cane, has made it to his son’s past two playoff games, wins against Providence and Lake Norman. He plans to attend the state final Saturday.
“It’s funny,” Eric Sr. said, “when I was in the hospital the whole world changed. When I went in gas was $3.30 and I get out it’s $2.69. It was warm when I went in and people were in shorts. The first game I go to when I’m out, people are all bundled up.”
Father and son are happy the entire Douglas family is back at the games. They hope it stays that way for a long time.
“I remember that first night, I held onto my mom tight because I know she needed it,” Eric Jr. said of his father’s first night in the hospital. “This has taught me you’ve got to stay strong because you don’t know what can happen at any given moment. So I’m thankful. You give thanks to God every day. That’s all you can do.”