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Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Hillcrest quarterback Tanner Thompson is hit by Nathan Honey in a game played Nov. 1, 2014, in the first round of the 5A football playoffs at American Fork. The Cavemen won, 42-13.
But we have to remember what’s truly important. Family is what’s really important. And beyond this life is really important. It’s not lots of money. Really the family is where the strength is, and these little boys are just precious. —Mark Honey

AMERICAN FORK — Before he forces himself to forget about everything but football, Nathan Honey summons the faces of his brothers.

Sometimes as he walks onto the field, he even imagines they are dressed in American Fork’s red and white, sporting helmets and pads, standing on either side of him.

“I just think about (what) if they are playing with me,” he said. “I look to the left, see my brother, look to the right, see my brother there. I think that’d be awesome.”

It is, however, just a fantasy.

Nathan Honey’s brothers will never know the freedom of sports. Duchenne muscular dystrophy robs their muscles of a critical protein causing them to be fragile and easily damaged. The result is severe physical and mental disabilities.

Of Mark and Sharon Honey’s five boys, only Nathan escaped the genetic disorder. For the 17-year-old football and basketball player, sports are a way to honor his brothers while expressing gratitude for his good health.

“I always dedicate my games to them,” said Nathan, a junior inside linebacker and fullback for the American Fork Cavemen. “I always feel like I need to perform for them, even though they’re not watching. I can feel them. … I carry that in my heart.”

He said his brothers inspire him “in the way they can’t play, but it makes me feel like I have to play for them, like I kind of take that burden for them.”

For his parents, Nathan’s success, especially on the football field, is a brief but welcome respite from the harsh realities of a disease that requires so much from every member of the family.

“I don’t know, it’s just really cool,” said Sharon Honey. “The other boys can’t do it; it just makes it even more important to me because he can. He could have been the same way.”

'You're having it now'

Mark and Sharon Honey met when they were 9. They grew up in the same neighborhood but didn’t start dating until a few months before Mark left on his LDS Church mission to Hawaii.

They married in 1990 and started their family immediately. At 25 weeks into her first pregnancy, Sharon was very ill and they went to the emergency room.

“We walked in, and they said, ‘You’re having it now’,” she laughed. Mark Richard Honey, now affectionately known as Richie, was still in the ICU struggling to overcome the issues associated with being born premature when doctors told his parents a routine blood test revealed the baby had Duchenne muscular dystrophy.

“The pediatrician who worked there said, ‘He has Duchenne muscular dystrophy and it’s your fault,’ ” Sharon said. “It is (a genetic disorder) that comes from the mom, but that’s how he told me. And I thought, ‘Well, I’m not going to tell you I’m pregnant again.’ ”

Sharon was pregnant with the couple’s second child, Jessica, now 22. The genetic disorder usually doesn’t affect female children.

“There is no history of this on either side of our family,” Mark said. “It’s just our unique brand of spices is what caused this. … They told us we’d have a 50 percent chance of our children having the problem.”

The prognosis was grim. Richie’s muscles would atrophy until he needed a wheelchair and then even that would be difficult.

“(The doctors) said, ‘They live to be in their late teens, early 20s,’ and that’s how they left it,” Sharon said. Doctors recommended genetic counseling. But the Honeys had already decided they wanted more children.

Part of their comfort came from a decision they made when Richie was struggling to survive.

“We kind of did put our trust in God, essentially because we had an experience when Richie was still in the ICU,” Mark said.

Richie had a tube in his throat that helped him breath. It was nearing a point where he was strong enough to go home, but he kept pushing the tube out of his throat and it would collapse. Doctors ran tests and decided he needed a tracheotomy, which is when a tube is placed in the neck (trachea) to provide an unobstructed airway.

“As new parents, that was very scary for us,” Mark said. “We didn’t want to deal with a little baby with a hole in his throat, it was very scary stuff. But then we thought, ‘If that’s what God wants us to go through, I guess that’s what he wants us to go through.’ We were incredibly sad, but we said, ‘You know, we said we were going to trust in what God wants, so if that’s what he wants, so be it.”

The morning of the procedure, little Richie’s heart monitor went off two different times, just as surgeons prepared to make an incision.

“They said, ‘This is weird, but we can’t do this procedure if he has problems with his heart,’ ” Mark said. That night, he pulled the tube out, and he’s never had to have it put back in. So it was a good lesson for us to put your trust in God. And if it turns out the way we want, great. But as long as it’s the way God wants, that’s fine. So that’s kind of what we applied to having more kids.”

Growing family

Mark, who works out of the home as an executive project manager for IBM, and Sharon had two girls after Richard — Jessica, 22, and Rachel, 19. Pregnant with her fourth child, Sharon was heartbroken when doctors told her she’d be having another son.

