The clock in the North Ward Elementary School gymnasium in Tuscola, Illinois, has reached the three-minute mark. A girls’ basketball game just finished, and the boys’ game is moments away from tipping off in the gym connected to a cafeteria.
Colton Rahn is on the team wearing yellow pinnies, his blue Illinois Fighting Illini shirt with the italicized Illinois logo bleeding through from underneath. Rahn, who turned nine in late January, set up on the left point and ran to the free throw line. He turned back to the perimeter and set a screen before rolling to the basket, executing the pick-and-roll. Rahn finished the drill without getting the ball, ran over to the arc and jumped right back in line behind his teammates.
From a young age, Jason and Katie Rahn knew something was off about their son Colton.
“He didn’t meet the milestones that most children do at a young age,” Jason said. “His mom kept pushing that something was wrong (to doctors), and we kept getting that ‘he’s just being stubborn.’”
Finally, a family friend told the Rahns about an orthopedic clinic in Champaign at a different hospital. It did not take long for the new doctor to notice something was wrong.
Within five to 10 minutes, Jason said the doctor gave the Rahn family a diagnosis.
“I’m 90 percent sure your son has cerebral palsy.”
Colton was diagnosed with cerebral palsy (CP), a neurological disorder that affects body movement and muscle coordinator, at 14 months old in 2010.
Doctors told the Rahns that Colton had a stroke either right before or right after birth due to a blood clot in the left main artery going into the brain. The clot stopped before it reached the center, according to Jason, but it blocked blood flow.
“The left side of his brain is dead,” Jason said.
Still, Colton, from his parents’ perspective, seemed like a perfectly happy and healthy boy.
Doctors initially told the Rahns to never expect much from Colton as a result of the CP diagnosis.
“Don’t expect him to walk,” doctors said. “Don’t expect him to talk. Don’t expect him to feed himself. Any of that.”
Illinois football head coach Lovie Smith does not do spring games.
Despite the collegiate tradition, Smith, a head coach with an NFL background, still refuses to tag along in his third season. Instead, Illinois holds open practices toward the end of the spring football schedule, offering fans the opportunity to watch the Illini practice before mingling with coaches and taking photographs with players on Zuppke Field at Memorial Stadium.
Among the most exciting players to see at the 2017 open spring practice was Illinois redshirt-junior wide receiver Mike Dudek, practicing in front of fans for the first time in a few years.
Dudek returned to the field after missing two seasons with knee injuries following a record-setting freshman campaign, including a UI freshman-record 1,038 receiving yards, in 2014.
Fans were excited to see the wideout take the field, and no fan was more excited than Colton.
“He really connected with Mikey (Dudek) because everything Mikey went through to get back onto the field,” Jason said. “That’s how he’s had to work to live life.”
Jason pre-arranged for Colton and Dudek to have a meet-and-greet on the field after the practice. Before Dudek was swarmed with other Illini fans on the field, Colton handed Dudek his cerebral palsy awareness bracelet. The moment had a lasting impact on Colton.
Since then, the two still message each other back-and-forth often on Jason’s Twitter account.
Jason and Colton made the 30-minute trip from Tuscola to Champaign again for a few football games in 2017. Sitting in the stands during the Illinois versus Rutgers game, Jason and Colton witnessed Dudek go down with a knee injury, limiting him to seven games the whole season.
“(Colton) took it hard when Mikey went down this year,” Jason said. “He’s all about the Illini.”
Jason and Katie were willing to do whatever they could for Colton to live a ‘normal’ life after the diagnosis.
“We wanted to give him a chance,” Katie said.
Doctors suggested several types of therapies for the Rahns to take Colton to for possible help.
Katie scheduled occupational therapy, speech therapy and physical therapy for her son.
“Both of us working, they wanted appointments two times a week, 30 miles away,” Jason said about the struggle of making the appointments. “(Katie) managed to do it.”
Some improvement from the therapies was noticed, but everything changed Memorial Day weekend in 2013. The Rahns were spending the weekend on a campground when Colton stood up.
“The little boy who never walked stood up and started walking,” Jason said. “He wanted his bottle. There wasn’t a dry eye, period.”
Viewing his first steps as the start of a process, the Rahns chose to continue searching for help for Colton, specifically speech therapy. The kid who never talked now never shuts up, according to his dad. In the realm of sports, Colton can run, communicate and play — just not as fast as his teammates.
“Every time he sees his neurologist, she’ll look at him and shake her head,” Jason said. “She had no answer for why or how he’s able to do what he is able to do.”
As of February 2018, Colton had been seizure-free for three years, aided by medication. He did have to undergo a procedure at his hospital on Feb. 6, which included anesthesia.
“That’s what scared him, being put to sleep,” Jason said.
To help calm Colton down, Jason used his Twitter account, which only had about 40 followers at that time, to send out a tweet to Illini Nation on Feb. 2.
Ok fellow #Illini fans. Need some help. My 9yo who is a HUGE #Illini fan is going for his 2nd eye procedure (from his cerebral palsy) on Tuesday and he is scared to death. Can I get some messages of support to read him? Thanks! #ColtonCourage #CPWarrior— Jason Rahn (@CPbloggerdad) February 3, 2018
Jason says he expected no more than 15 replies to his tweet, hoping to read the responses to Colton on Monday night and show him that people were behind him.
