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The Journal Gazette

  • Courtesy photos Maverick Wagoner, sitting center, is surrounded by siblings Liam, Hadley and Trey and parents Eric and Natalie.

  • Maverick Wagoner, 3, who was born with spina bifida, was on the sideline for Saint Francis’ opener.

Monday, September 03, 2018 1:00 am

Saint Francis football's inspirational fan

'Maverick's a wild child, man'

Boy, 3, has spina bifida - and a spirit that inspires the team

Reggie Hayes | For The Journal Gazette

When 3-year-old Maverick Wagoner picks up a small ball, he displays a pretty good arm. He loves football. Take him to a retail store, he'll move quickly to the toy aisle.

He's also quite an inspiration to the Saint Francis football team, the NAIA's top-ranked, two-time defending national champion.

The things Maverick can do, that's the best part of his story.

“Anytime we see anyone in a wheelchair, we assume there's so much they can't do,” his mother, Natalie, said. “We forget to look at what they can do.”

Maverick was born Sept. 1, 2015, and the life of his parents and their family changed forever.

Eric and Natalie Wagoner began dating while students at Saint Francis, and they're both still on campus. Eric is the football team's co-defensive coordinator and Natalie is director of the Career Outreach Center.

Maverick, the Wagoners' third of four children, was born with spina bifida, a condition where the spine and spinal cord don't form properly.

The condition required Natalie to spend the last few weeks before Maverick's birth in the Cincinnati Children's Hospital. The three years since have included constant trips to various hospitals, most frequently to Riley Children's Hospital in Indianapolis, and regular therapy sessions.

Maverick was born about a week before the Cougars' season opener in 2015, and the players rallied around Eric Wagoner, shouting the name “Maverick!” during tough times on the field.

The boy's fight, initially for his life and later for continued growth as a toddler, became a rallying point.

Since Maverick's birth, Saint Francis has won 39 of 41 games and the two national championships. Just a coincidence?

“He's a good-luck charm,” Natalie said.

It's more than that, say those around the Wagoners. The couple's determination to mold the best lives for Maverick and his siblings – Hadley, 9; Liam, 8; and Trey, 1 – is demonstrated daily. The Wagoners serve as an example of dealing with life's challenges and adversities beyond the football field.

“Eric and Natalie and the whole family are special people and have been an inspiration to all of us that know them,” Saint Francis coach Kevin Donley said. “They're just incredible people.”

The daily care for Maverick is challenging, to say the least. He is essentially paralyzed from the knees down, his hips are dislocated and he has to be catheterized three times a day because his bowels and bladder don't work. His head is disproportionate to his body, so he has some balance issues, and he requires a shunt for fluid draining from around his brain.

Those medical issues pertain to what his body can't do.

The inspiration, again, comes from what he can do.

“Maverick's a wild child, man,” Saint Francis defensive lineman Justin Groves said. “He always has a great time, with a smile on his face. Being around them, you see how he can bring the family together. He shows how happy you can be even if you're not like everybody else.”

Groves, a redshirt freshman from South Bend, helped the family with lawn care and other tasks during the summer and has become one of Maverick's favorites.

The Wagoners recently acquired a wheelchair for Maverick and took him to Target. He was off and running, so to speak. He crashed into a few shelves but also found his way to the toy aisle.

Maverick was in the wheelchair on the sidelines after the Cougars' opening-night win over Robert Morris on Aug. 25, and he'll likely be there again at the next home game.

“As a 3-year-old, he's definitely a 3-year-old,” Eric Wagoner said. “He's as ornery as can be. He has his wheelchair, so he's mobile with that. When he's not in it, you sit there and think he's not going to walk and get into everything, but he finds a way to get into things. You think, 'What in the world is going on in there?' He's kind of in the center of it.”

The medical care personnel at Maverick's neurosurgeon's office in Indianapolis marvel at the progress the boy is making, his mother says. He loves coloring and playing and anything with a ball. Maverick had a speech delay, but he's catching up fast, and he's working to navigate his way of walking, which will come with a walker and leg braces. He's motivated by seeing his 17-month-old brother walking.

“They say, clinically speaking, Maverick shouldn't be doing as well as he is,” Natalie said. “Home matters. This matters.”

By “this,” Natalie means the Saint Francis football complex. Maverick loves football. That's natural, considering his dad is a coach. The embrace of the team has also been a drawing card. There's a photo from after the 2015 opener with the players all gathered around Eric and baby Maverick.

He has been embraced by his big “brothers” ever since.

“The little guy loves life,” Donley said. “We were out there at our preseason scrimmage and my grandkids were riding on the cart with me. Then Wags jumped on with his two older kids and Maverick says, 'What about me Coach D?' so we got him on there for his ride.”

The Wagoners knew little about spina bifida when they found out through an ultrasound that Maverick had the condition. They've become experts since, and they're always eager to share their knowledge to help others, and to correct misconceptions about their son in the wheelchair.

They've learned the need for wheelchair-accessible facilities and other issues for people who need special accommodations.

“Whether it's a wounded veteran or somebody with cerebral palsy, there's so much they can do and so much they can contribute to society of equal value to you and me,” Natalie said. “That's what I've learned.”

Maverick is only 3, but he's teaching some college-level lessons to all those who know him.