“I went into the bathroom and cried,” she said of learning she was pregnant with Nathan. “I didn’t want another one with muscular dystrophy.”

They had him tested just after he was born, and he did not have muscular dystrophy.

Three years later, she delivered a third healthy girl, Rebekah, now 15.

“We wanted to keep going to see if we could have one more daughter,” Mark said.

Next came Joshua, now 11, and tests right after he was born revealed he had the genetic disorder.

“With Joshua, we had him tested right after he was born because we wanted to know,” Mark said. “And then we got some very interesting responses. We had some people say, ‘It’s a good thing you make enough money.’ I just thought that was a very weird response to when we found out we had another son (with) a terminal disease. Then we had Andrew (10) and Anthony (8), and we didn’t want to know right away because it made no difference to us.”

For both parents, they wanted to enjoy their children free from the fear and worry that accompanied the knowledge that their children would likely only live into their 20s.

“Like with Joshua,” Sharon said, “I’d be late at night feeding him and going …,” she frowns.

Mark admits that frequently he feels overwhelmed knowing he will likely outlive four of his eight children. That is when he leans heavily on his faith and his affection for all of his children.

“But we have to remember what’s truly important,” he said. “Family is what’s really important. And beyond this life is really important. It’s not lots of money. Really the family is where the strength is, and these little boys are just precious.”

Rebekah Honey smiles and shrugs when asked what it’s like to care for four brothers with serious disabilities.

“It’s just kind of regular,” she said. “A lot of people look at me and say, ‘Oh, do you need help?’ But this is just our life. I don’t really notice how much work I do. It’s just normal for me.”

Sharon said that while they’ve always been committed to their faith, their experiences have tested them in ways they never expected. And there have been plenty of dark days.

“Oh, I’ve been there,” Sharon said of thinking why me? “I used to go ‘woe is me,’ ‘poor me,’ ‘why is this me?’ especially when they said the other three boys have it,” she said. “I’m like, really? I have good days and bad days.”

She finds comfort in building things — including much of the woodwork in the couple’s home.

“I build things, that’s my out,” she said, smiling. “And football games.”

All 'superstars'

And honestly, Mark said he can’t imagine life without each of their eight children.

“We love them all,” he said. “They’re all superstars.” Each of the children brings something unique to the Honey household.

Richie, now 24, is a horror movie connoisseur who has hospice care and is confined to his bed. Jessica is the mechanically inclined peacemaker who helps her dad work on the family’s cars. Rachel is the social butterfly, while Nathan is the muscle, carrying the boys to and from the car, their beds, up and down stairs and into the bathroom.

Rebekah is the animal lover and thespian who decorated Richie’s room with bright colors, handprints and pictures of beloved family members.

Joshua is “daddy’s little buddy” and soon to be the recipient of a hot tub from the Make-a-Wish Foundation. He is trying to be patient as he waits for the hot tub by drawing pictures of where each family member will sit in the warm water that gives the boys a small measure of freedom.

Andrew is a gamer, who like Nathan loves to joke, and Anthony, everyone agrees, relishes his role as the baby.

“All the boys call him baby,” Mark said. “And he milks it.”

Adds Sharon, “He likes going out to visit with people. And he absolutely loves Nathan.”

In fact, while Sharon and Mark talk to visitors, Baby makes himself comfortable in Nathan’s lap. He taps his brother’s arm, calling him Nene, and asking him questions. After awhile, he slips away with Anthony to play a game in an adjacent room under Rebekah’s supervision.

Turning to sports

Mark never intended to let his children play sports. Raised by a musician, he bought into the idea that sports would destroy a perfectly healthy body.

Eventually, Nathan convinced his parents to let him play flag football with a neighborhood friend. But before the first season even ended, he was asking his parents to let him try tackle football.

“He came to us and said, ‘Dad, it’s so limiting. You can’t do this and you can’t do that. It’s boring,’ ” Mark said with a smile. “I thought, ‘You know what? I’m 40 and my knees hurt, and I didn’t play football.’ ”

So his parents agreed, and with the exception of a harsh introduction that included extreme cold and getting laid on his back a few times, he’s never looked back.

“I just like making big plays,” he said. “I like the crowd.”

He often hears one voice above the others.

“Yeah, my mom is loud,” he said as they both laugh and look at each other. “She’s like, ‘Yeah, go Honey!’ ”

Sharon said the family made Nathan’s football practices their outing. They’ve tried taking the boys to a few games, but multiple wheelchairs makes it difficult, and their attention spans make it even more unpleasant. They don’t really understand what football is, but they know when they see a ball, “That’s what Nene does!”

