More MS news articles for Dec 2001

Her three wise men

Wednesday December 26 08:06 AM EST
By Lindsey Willhite Daily Herald Sports Writer

In Lee Trantin's life, there is pain and there is excruciating pain.

Then there are three young men far wiser than their years: her sons Eric, Kurt and Matt.

Each of them has been blessed with a gift to ease Trantin's pain like none of the pure steroid concoctions that have swum through her body since she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis 18 years ago.

"We're like the Four Musketeers," she says. "There's a bond, a connection. We just click together."

Eric, the oldest at 23, plays competitive beach volleyball despite his 6-foot-6, 260-pound frame. On occasion, his heart has been known to swell nearly to that size.

One day, much to his mother's delight, he decided to cut his hair that had grown down to his elbows. But not until he emerged from the barber shop with his hair 10 inches shorter did he divulge the reason he grew it so long: To donate it to kids in Florida with cancer.

"You know, you could have told your mother why you were doing this," Trantin told him.

"It wouldn't have been as much fun," Eric replied.

"Eric's like my best friend in the world," Trantin said. "We can sit and talk for hours and just talk about anything."

Matt, the youngest at 20, speaks best with two sticks in his hands and an acoustic drum kit at his mercy - but he also has mastered his timing for saying the right thing at the right moment.

"Matthew, he can find the humor in anything," Trantin said. "He's been the light around here. Things get down? Things get negative? That kid comes out with something and everybody's laughing."

Then there's Kurt, the smallest of the bunch. Football fans recognize him as the leader of Illinois' football team that took up residence in New Orleans on Monday to continue preparations for the Jan. 1 Sugar Bowl.

They might assume Kurt's primary gift to his mother is his right arm that's worth its weight in gold.

But this is a 21-year-old who has said his first memory is of watching his father beat his mother.

Who refused to leave his mother's side when one of her in-home treatments went haywire and he was ordered to leave the house before he saw something gruesome.

Who could tell, just by hearing a slight different speech pattern over the phone, that his mother suffered a relapse of some sort.

"I had just had a brain seizure," Trantin marveled. "He somehow knew."

That record-setting right arm? By no means is that the only thing golden about Kurt Kittner.

"Kurt's been my Rock of Gibraltar," Trantin said. "He's the observer. He'll cut through anything. He's just been tougher than the others, personality-wise. A strong-willed child - totally."

All perfect traits for a quarterback. But also for a child who, on occasion, has been forced to reverse roles with his parent.

One day last spring, Trantin, 47, gave in to the excruciating pain brought on by MS, which, by definition, is the chronic and often disabling disease of the central nervous system.

The same person who forced herself to walk on feet so gnarled the outsides were the only part touching the ground - proving wrong the doctors who told her she'd be wheelchair-bound by the age of 35 - lay in bed in Schaumburg with just enough strength to ring Kurt's cell phone in Champaign.

"I can't get up," she told him. "I can't do it any more."

Her son's response wasn't exactly soothing.

"æ'You're quitting?'æ" Trantin remembers him saying. "æ'My mother's giving up? That's all right. You just lay there.'æ"

The sarcasm worked where Avonex or Betaseron had not.

"I got up an hour later," she said. "Like I said, he's my rock."

"(Her disease) is one thing that's kind of like a football game," Kurt said. "When you're down and you're losing, you can lie down and die or you can fight back and win."

Phone calls and game balls

While MS holds an undeniable grip on a person's daily life - and the lives of everybody in that person's family - it also has a way of forging bonds others cannot.

Trantin's pain, for example, keeps her from enjoying the luxury of a full night's sleep. Kurt takes advantage by calling her at all hours.

"I always do that to her," he said with a smile. "Even if she is asleep, I do it every once in awhile just to annoy her."

Last summer, when the Big Ten brought in two players from each school for its preseason media confab downtown, Kittner called his mother at 3 a.m. from a late-night establishment and put his new buddies, Wisconsin's Brooks Bollinger and Wendell Bryant, on the line.

"You know, Kurt really loves you," one of them told Trantin.

That's one example of how well Kittner and the Badgers got to know each other that night. Goofier proof can be found on a wall in Kurt's boyhood bedroom.

Trantin framed the autographed pictures the Badgers gave to Kittner the next morning. Bryant's inscription read, "To Kurt: I think I love you." Bollinger's note went a bit further: "To Kurt: You are the best player in the whole world and you are so cute. I think that I love you and I want you to have my baby."

