GUTHRIE — Justin Chappell rattles off Guthrie's team motto without hesitation. "Keep the focus,” he says. No one wants that more than the senior linebacker. Chappell is battling a rare neuromuscular disease that attacks his eyes and impairs his vision. He must take eight pills a day just to keep from seeing double. Playbooks would be a jumble, coaches would have four eyes and opponents would have two quarterbacks. The culprit: myasthenia gravis. MG turns the immune system against the body. Muscles fail to receive signals from the brain, then grow weaker over time. Right now, Chappell has the mildest form of MG. It won't keep him from being on the field tonight for the biggest high school football game in the state, No. 1 Carl Albert vs. No. 2 Guthrie. It hasn't spread to other parts of his body. It's only in his eyes. Only? Chappell has tried to tell family and friends what it's like, how he closed his left eye to drive just so he saw one road instead of two, how he looked up to field a pop fly at third and sas two or three baseballs. He even let them use his glasses, the ones that improved his vision a bit but that reversed everyone else's sight to give them a glimpse of what he was seeing. But really, how could they understand? They couldn't know his fear, the alarm when he first had problems two years ago but kept them to himself for weeks or the panic when doctors started talking about CAT scans and MRIs and brain tumors. He worried he might never play sports again or go crazy or maybe even die. They couldn't know that even now, with his MG in check and his senior year in full swing, his fear remains. His disease is managed, not cured. "The longer he goes,” his dad, Jon, said, "the less his percentages become that it spreads.” The fear could consume Justin Chappell. Instead, it focuses him.
He will always have MG. He could improve. He could stabilize. He could get worse, too. Anything that aggravates his immune system could cause the disease to spread. Trauma. Stress. Fatigue.
Pretty much everything that comes with playing linebacker.
Chappell's doctor has warned him that if he started having extreme trouble breathing or swallowing to go to the emergency room immediately. Only once has Chappell even thought about doing that. After drinking some water, though, he was fine.
Coaches and teammates are always on the lookout for trouble.
So far, there've been no problems.
"He's a great young man, who works so hard in everything that he does,” Guthrie coach Rafe Watkins said. "He's one of my favorites.”
Chappell, who takes one of his eight daily pills every two hours, ranks second on the team with 60 tackles.
"We're all really glad to have him out there,” long-time friend and Guthrie kicker J Hensley said. "It's always great to have somebody that can inspire you like that, that can fight through all that he did and still be out there doing just as good as anyone else.”
Chappell could worry about what might happen with this disease. Instead, he chooses to dwell on the here and the now.
"It's Carl Albert week,” the said. "It's the biggest game maybe ever in my life. We know the teams we've been playing aren't great and that Carl Albert is good.
"We're going to have to keep the focus and really get into it.”
Seeing troubleJustin Chappell sat in his sixth-hour class blinking frantically. Something was wrong with his eyes. Just the hour before, a bunch of his classmates were talking about their contact lenses, and here he was struggling to see his teacher, his notebook, anything. "That's pretty weird,” Chappell thought. "It's just in my head.” That's what he kept telling himself for the next few weeks. Finally, he decided to tell his mom. Months of doctor's appointments followed. As the winter of his sophomore year turned to the spring, Chappell tried everything. Glasses. Contacts. Exercises meant to strengthen his eye muscles. He'd move his eyes side to side or hold a string with several balls on it and focus on each one. "To a regular person, it's simple,” said Chappell, pronounced chap-el. "But to me, I was like, ‘This is too hard. I can't do it.'” Worse, none of it worked. Then in late spring 2006, the doctor started talking about MRIs and CAT scans. A tumor might be causing the problems. As if that wasn't scary enough, all of Guthrie was reeling over another youngster's cancer. Kale Powell, who quarterbacked the football team, learned he had Hodgkin's lymphoma after breaking his collarbone during a game. Powell died after a 10-month battle. Chappell's parents, Jon and Sharla, decided their son needed to see a specialist. Within a few weeks of first seeing Dr. R. Michael Siatkowski at the Dean McGee Eye Institute, they had their answer. Myasthenia gravis. "They told us not to research it,” Sharla said. "It would scare us.” Justin said, "That made me freak out more.” Chappell researched MG. It strikes about one in every 6,000 Americans, making it one of the lesser known autoimmune disorders, but it's most common among women under 40 and people ages 50 to 70. Young Justin had an old person's disease.
Glimpsing hopeChappell started taking prednisone, small doses at first because bigger ones could make him ill. For several weeks, nothing happened. Chappell began thinking about his future. He continued playing baseball for his dad, who coaches at Guthrie, but things he'd been doing since he was little were suddenly difficult. "I couldn't hit the ball,” Chappell said. "I couldn't catch the ball. "I was really, truly scared to play baseball.” One day, he missed a pop fly. Missed it by at least a foot. His dad hadn't seen that happen since Justin was 5 years old. "Coach,” Justin said when he came back to dugout, "you've got to take me out. I can't see the ball.” Jon tried to laugh it off. "Dad, I'm telling you, there's two or three of those things up there.” As the summer wore on and Chappell's struggles continued, he decided to quit playing sports. Baseball was torture. He couldn't imagine what football would be like. "Football's going to be so bad,” he said. "I can't do this.” He even considered a drastic form of treatment. Like chemotherapy, it would've killed off the MG but would've left him all but bedridden for six months. "I'm done with it,” Chappell told his mom at one point. "I just want them to take it.” "Just be patient,” she said. "This medicine ain't workin',” he said. "It's not gonna work.” The doctor had told Chappell that the medicine might not manage his MG. He might spend months trying to find the right dosage, and it might be for naught. Jon and Sharla Chappell watched their smart, outgoing son retreat into a shell. He spent many hours alone, avoiding friends, family and all the things he loved to do. "The thing that got me the most was ... how he just hibernated and was defensive and argumentative,” Jon said. Sharla said, "It was just hard seeing his frustration.” One night, Sharla went to the family's church, and there in the prayer room at First Southern Baptist in Guthrie, she fell on her knees. She couldn't take seeing her son's pain and suffering and fear anymore. "Take this away from my son,” she prayed, "and give it to me.” An answer to the prayer came, even though it wasn't the one requested. Justin's eyes started to improve, his double vision slowly but surely coming back together. By the end of last summer, he could see clearly again. Chappell got back his focus.
Focusing aheadNothing is promised to Justin Chappell.
Guthrie linebacker Justin Chappell is battling myasthenia gravis. By SARAH PHIPPS, THE OKLAHOMAN