But by the time Jason sat down on the night of Feb. 5 at a Denny’s in Tuscola, he had hundreds of tweets of support to read to his son. Some of the replies were from Illinois football players like defensive end James Crawford and quarterback Cam Thomas, incoming freshman Verdis Brown, Illinois basketball great Deon Thomas, Marching Illini Director Barry Houser, Illinois track and field head coach Mike Turk, Illini Inquirer’s Jeremy Werner and countless others. Jason even received a personal message from Lovie Smith.
No tweet meant more to Colton, however, than a quoted tweet from Dudek.
All will be good Colton! We are all here for you buddy keep being strong! You’re an inspiration to all of us #ColtonCourage https://t.co/hqA8cP7a5x— Mikey Dudek (@MDFlash_7) February 3, 2018
Besides the tweets, Colton has received physical support from Illini fans. Dan Maloney, the last Official Chief Illiniwek, sent Colton the video of the Last Dance and an autographed picture of the Last Dance at Assembly Hall.
“Colton thought that was pretty cool,” Jason said.
Even ‘cooler’ than that, though, was the effort Illinois’ football team has put in to support Colton. Smith was planning to send players to the hospital to surprise Colton following his procedure, but the University could not get clearance to get the players off campus due to a winter storm.
Still, Jason says Smith wanted to make sure his players were able to show support for Colton.
The surprise got ruined.
As the moments before Colton’s game were winding down, he saw a few of his idols walk through the entrance at North Ward Elementary. Led by Dudek, a first group of Illini entered the school to greet Colton.
Dudek embraced Colton with a hug.
“Ready to ball out today?” he asked.
With both teams in on the ‘surprise,’ the game was delayed. As more Illini arrived on a team bus, seven Illinois players surrounded Colton as he shot from inside the free throw line. He missed his first few shots, but finally banked one in that sent the crowd of parents into frenzy.
The game got underway about 15 minutes after the scheduled tipoff, with special guest referees including Dudek and Illinois offensive lineman Nick Allegretti.
Dudek and Allegretti opened up the lane on the first offensive possession for Colton’s team, working to give Colton a special moment and a made shot. A teammate passed Colton the ball. Dudek rebounded Colton’s first missed shot and threw it back to Colton, who proceeded to make the ceremonial shot.
Five rows of wooden bleachers were coned off for Illinois players, all of whom left their seats and rushed the court to pick Colton up. They paraded him around the court.
Colton’s team is up 2-0.
With Colton on the bench, his team tied up the game at 21 with just over a minute to go in the fourth quarter.
Justin Gensler, Colton’s head coach, called a timeout.
The nearly 30 Illinois players in the stands to begin a “We want Colton” chant.
Gensler put him back in the game.
“Not an option at that point,” Gensler said.
Gensler called for his team to do its ‘check’ inbounds play, which called for Colton taking a high screen at the left elbow, opening him up for a pass just a step in front of the free throw line.
Dudek whistled for the teams to return to the court as the chants still rung through the gymnasium. Gensler was encouraging Colton to begin running the play. After a few seconds, Colton took off.
He landed on the spot he had been shooting with the Illinois players during warmups and caught the inbounds pass.
Colton shot it using only his left arm, like he always does due to his condition.
The football players jumped up in anticipation as he got into a shooting motion.
And then he banked it in.
As Colton ran back on defense after giving his team a 23-21 lead, Dudek gave him another hug.
The kid who was told he would never walk made the first in-game basket of his life without assistance. In front of 30 of his role models, Colton experienced not only the biggest moment of the game, but the biggest moment of his young life.
When the final buzzer sounded on a 25-21 tally 45 seconds later, Colton threw his arms up and ran toward his teammates on the bench. Illinois players came up from behind him and picked him up on top of their shoulders, carrying him again around the court.
“We live in a small town in Tuscola,” Gensler said. “To see everyone come out and rally around this, it’s probably the most exciting thing to happen in a while.”
Less than two weeks after the game where Colton made the game-winning shot, he suffered his first seizure in three years. Jason described it on Twitter on Feb. 21 as a “loss of consciousness and visible shaking.”
A neurologist at Carle Foundation Hospital referred Colton back into physical therapy, but couldn’t write a prescription for therapy because, “(Colton) is still functional enough that the insurance company won’t improve it.”
“Needless to say this answer was not good enough,” Jason wrote in the tweet. “While still on Carle property, my wife was already making phone calls to other doctors who have been involved in Colton’s care, bypassing the neurologist completely.”
About three weeks after the February seizure, the cause is still unknown. Speculation is that he may have outgrown his dosage of seizure medication, according to Jason.
Colton is currently doing physical therapy once a week at ATI in Tuscola.
“While he has slowly regained some strength, he has absolutely no lift (jumping ability) in his right leg,” Jason said via a March 11 text.
The shot was made, but the fight isn’t over.
“People think about cerebral palsy and think the worst and that it defines these kids.
“But it doesn’t.”
March is National Cerebral Palsy Awareness Month. For more information on how you can help kids and families like Colton’s, visit the Pediatric Brain Foundation’s website.
This is a longer version of an original story on Colton Rahn. Click here for the original edition of Colton Courage.
The Champaign Room’s Former Assistant Editor Elias Schuster produced the below video on the Illinois Football team’s trip to Colton’s game.
Stephen Cohn is currently a junior studying Broadcast Journalism at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is the Editor-in-Chief for The Champaign Room and an Associate Reporter for MLB.com.