On Friday nights, one of the girls stays home with the boys while Mark and Sharon enjoy their night in the bleachers. They fully embrace the joy they derive from every aspect of his experience with high school athletics — even the most mundane moments.

“When he comes home we try not to pester him too much,” Sharon laughed. “We always ask him 101 questions. ‘How was practice?’ ‘The same as yesterday.’ ”

Sharon has learned all of the positions on the field and now watches NFL games as well. Mark has made a highlight video for his son every year since he started playing in the sixth grade.

“His IQ for team sports is really high,” Mark said. “He just really thrives, and that includes basketball. But he loves football.”

American Fork head coach Aaron Behm said Nathan’s abilities have helped the Cavemen both offensively and defensively as they’ve enjoyed an 11-2 season, including a 58-28 win over Brighton last week.

“Offensively, he is extremely physical,” Behm said. “Well, defensively too. He is a physical, explosive football player. When he hits people, he hits people very, very hard.”

When he’s playing fullback, the team can utilize star running back Zach Katoa in different ways, as well.

“When he’s running the ball, he has great vision, makes cuts on a dime, and he’s a good one-two punch with Zach Katoa,” Behm said.

Sharon cringes when she thinks of her son’s tackling ability.

“I feel sorry for the guys he tackles,” she said.

Mark said Nathan’s naturally caring personality has prevented him from bringing any of the aggression he displays on the football field into their home. Instead, he plays with the boys, carries them where they need to go, cooks them their favorite “noodle” dish, and he and Rachel may or may not have good-natured arguments about whose turn it is to help the boys use the bathroom.

Some secret intel on Nathan, Rebekah offers, “He’s weird. He’s more goofy than he shows.”

Nathan Honey has excelled this season, even making an interception in the team’s semifinal win over Brighton last week and scoring a touchdown. But Sharon said watching this year’s team work its way toward Friday’s 5A state championship game against Bingham has been almost indescribably special.

“This has been so exciting,” Sharon said. “I don’t eat before a game because I get more nervous, I think, than he does.”

Adds Mark with a smile, “Never gone to the championship game since 1962, never gone as a 5A school, their time has come. The kids are great; the coaching is great; this is our time. I think it’s really neat, really exciting.”

'It's so much fun'

Nathan beams when asked about the team’s season.

“It has been crazy,” he said grinning. “I’m getting goosebumps right now just thinking about it. It’s so much fun, especially with all of these seniors. … These guys are so dedicated. (Playing well) is the only way I can repay them. I’m going to miss them a lot. They’re my buds.” And for the first time in his life, Nathan has brothers who understand — and share — his passion for a brutal, beautiful, complex game.

“They treat each other like brothers,” Sharon said. “I’ve really been impressed with how they treat each other, even the other teams.”

Behm said he views those in the program as a family.

“That’s something we instill in our players,” Behm said. “We teach that when we make decisions good or bad, they affect everyone. We want them to view this team as a family. That’s how the coaches view it. And we have to do what’s best for the family. Nathan is doing that at home and at school.”

Behm said Nathan doesn’t talk much about his responsibilities at home. Sometimes he’ll let coaches know he needs to leave a little early or that he needs some time to do something at home.

“We’re glad he can be there to help his family,” Behm said.

Future plans

Sharon knows the day will come when Nathan is not around to help the family. They hope he will play college football close by, but he also plans to serve a mission. His parents aren’t sure how they will adjust to life without their strong man, and his sisters haven’t given it much thought.

But Nathan thinks about it.

“It’s going to be different,” he said. “We went up to Seattle for part of a week (for football), and when I came back the little boys said, ‘Nene, where’d you go?’ What I’ll think about even more are my parents. What they’re going to go through.”

He daydreams about playing college football, about serving a Mormon mission, about what it would be like if he could share his love of sports with his brothers.

“Usually during workouts,” he said of when he thinks about them most. “And usually right before the game.”

That’s when he pictures his brothers beside him, in full pads, ready to do battle with him.

Nathan smiles, looks down and takes a deep breath, hoping to push the emotion threatening to overwhelm him away just long enough for him to finish describing his dream.

“That’s what I do when I see my teammates,” he said, acknowledging a different kind of brotherly love. “Oh, that’s my brother. … I don’t know. I kind of use my friends as brothers. They’re a big part of the brotherhood. It’s a different relationship.”

And then he snaps his chinstrap tight and plays for four little boys who will never know his joy. He carries “their burden” and tries to “make them proud.”

“I play every game," he said, "like it’s my last."

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EMAIL: adonaldson@deseretnews.com