When Daniel Huffman quit football, did exactly what his mom told him not to do and started messing around with needles, folks in tiny Rossville, Ill., shook his hand. How else was he supposed to save his grandmother's life?
Still, if there was one kid in town you hated to see quit the high school team, it was Daniel. "That kid lived for football," says his grandfather Daniel Allison. Young Daniel would count the days from the end of school to the start of summer two-a-day practices. He was the screamer on the team, the human pep rally. O.K., so maybe he wasn't going straight to Florida State, but at 6'2" and 275 pounds, Daniel was where a lot of enemy tailbacks ended up. "He would just engulf them like some huge amoeba," recalls his former coach, Dave McDonald. "And then he'd yell some more."
This is Daniel's senior year at Rossville High. He is an honor-roll student (A-plus average), a member of the school chorus, the class vice president, a writer of poetry, a part-time cleanup boy at a discount store and a onetime shot-putter on the track team, but none of those things have made him as proud as being a co-captain, starting defensive tackle and occasional offensive tackle on the football team. In a town such as Rossville (pop. 1,400), a hiccup of a place 118 miles south of Chicago, your senior year of football is precious, and Daniel had planned to make this season a doozy.
Though he played primarily on defense, he had the soul of an offensive lineman. He had no designs on stardom. Of the team's star running back, Zeb Stephenson, Daniel once said, "It will be my privilege to block for him."
Daniel is very big on making other folks' paths a little easier. When diabetes left his grandmother Shirlee Allison legally blind for a while, 14-year-old Daniel and his 13-year-old sister, Kristina, did the dishes and folded the laundry. Daniel became Shirlee's eyes, helping her walk, reading the mail to her. When Shirlee's husband had his quintuple bypass two years ago, Daniel got his grandmother through it. "Sometimes we raised them." Shirlee says of her grandchildren, "and sometimes they raised us."
Daniel is just as attentive to his friends. "He'll do anything for us," says Lisa Masengale, a high school classmate. "He writes me poetry when I'm down. He can always make me laugh."
Hard to figure where he got all the spare sunshine. Daniel's mother, Alice, left the family when he was four. His father, Barry, remarried, and an evil-stepmother/ungrateful-stepkids thing broke out. Daniel and Kristina were miserable, but Barry wasn't one to interfere. "He's kind of a partyer," Daniel says. So the summer after Daniel finished seventh grade, he and Kristina moved to Florida to live with Alice. That didn't work out either, so after a year everyone agreed that the kids would be best off living with their grandparents, the Allisons.
"My grandparents kinda saved me," says Daniel. "There's a whole lot of drugs and stuff around here. I probably would've ended up all messed up." Kristina eventually moved back to Florida, which left Daniel and Shirlee as the oddest couple in town. Sure, they shared a love of books and a certain hardheadedness, but he was a 17-year-old growing uncontrollably, and she was a 60-year-old disappearing before the town's eyes. After a time her diabetes-ravaged kidneys were producing almost no urine. All that poison the kidneys were supposed to filter out was circulating through her.
As last spring grew warmer, Shirlee's trips to the hospital in nearby Danville for dialysis got more frequent, and her condition worsened. Her muscles were atrophying, her heart was enlarged, and her blood pressure was dangerously low. "We all figured there was no hope for her," says her neighbor Madge Douglas.
But then Daniel had this crazy idea. He was sitting at a Burger King with Shirlee after another brutal day of watching her on the dialysis machine ("the metal and plastic vampire," he called it in his diary). He had been thinking about how much he missed her. Where was Gran, the kidder? Gran, the one you couldn't get to shut up? Who was this 101-pound ghost? Who was this clothes hanger of a woman, all bone where he used to plant his good-night kiss? "Mrs. Allison," the doctor had told her, "many people can live years on dialysis, but you aren't one of them."