Meester, 6-year-old boy offer Jaguars new lessons

Luke Akerstrom woke up around 5 a.m. Thursday, not out of the

ordinary for a 6-year-old boy who needs around-the-clock care.

This was different, though.

He didn’t ask for dad to stretch out his left arm. Or his left

leg. Or help him out of bed.

This time, Luke was ready to start his day, his very special

day.

”He said, `Dad, you know we have to be there at 10:30,”’ said

Magnus Akerstrom, a former collegiate golfer at Northwestern State

in Louisiana. ”I said, `I know, but it’s 5 a.m.”’

Five and a half hours later, Luke’s parents rolled him onto the

practice field with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Center Brad Meester

was right by their side.

Meester and Luke have developed a strong bond over the last six

months. Mr. Brad Meester, as Luke calls him, came to see him in the

hospital and the rehabilitation center nearly every week since

February. Meester wasn’t the only one, either. Jaguars general

manager Gene Smith stopped by. So did head athletic trainer Mike

Ryan, communications manager Ryan Robinson, the team mascot and two

cheerleaders.

On Thursday, Luke returned the favor.

He brought along more than 100 friends and family members,

too.

”I’ve really learned from him about never giving up,” Meester

said as he introduced Luke to the team. ”When I look at (training

camp), this is nothing. This is easy compared to what this kid is

going through. No matter what challenge he’s faced with, he meets

it head on. What we face is nothing compared to what he

faces.”

”I really hope you guys learn something from him.”

It wouldn’t be that difficult.

Luke was riding in the back seat of the family car on Dec. 31,

2010, when he started having a seizure.

”I turned around and Luke was gone,” his mother, Brandi,

said.

The seizure last 30 minutes and came two days after Luke had a

fever of 101 degrees. He spent the next four months in the

hospital. He endured stomach pain, muscle cramps, sleepless nights

and more mini-episodes. He had feeding tubes, X-rays, MRIs, CT

scans, EEGs and spinal taps. He received several antibiotics,

steroids, chemotherapy and a plasma exchange. He needed physical,

occupational and speech therapy.

After months of testing and a trip to a specialist, the

Akerstroms had no official reason for the seizure. Luke was

initially treated for bacterial and viral meningitis, and was

eventually diagnosed with acute disseminated encephalomyelitis.

Simply put, Luke had a rare brain inflammation – which included

symptoms seen only twice before at Wolfson Children’s Hospital in

Jacksonville.

”Not only were we alone. We were alone and in the dark,”

Brandi said.

Luke, 5 at the time, lost important cells that control motor

function. He couldn’t use the left side of his body and couldn’t

say more than a few words.

His parents were devastated. His little brother, Abram, was

confused. Luke was simply lost, not remembering how he ended up in

the hospital and now facing a lifetime battle to do things that

came so easily before.

What helped all of them? The Jaguars, especially Meester.

”Brad gave our little boy something mommies never could,”

Brandi said. ”Mommies can love them, but they can’t make them want

to be an NFL player.”

Luke slowly regained limited use of his arm and leg, and his

communication skills are getting better every day. He attends

therapy four days a week, sometimes with Meester right by his

side.

Luke has had other famous visitors. Former President George W.

Bush and former Florida quarterback Tim Tebow have been to see him.

But Meester means more to him than either of them. In fact, Meester

and Tebow were in the room together one day and Luke was more

concerned about Meester than he was the Denver Broncos

quarterback.

Meester has visited Luke regularly since Feb. 5, offering his

time and involving his wife and four girls. Meester was there to

see Luke get Botox shots – at least 20 of them in one sitting. He

was there for a painful spinal tap. He was there on Luke’s 6th

birthday. He volunteered to watch Abram as Magnus and Brandi

celebrated their 11th wedding anniversary.

”I’ve visited a bunch of kids in the hospital before, but there

was something about him and his family,” said Meester, who has a

fifth daughter on the way. ”Just seeing a kid work this hard.

Every time you see him, he always has a huge smile on his face.

That’s something special. He went from a kid that was able to do

anything to basically having to relearn everything, trying to walk,

be able to move his left arm, say complete sentences again.”

Luke’s progress has been nothing short of impressive.

He couldn’t sit up on his own the first time Meester visited.

Last month, Meester received a picture of Luke standing up on his

own at an Arena Football League game. On Thursday, Luke took four

or five steps without any assistance and fell into Meester’s

outstretched arms. Teammates applauded.

The Jaguars are just getting started, too.

Luke will be at midfield for the coin toss of the

Bengals-Jaguars game on Oct. 9, and Meester and his teammates

expect to raise money for the family through a November fundraiser.

They already have a framed and autographed Tebow jersey to sell,

along with an autographed Peyton Manning jersey.

The Jaguars are sure to offer more, especially after meeting

Luke on Thursday.

They surrounded him as he walked to Meester, then lined up and

gave him high-fives and words of encouragement. Running back

Maurice Jones-Drew grabbed Luke’s left arm and helped him walk

about 75 yards off the field.

”I’m about to start crying in a second,” Jones-Drew said.

”I’m just happy that you know my name.”