One day last November, Aceondra Cartledge found her son, the typically energetic Naji Harris, leaning on items in the room to support himself after coming home from football practice.
A battery of medical tests found nothing wrong. It was only a scare.
That is, until February rolled around. That's when Harris, a tireless worker in the Lakeside High School football weight room, couldn't do his normal lifts.
"I had to kind of help him walk to the stairs to get to the (emergency room)," Cartledge said.
She remembers her son's demeanor and body language changing overnight. He couldn't walk. In fact, he couldn't do anything for himself.
"We went from one hospital to the next," she said. "Our whole world turned upside down. They found lesions on his brain. ... They did a spinal tap to confirm what they thought was MS."
The diagnosis was multiple sclerosis. According to the National MS Society, "multiple sclerosis is a chronic, often disabling disease that attacks the central nervous system. ... Symptoms may be mild, such as numbness in the limbs, or severe, such as paralysis or loss of vision."
When Lakeside coach Jarrett Troxler found out, he was crushed.
"When I saw him that first day ... especially me having my son last August -- I have a 1-year-old -- it makes you realize how precious life is. It just broke my heart."
Harris admitted being in denial at first. Whenever someone would start a conversation about it, he would just ignore it.
What his mother expected to be a short trip to the hospital for tests turned into a two-week nightmare.
Harris spent seven days at Medical College of Georgia Children's Medical Center. Then, he was hospitalized in Walton Rehabilitation Hospital for seven more.
Harris said the outpouring of support kept him focused on facing the disease. Cartledge couldn't believe how many people came to see her son.
"We were surrounded by nothing but positive people," she said. "His dad's family lives in Athens, Ga. The whole family came down.
"Even his elementary school teachers came. I was so surprised to see everyone come together."
Mitzi Williams, Harris' doctor and the medical director of the Augusta MS Center, said most people diagnosed with MS have the relapsing/remitting type.
"They have very severe symptoms early on, but they can get better and go back to normal," she said. "He's been fortunate in that he pretty much has recovered."
Thus, the junior whom his coach never expected to play football again was back out with his teammates for spring practice.
"At first, he was slurring, couldn't walk," Troxler said. "Now, he's running routes ... and leading everybody in drills. He'll say, 'Don't get tired. I couldn't walk this spring.' "
Harris will play some this season for the Panthers at slot receiver and special teams. Troxler has named him one of the captains for the season opener Aug. 27 at home against Glenn Hills.
Harris hasn't had an episode since February. He had to alter his diet -- less fried foods, to his chagrin -- and goes once a month for treatments. It doesn't stop him from going to the school on weekends and spending hours upon hours practicing with buddies Javeon Brigham, a sophomore linebacker, and Jamal Walton, a junior cornerback.
Along with the support of his friends and family, Harris said he appreciated the help of the Lakeside High School Booster Club.
"When we got back home, people had signed up to bring food to the house," he said. "That really helped us out."
Cartledge said the situation made her thankful she acted quickly. Some parents, she said, are inclined to brush aside symptoms.
"Be aware," she cautioned.
As for football, Williams said the only concern is working the body too hard in extremely hot conditions. Harris said his coaches have been supportive, allowing him to take breaks or get water whenever he needs them.
Harris said he never thought he was finished playing.
"I never let that enter my mind," he said sternly. "I always knew I'd play again. I said, 'I'm going to play. I'm going to play.'"
The Columbia County News-Times ©2013. All Rights Reserved.