Kittner returned the favor, of course.

"I don't remember what I signed, but it was something to the same effect," he said. "Those guys are good guys, on and off the field. They were great guys to hang out with."

The happy, irreverent tone set at the Big Ten preseason confab seemed to follow Kittner throughout his senior year.

At Fan Appreciation Day in mid-August, where the line for a Kittner autograph stretched more than 50 yards, one new mom asked Kittner if she could take a picture of him signing her baby's bottom (with pants pulled up).

Another parent wanted Kittner to use his Sharpie on her son's arm. Warned the autograph would be in permanent ink, she didn't care because the boy went to private school and he needed "proof" that he met Kittner.

As Illinois' magical season got into full swing, Kittner became more of the instigator. Some of it stemmed from his location in the team's locker room - directly in front of the door.

"I've got a comment or something for everybody who walks by me in the locker room," he said. "I'm real, real sarcastic. They don't know when I'm being normal or joking."

He has made sure to save some of his mock scorn for head coach Ron Turner, who has worked more closely with Kittner than any other Illini player since taking over the program in 1997.

To make fun of the increasing amount of gray hair in Turner's scalp, Kittner found Turner's picture from his first season at Illinois, blew it up, and taped it to the locker-room board.

Then, during a crucial moment in a late-season game, Kittner mocked Turner while he was yelling at the referees.

"He was out there screaming and cussing and I just said, 'Coach, it's just a game,'æ" Kittner recalled. "I just said what he says to us."

"I laughed," Turner said.

Somehow it's fair to assume that same calm demeanor helped Kittner direct Illinois to five fourth-quarter comebacks and its first solo Big Ten title since 1983.

"This season has met and exceeded all my expectations," he said.

And exceeded all previous scrapbook records for his mother.

Trantin has kept copious records of her son's exploits since the third grade. His first three seasons at Illinois required a total of two three-inch binders and two four-inch binders.

His senior year accomplishments alone will require four four-inch binders. They'll reside on the shelf next to the two game balls he gave to his mom: One for the 46-20 win at Ohio State two years ago; the other is the ball he threw against his Wisconsin buddies when he broke Jack Trudeau's school record for career touchdown passes.

One senior year moment, though, can only be filed away in their memory banks.

It came two weeks ago as mother and son made the latest of their many visits to Champaign-Urbana restaurants.

A woman and her young daughter walked up and asked Kurt to sign a sugar packet.

"He gave me a look like, 'She wants me to sign a sugar packet?'æ" Trantin said. "I said, 'You're going to the Sugar Bowl, stupid!'

The family's future

Only one thing about Kurt's senior year hasn't been all storybooks and sugar packets: his mother's health.

Though she didn't miss a game for the third year in a row - she didn't make two road trips Kurt's freshman year when he told her to stay home - her condition worsened as the season went along.

"It's not been a good year with the MS," Trantin said. "I had two spasticity attacks during the Michigan game at Michigan. I had four more that week between Michigan and Indiana.

"Then it got quiet, but at the Wisconsin game I scratched my arm and it was totally numb. By Tuesday, I went numb down the back, numb across the chest, down the left leg, down the left arm ..."

Trantin usually senses when problems will arise, but she refuses to put herself first during the fall.

"I don't appreciate it during football season, so I just call for the stall tactics," she said. "My doctor wanted to try something else, but I told him I can't until February."

By then, her son will have played in the Sugar Bowl and the East-West Shrine Game. He will have selected an agent and begun preparing for the combine workouts and the NFL draft.

All that will be left is learning where his new home will be - and whether mom join him there.

Considering Trantin still gets teary-eyed thinking about the June 1998 day when she dropped off her son on Illinois' campus, it will be hard for her to watch Kurt move to Philadelphia or Seattle or Tampa Bay.

"I'll take every moment I can get with my kid," she said.

It wouldn't be too easy to leave Schaumburg behind. Not with Eric and Matt there.

Not to mention next-door neighbor, Dom Masella, who keeps a running total of Kurt's stats and the team's record on the side of his garage. His 8-year-old daughter, Trisha, has vowed to marry Kurt someday.

Then there are the steady stream of people who honk their horn when they drive by the house. Could Minnesota or Dallas or New England feel this much like home?

Maybe it's just best to enjoy this week's trip to New Orleans. Don't think of the harsh medical treatments to come. Focus on the four splendid years coming to a close.

"I'm just sad it's over," Trantin said. "It went by way too fast."

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