October 04, 2018

From strangers to brothers: An unlikely bond, kicked off over soccer

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Sometimes the hope that someone is looking for comes from an unexpected source. That was the case for Thomas Mackley, 4, who received both hope and a forever bond after a chance meeting with a UAB men’s soccer player. 

UAB’s men’s soccer team visits Children’s of Alabama each year leading up to their Soccer for a Cure tournament. It gives the players an opportunity to interact with patients and gain a different life experience. Chandler Stroupe, an information systems major from Birmingham and a defender on the UAB men’s soccer team, noticed a young boy visiting with the team and took it upon himself to try to interact with him.

“The first time I saw Thomas, he was in a wagon looking a little shy,” Stroupe said. “I went over and he hopped out, and we started passing the ball around. From there, it kicked off and we hit it off.”

Thomas has pandisacharidase deficiency, a genetic disorder marked by the body’s inability to produce the enzymes needed to break down complex sugars into simple ones. It causes severe stomach pains and forces the body to shut down faster than normal. Thomas also has primary ciliary dyskinesia, another genetic disorder that affects his lungs by causing him to not be able to clear them out; it can turn a simple cough or cold into an upper respiratory disease or even pneumonia.

“Thomas was hospitalized last fall at Children’s for about a week because of some stomach problems,” said Chris Mackley, Thomas’ father. “I just so happened to see a flier for a soccer event, so we took it upon ourselves to come.”

Mackley notes that Thomas has had some social difficulties that make it hard for him to make friends and that he was not in tremendous health at the time. Fortunately, that did not hold Thomas back from making an instant connection with Stroupe.

The initial meeting between Stroupe and Thomas took place on a Saturday, and by the following Monday, Thomas and his family were in the stands to cheer on the Blazers in their game against Missouri State. Attending the game provided a source of motivation for Thomas to get well enough to go. It encouraged him to eat and drink more and build his confidence.

“The first game I saw him, I wasn’t expecting him to be there,” Stroupe said. “But sure enough, it was him and that pumped me up. After the game, I was able to bring him on the field and pass the ball around. After that, it never stopped.”

The new connection brought the Mackley family to the Blazers’ seven remaining home games, where once again, Thomas found himself on the field surrounded by the entire team.

“At first it was kind of weird because we were wondering why college kids would want to hang out with a 3-year-old,” said Ashly Mackley, Thomas’ mother. “It was cool to see them want to play with him, and to have them accept Thomas as one of their own was awesome. The best way to describe it is that Chandler and Thomas have sort of become brothers.”

Thomas was in the stands to see Stroupe play his final game for UAB, but the bond and friendship did not end after the last game. The unlikely best friends have continued their relationship, going trick-or-treating together and meeting up whenever Thomas is in town for doctor appointments. Stroupe has even traveled to the Mackleys’ home in Oxford, Alabama, for a night of wrestling and Xbox matches.

“It’s hard [especially for us] going in the hospital and seeing these kids at such young ages in the situations that they’re in and what they have to deal with so early on in life,” Stroupe said. “But seeing Thomas’ positive outlook and every time I saw him running and jumping into my arms, always having a smile on his face, it was really cool to see.”

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