The Tennessean, March 28, 2018
The first time the difference between Jay Denning and other kids sank in for him was in first grade, after a dance contest at the front of the class that involved everyone but him.
That led to a conversation with his parents that all three remember well. His mother, C.C, told him of how, at 5 months pregnant, doctors told her there was a good chance he would not survive childbirth. If he did, doctors said, he likely would be paralyzed from the neck down and limited by cognitive disabilities. His father, O.D., told him of how he blew away expectations from the start, demonstrating full use of his upper body, a brilliant personality and a daredevil’s courage — though that did add an unwanted surgery to the long list of necessary ones, to repair a broken tibia after he jumped off a couch.
“We told him he had a gift and that we couldn’t wait to see what God will do with him,” C.C. said of Jay, who is now 14 and a freshman at Big Picture High.
“This doesn’t define you,” O.D. told his son, the oldest of their three children, of a rare condition called lumbosacral agenesis, which in simple terms means the absence of three bones in the lower part of the back.
Just as requiring the use of a wheelchair doesn’t define Jay, no single thing does. He’s a talented artist who wants to create an animated series some day and already is building a graphic design portfolio. He’s designing a logo for the food truck his father plans to open. He’s an athlete who seems to excel at all he tries. He wrestled for Rose Park Middle School. His favorite sport is basketball and he is the high-scoring point guard for ABLE Youth, a Nashville organization for kids who use wheelchairs that he has been involved with since age 4.
And he aspires to be a Paralympian. A year ago Jay traveled with a friend and his family to take part in the Endeavor Games in Edmond, Okla., and he did various track and field events. He was told he was signed up for javelin, even though he had never tried to throw one. All Jay did was set a national record on his third attempt.
“I was shocked,” Jay said of the throw of 10.18 meters, a record for the under 16 age group and F54 classification, which the International Paralympic Committee defines as athletes with full power and movement in their arms but no power in their abdominal muscles.
Son of a linebacking, lead-blocking mom
To be sure, Jay — who will compete in the April 20-22 Endeavor Games in Fort Wayne, Ind. — was blessed with power. He said he can do more than 50 pull-ups, and he was able to compete in wrestling without the leg propulsion his opponents utilized. He thanks his parents, both former football players, for passing down some brawn.
O.D., now a chef, played at Whites Creek High and then got into coaching, which led him to the Tennessee Heat, a Nashville team in the old Women’s Football League. He coached wide receivers and cornerbacks under head coach Tom Dickerson, and that’s where he met C.C. – she was the starting middle linebacker and fullback.
“She would just truck people out of the way,” Jay said, beaming, of his mother, who was still playing when he was a baby and at times would have him in a playpen on the sidelines during practice.
“Man, she was intense,” O.D. said of C.C., who blocked on offense for younger sister LaShonda Bryant, the team’s halfback. “Very intense, aggressive, but smart. Imagine Ray Lewis on the football field. She was the female version of Ray Lewis.”
There’s physical power and, as Jay has discovered, there are more important versions.
“I can't wait to see where athletics take him in the future,” said Amy Saffel, ABLE Youth executive director. “What I'm probably most proud of, though, is the young man he's become. He has worked hard to become independent because he knows that he has to be able to take care of himself if he wants to follow his dreams. He's always the first one to help new kids at ABLE Youth learn how to play sports and how to increase their level of independence, and the other kids really take his advice and look up to him because they see what is possible for them through what Jay can do.”
At the center of it all
Last week at Rose Park Middle School, C.C. was inside the auditorium directing practice for the school play — she teaches innovation and design at the school — as Jay and one of his two younger sisters, 4-year-old Jania, worked on artwork for the set. Jay taught Jania how to walk, by the way.
“I just had her hold on to the back railing here,” he said, pointing to the back of his wheelchair. “She’d fall a lot at first, but then she started taking little steps. Then she did it on her own and I was like, ‘Yes!’”
Jay came to Rose Park to help his mom after a full day of interning — internships are part of the Big Picture High curriculum — at the Martin Center, a professional development center for Nashville teachers. Kids streamed through the halls, on their way to and from various after-school activities, and many of them stopped to say hi to him. He is a magnet, with a personality that could fill that auditorium.
He’s also increasingly aware of the attention that surrounds him — from ABLE Youth to school to a feature WSMV TV-4 did on his wrestling last year — and the responsibility that comes with it.
“I know people are watching me, I know I have to have my head on straight,” Jay said. “I want to be an inspiration for others with disabilities. My mom reminds me all the time of who I am and what I stand for, and why I stand for it. She said there are three things I have to always remember. One, I’m African-American; two, I’m male; and three, I have a disability. And she told me, ‘If you do anything wrong, a whole new world will open up for you.’”
In this world, this family of five including 5-year-old Rayna, Jay is at the center. O.D. was at Rose Park Middle to help with the school play as well, and he talked excitedly about all the things Jay is doing. Now if he would just look for his shot a little bit more when he’s on the basketball court, and understand that “no one can stop him.”
“We’re working on it,” O.D. said. “But the dude is spectacular. I want him to try everything he possibly can. And he does, and so why can’t I do that? He’s my inspiration. I thank God every day for the opportunity to have him in my life.”
Which brings to mind the conversation the three of them had, Jay, C.C. and O.D., years ago when Jay started to grapple with the ways he is different from other kids. That’s also the first time he realized what his parents had endured from mid-pregnancy through the grim prognoses and surgeries.
“I gave my mom the biggest hug,” Jay recalled of his first-grade self, “and said, ‘Thank you for letting me live.’”
About Brackets For Good
ABLE Youth is one of eight Nashville nonprofits still alive in the annual Brackets For Good competition, in which charities are matched up against each other in a bracket, with every $1 donated counting for one point. The charities keep all money donated during the competition, and the winner receives an additional $10,000 grant from presenting sponsor Buckingham Foundation.
Last year, the tournament raised more than $114,000 for participating nonprofits, with 35 percent of the money coming from first-time donors. Visit Nashville.bfg.org to check out the bracket and donate for your nonprofit(s) of choice. As of 8 p.m. Friday, the “Philanthropic Four” will be determined, and then voting will resume next week to determine the final two. Brackets For Good also is sponsored by the Nashville Junior Chamber and VOX Global.
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