It began with a simple birthday wish. Beckham Prescott, who was to turn 4, wanted some football players at his birthday party.
Beckham, born in Arkansas, is a Razorbacks fan and often can be seen in an Arkansas helmet that’s regulation-sized and bounces about his head. But this party was to be held at the Ronald McDonald House in Durham, not back home in Fort Smith, Ark.
Beckham has Pelizaeus-Merzbacher disease (PMD), a rare disorder that affects the central nervous system. At the time, he was awaiting a stem cell transplant at Duke Medical Center and his mother, Natalie Prescott, contacted Duke and asked if some of the Blue Devils football players could attend the Feb. 29 party.
That’s when Corbin McCarthy entered Beckham’s life, soon followed by Ben Humphreys. As McCarthy put it, “I get chills just thinking about it.”
McCarthy, a fifth-year senior safety, is from Norco, Calif., and has four siblings. But there was something different about Beckham, he said.
“As soon as I met him, we had this connection,” McCarthy said. “I can’t really explain it. Maybe it’s that I’m from California and my family is far away. …
“He’s like my little brother. He’s my little guy. He’s granted me a way to see life in a different aspect.”
McCarthy continued to visit Beckham after the party. On the day Beckham was to have the stem cell transplant, McCarthy brought Humphreys, a sophomore linebacker, with him to the hospital.
“He’s the biggest football fan you’ll ever meet,” Humphreys said, smiling. “He’s also got the biggest heart. He’s a fighter.”
PMD is a crippling disease that is fatal in most cases, Dr. Vinod Prasad of Duke wrote in a letter for Natalie Prescott. Prasad, in Duke’s Pediatric Blood and Marrow Transplant division, wrote that symptoms are apparent in the first year of life and include poor coordination, involuntary eye movement and delayed motor development.
As the child grows older, there can be language and intellectual disability. While the child can learn to walk with assistance of crutches or a walker, Prasad wrote, the ability to walk is lost in late childhood or adolescence.
Beckham spent much of last Saturday at “Meet the Blue Devils” day bounding around the field at Pascal Field House, Duke’s indoor football facility. His mother, blinking back tears at times, credits the work of Prasad and Duke’s medical people but also the attention and friendship of McCarthy and Humphreys.
“They’ve taken us under their wings,” she said.
Beckham has an older brother, Hudson, who is 6. Hudson is protective, supportive, playful.
“The best big brother ever,” Natalie said. “On Beck’s worst days, he’s always there to support him. But Corbin and Ben are like his two new big brothers.”
As she watched Beckham toss around a small football Saturday, Natalie said, “That’s Beckham’s dream. He wants to be a football player. Most boys with PMD never walk and the ones that do usually lose the ability to walk. Just knowing he’s getting out here and able to do this now means a lot.”
Natalie laughed when thinking back to one of the days in the hospital, when Beckham was bald because of his chemotherapy treatments and surgery. Hudson had his head shaved. McCarthy and Humphreys also cut off their hair and they all posed for photos.
“Beckham said he wanted to be bald,” Humphreys said, laughing.
McCarthy said the thought of Beckham, his fight and determination, is always with him, motivates him. There are those sultry days of August, he said, when he goes out for practice feeling zapped.
“I feel bad for myself and then I see a post (online) of this 4-year-old kid on a treadmill with splints on, talking about he’s going to keep going and wants to play football,” he said. “As much as I’ve always wanted to be a blessing to him, I think he’s really changed everything for me. He’s blessed me 10 times more than I could ever hope to help him.”
Humphreys, from Newport Beach, Calif., is a prototypical linebacker, an imposing 6-foot-2, 215-pound player.
“But Beckham takes your breath away, every single time you talk to him,” he said. “He has his little wins every day. His smile is contagious. He’s a great kid and Natalie is a superhero. What she does for her boys is really special.”
Natalie Prescott said the plan initially was to be at Duke a few weeks. That has turned into months, and she said the family probably will stay for at least a year.
McCarthy and Humphreys, she said, often help out as babysitters, allowing her time to do such things as get a new driver’s license or run personal errands.
While Dr. Prasad performed Beckham’s stem cell transplant and Duke’s medical care has been excellent, Natalie Prescott believes having the two Duke players in Beckham’s life has been just as instrumental in his therapy.
No one knows what the future holds for Beckham. But he will continue to attend some Duke practices and will be at the Blue Devils’ season opener Sept. 3 against N.C. Central, wearing Humphreys’ jersey from last year’s Pinstripe Bowl.
“To see his progression is miraculous,” McCarthy said. “He can walk longer than he’s ever been able to walk. His speech is better. So he’s really made a remarkable recovery thus far.
“It makes him happy and he makes me happy. We both win.”
For more information on Beckham Prescott and his family, search for Join Team Beckham on Facebook.