University of North Texas football coach Dan McCarney addressed the media eight years ago this week about a disease that few knew about — Duchenne muscular dystrophy. He hoped to draw attention to this illness with a passion and commitment that was soon to become the norm for thousands of college football coaches and their staff.
McCarney began, “For those of you [who] don't know what Duchenne muscular dystrophy is, it is an incurable disease right now, and we got to try [to] find a cure for it. And I've got a young man over in Argyle, Texas, which is pretty cool, right in our backyard; his name's Corbin Fanning. ... He's 10 years old, and he'll be at our practice tomorrow.”
As is the custom with all the colleges that participate in the Coach To Cure MD, North Texas made Fanning its honorary captain for a week ahead of the annual final Saturday of September game that has more than 10,000 coaches and their staff wearing Coach To Cure patches on their arms on game day — which this year is Sept. 24.
It was clear Corbin Fanning and the entire Fanning family had already had a profound impact on McCarney before the then-10-year-old had even joined their team for the week. “He's got more courage than probably all of our football team coaches and players alike, blended together, put together,” said McCarney, his voice faltering. “What he's battling, life expectancy for anyone that has Duchenne muscular dystrophy, the average is about 25 years old — and we hope that by the time he gets before that age, we can find a cure.”
At the time, Fanning was obsessed not just with football but specifically with linebackers, and he could not wait to meet the guys on the team. He, along with his family and his best friend, Michael Hope (who also had DMD), all went to their first team practice with stars in their eyes.
McCarney wasted no time introducing him to the team. "There's a disease called Duchenne muscular dystrophy," he told the team. "And these two young men that I'm going to introduce right now, both are afflicted with it right now. We need to help them find a cure. They live not too far from here; they're big Mean Green football fans, and our football team needs to go play the game on Saturday with the kind of mental toughness and the courage and the heart that these two young men have every day of their lives.”
“I want to play football, but I can't," Fanning told McCarney and the team that day. "If we find a cure for Duchenne, we might have a chance to do what we dream of.”
Now in its 15th year, Coach To Cure, a partnership between the American Football Coaches Association and Parent Project Muscular Dystrophy, draws attention on game day by wearing armbands, mentioning Coach To Cure during on- and off-field interviews, and in some cases, like McCarney, participating in extensive media relations around the date.
Muscular dystrophies are a group of genetic diseases that have one thing in common: They all attack the muscles.
DMD affects 1 in 3,500 boys worldwide. It is eventually 100% fatal.
For coaches like McCarney, young men like Fanning don’t just become the co-captain of the team that day alone, Instead, he became part of the North Texas Mean Green family.
The fatal disease hits mostly boys beginning at the ages of 2 to 6 and progresses rapidly to requiring a wheelchair by the age of 12 to 16. The life expectancy of someone with DMD is between the ages of 16 and the early 20s.
Today, Fanning is 18 and a freshman at Texas A&M just trying to get through school. He says he will never forget the week he spent with North Texas or how McCarney made him feel, whether he was at their practices, in the locker room, or meeting the "gentle giants" on the squad.
“He invited us to hear his pep talk before the game he had with the team," he said. "He told the players they needed to be tough like Michael and I are. I thought that was cool. He also invited us to his house to give us UNT jerseys, and it made us feel important. I really just remember thinking it all was really cool and feeling like a rock star. I think most DMD boys feel special but not for the reasons we really want; Coach To Cure events made me feel special. It gets your mind off of the hard parts of having Duchenne, at least for a little while."
On Saturday, Fanning will see Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher wearing the patch on the sidelines like every other A&M coach before. It is one thing about this charity that's unique: While coaches come and go — McCarney was fired in 2015 — Coach To Cure has become a constant because the profession embraces the cause.
As college football has grown — just the other week, the Alabama-Texas game drew 10 million viewers — the Coach To Cure efforts will benefit from how much college football has blossomed since they first began the partnership in 2008.
Note: Brad Todd, who co-wrote The Great Revolt with Salena Zito, is a volunteer founder of Coach To Cure MD.