Brandon Weeden stood on Valentine’s Day before a crowd in a meeting room at the Children’s Hospital at OU Medical Center — in front of a crimson and cream backdrop, no less — and got choked up.
This always seems to happen when the former Oklahoma State star quarterback talks about Gavin Kuykendall, an energetic 7-year-old boy sitting in a chair about 10 feet away and proudly wearing a Cleveland Browns jersey with Weeden’s name on the back.
Underneath, Gavin’s got a pacemaker in his chest, the result of the most recent of four heart surgeries he underwent as a newborn, toddler and young child.
Minutes later, Gavin would tell the crowd that Weeden was his best friend.
“I get a frog in my throat every time,” Weeden said later. “That’s why I couldn’t talk up there, because I was so emotional.”
The relationship between this little boy and an NFL quarterback sparked something bigger. Since becoming a pro, Weeden has been a driving force behind an initiative to attract a pediatric heart surgeon back in Oklahoma, so the estimated 200 children who needed to go out of state for serious care each year could instead stay home.
On Valentine’s Day, the Children’s Hospital at OU Medical Center announced that dream had been realized, with Dr. Harold Burkhardt leaving the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. to join the staff as the Director of Pediatric Cardiovascular Surgery and Medical Director of Pediatric Cardiovascular Surgical Services
Weeden’s professional life has been rocky since leaving OSU, with the Browns’ front office and coaching staff a consistently revolving door and Weeden’s own injuries and spotty play resulting in significant time on the bench.
But Gavin keeps life in perspective.
“He’s kind of like my son that’s not my son,” Weeden said. “We’ve gone through a lot a lot together. We’ve spent a lot of time together …
“He’s a cool little kid with a lot of swag. He’s a stud.”
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Gavin’s parents, Faith and Adam, found out when Faith was about 20 weeks pregnant that Gavin had hypoplastic left heart syndrome, a congenital defect where the left side of the heart does not develop properly.
Their doctors in Tulsa told Faith and Adam they had three options after Gavin was born in October of 2006: a three-stage surgery, a transplant surgery or hospice care at home. After researching, they decided on Option 1, but needed to go to the Children’s Hospital at OU Medical Center for the procedures.
And they knew Gavin may not survive the first surgery.
“We were obviously devastated,” Faith said. “But we also believe in God and miracles. We just prayed that he would be healed, or even if that meant surgical intervention, that he would still be healed.
“We just had faith in God that he would take care of everything. That’s what helped us through the most.”
Dr. Peter Pastuszko performed the first surgery when Gavin was five days old and the second at three months.
After that, however, Pastuszko moved to a hospital in San Diego, and suddenly there was no in-state surgeon to perform Gavin’s third procedure.
So Gavin, Faith and Adam followed Pastuszko — who clearly knew Gavin’s case best — to California for Gavin’s final surgery at 21/2 years old. A few years later, when Gavin’s heart rate slowed and he needed a pacemaker implanted, the family made that trip again for another surgery.
Meanwhile, Weeden’s wife, Melanie, and Adam had become fast friends while working together at a company that sold DHL shipping services to small businesses. In between the cold calls while inside the three-person office, Melanie began to learn of Gavin’s condition and the struggles his family were going through to get proper care.
“I would go home and tell Brandon, ‘I just cannot believe this family is going through this. They’re so young and dealing with so much,’” Melanie said. “My heart really went out to them.”
So Brandon and Melanie started spending more time with the Kuykendalls. And there was an immediate bond between Brandon and Gavin.
Gavin will go into Brandon’s office, where a lot of his football memorabilia is on display, and throw on a helmet. They play golf together, where Brandon displays tons of patience while Gavin learns the game. They act like typical boys while playing outside.
“You can tell that Gavin just loves Brandon and looks up to him, and Brandon loves him and looks up to him as well,” Melanie said. “Gavin’s a little guy, but he’s been through so much, more than most people could handle. But he’s been so resilient.
“So I think they really admire each other.”
And the Weedens knew as soon as Brandon wrapped up his college career, they wanted to help Gavin and kids like him.
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It’s NFL Draft night 2012, and Gavin is two weeks removed from his pacemaker surgery. But he wouldn’t miss Brandon’s party.
Gavin’s sitting next to Brandon during the early picks of the first round, including the Jacksonville Jaguars’ selection of Cowboy teammate Justin Blackmon. Then, when Brandon’s name is announced as the Browns’ pick at No. 22 overall, Gavin celebrates by throwing his hands in the air and cheering.
Around this time is when Brandon and Melanie first went to the Children’s Hospital to inquire about starting a foundation that could help lure a pediatric heart surgeon back to Oklahoma.
Brandon organized the “Swing from the Heart” golf tournament, an annual event at Oak Tree that so far has raised $117,000. He’d bring Gavin along to tell his family’s story at various local events, including an entertaining press conference at Oklahoma Christian last year where Gavin plopped on Brandon’s lap and took the mic.
Shortly after Brandon returned to Oklahoma following the 2013 season, the Kuykendalls called with great news.
OU Medical Center had convinced Burkhardt to come to Oklahoma City. None of them imagined it would happen this quickly.
“I was overfilled with joy,” Brandon said. “It was a big day for us.”
Burkhardt admits he didn’t know much about Oklahoma when this opportunity came about. But when he discovered an ESPN piece about Brandon and Gavin’s story online, that helped inspire him that he could make a difference in this state.
“It occurred to me, given the size of this state, that was disappointing,” Burkhardt said of the fact that so many kids had to leave Oklahoma for care, “and an incredible opportunity for a team to actually build something big and keep everybody here.”
Burkhardt has been operating since Jan. 15 and had already performed 20 cardiac procedures by mid-February. Without him, about half of those operations would have needed to be performed somewhere else. On Feb. 13, he performed an operation similar to one Gavin received.
And Gavin certainly approves of Burkhardt’s arrival.
“This doctor here, it’s like a miracle,” Gavin said, “Because he just came for us so (kids) don’t have to travel anymore to have no more boo-boos.”
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These days, Gavin is living a pretty normal life.
He comes to the Children’s Hospital every three months for checkups. In between, two machines at the Kuykendalls’ home connect to his pacemaker, which send information to the doctors to help them monitor Gavin’s heart.
Most kids with Gavin’s condition end up needing a heart transplant later in life, but Adam and Faith are hopeful their son will continue to progress on his own.
Perhaps the biggest sign of that? Gavin has been cleared to play baseball this spring, after being told for virtually his whole life that he likely would never be able to play any organized sports.
Gavin, of course, really wants to play football. But Adam and Faith remind Gavin that Brandon was a baseball pro before he became a football standout.
And they all get their football fix by avidly following Brandon and the Browns. They watch every game on TV. If they can’t get it on TV, they listen on the radio. Gavin even went on the field for pregame in Dallas when the Browns played the Cowboys in 2012, where Brandon took a break from warming up to give Gavin a hug, a high-five and a pregame pep talk.
“That was, like, my dream,” Gavin said. “I can’t believe that was real.”
Brandon and Melanie, meanwhile, are expecting their first child in July. That makes accomplishing the first phase of their goal even more special.
The next step? Raising $1 million for an endowed chair at the hospital.
With the Browns’ general dysfunction, plus Brandon’s up-and-down play during his first two NFL seasons, who knows what will professionally come next for the quarterback.
But off the field, Brandon’s made a huge difference in his home state.
And it all started because of the little boy and the quarterback who became best friends.