JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Luke Akerstrom woke up around 5 a.m. Thursday, not out of the ordinary for a 6-year-old boy who needs around-the-clock care.
This was different, though.
He didn't ask for dad to stretch out his left arm. Or his left leg. Or help him out of bed.
This time, Luke was ready to start his day, his very special day.
"He said, 'Dad, you know we have to be there at 10:30,'" said Magnus Akerstrom, a former collegiate golfer at Northwestern State in Louisiana. "I said, 'I know, but it's 5 a.m.'"
Five and a half hours later, Luke's parents rolled him onto the practice field with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Center Brad Meester was right by their side.
Meester and Luke have developed a strong bond over the last six months. Mr. Brad Meester, as Luke calls him, came to see him in the hospital and the rehabilitation center nearly every week since February. Meester wasn't the only one, either. General manager Gene Smith stopped by. So did head athletic trainer Mike Ryan, communications manager Ryan Robinson, the team mascot and two cheerleaders.
On Thursday, Luke returned the favor.
He brought along more than 100 friends and family members, too.
"I've really learned from him about never giving up," Meester said as he introduced Luke to the team. "When I look at (training camp), this is nothing. This is easy compared to what this kid is going through. No matter what challenge he's faced with, he meets it head on. What we face is nothing compared to what he faces."
"I really hope you guys learn something from him."
It wouldn't be that difficult.
Luke was riding in the back seat of the family car on Dec. 31, 2010, when he started having a seizure.
"I turned around and Luke was gone," his mother, Brandi, said.
The seizure last 30 minutes and came two days after Luke had a fever of 101 degrees. He spent the next four months in the hospital. He endured stomach pain, muscle cramps, sleepless nights and more mini-episodes. He had feeding tubes, X-rays, MRIs, CT scans, EEGs and spinal taps. He received several antibiotics, steroids, chemotherapy and a plasma exchange. He needed physical, occupational and speech therapy.
After months of testing and a trip to a specialist, the Akerstroms had no official reason for the seizure. Luke was initially treated for bacterial and viral meningitis, and was eventually diagnosed with acute disseminated encephalomyelitis. Simply put, Luke had a rare brain inflammation — which included symptoms seen only twice before at Wolfson Children's Hospital in Jacksonville.
"Not only were we alone. We were alone and in the dark," Brandi said.
Luke, 5 at the time, lost important cells that control motor function. He couldn't use the left side of his body and couldn't say more than a few words.
His parents were devastated. His little brother, Abram, was confused. Luke was simply lost, not remembering how he ended up in the hospital and now facing a lifetime battle to do things that came so easily before.
What helped all of them? The Jaguars, especially Meester.
"Brad gave our little boy something mommies never could," Brandi said. "Mommies can love them, but they can't make them want to be an NFL player."
Luke slowly regained limited use of his arm and leg, and his communication skills are getting better every day. He attends therapy four days a week, sometimes with Meester right by his side.
Luke has had other famous visitors. Former President George W. Bush and former Florida quarterback Tim Tebow have been to see him. But Meester means more to him than either of them. In fact, Meester and Tebow were in the room together one day and Luke was more concerned about Meester than he was the Denver Broncos quarterback.
Meester has visited Luke regularly since Feb. 5, offering his time and involving his wife and four girls. Meester was there to see Luke get Botox shots — at least 20 of them in one sitting. He was there for a painful spinal tap. He was there on Luke's 6th birthday. He volunteered to watch Abram so Magnus and Brandi celebrated their 11th wedding anniversary.
"I've visited a bunch of kids in the hospital before, but there was something about him and his family," said Meester, who has a fifth daughter on the way. "Just seeing a kid work this hard. Every time you see him, he always has a huge smile on his face. That's something special. He went from a kid that was able to do anything to basically having to relearn everything, trying to walk, be able to move his left arm, say complete sentences again."
Luke's progress has been nothing short of impressive.
He couldn't sit up on his own the first time Meester visited. Last month, Meester received a picture of Luke standing up on his own at an Arena Football League game. On Thursday, Luke took four or five steps without any assistance and fell into Meester's outstretched arms. Teammates applauded.
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Luke will be at midfield for the coin toss of the Bengals-Jaguars game on Oct. 9, and Meester and his teammates expect to raise money for the family through a November fundraiser. They already have a framed and autographed Tebow jersey to sell, along with an autographed Peyton Manning jersey.
The Jaguars are sure to offer more, especially after meeting Luke on Thursday.
They surrounded him as he walked to Meester, then lined up and gave him high-fives and words of encouragement. Running back Maurice Jones-Drew grabbed Luke's left arm and helped him walk about 75 yards off the field.
"I'm about to start crying in a second," Jones-Drew said. "I'm just happy that you know my name."