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Bears LB J.T. Thomas having profound effect on 14-year-old with epilepsy

J.T. Thomas will surprise Anthony Grandberry with trip ­Indianapolis for Super Bowl XLVI. Thomas spent seasinjured reserve because back injury.

J.T. Thomas will surprise Anthony Grandberry with a trip to ­Indianapolis for Super Bowl XLVI. Thomas spent the season on injured reserve because of a back injury. | Getty Images

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Updated: March 1, 2012 8:38AM

In December, Bears linebacker J.T. Thomas and his fellow rookies brightened up the spirits of Chicago-area youth at an annual holiday party at Soldier Field.

But something unexpected happened to him when he bumped into Anthony Grandberry and his mother, Tonya Harris.

“He was so excited to see me. Here I am, Bears rookie, who was on [injured reserve],” said Thomas, who missed the season with a back injury. “But he made me feel special.”

Thomas wanted to reciprocate. At the end of their conversation, he asked Harris if he could visit them for Christmas.

“I almost fell out and hit the floor,” Harris said. “Who would have ever thought?”

Harris has expressed disbelief in how many ways her 14-year-old son has been blessed since meeting Thomas. She said, despite his epilepsy, he has been more upbeat, taken an interest in football and “bragged” about his budding friendship with an NFL player.

“It’s exciting. It’s overwhelming. Unbelievable,” Harris said. “I swear, this is one of the most beautiful things that’s ever happened to us, and myself, in my lifetime. It’s a blessing that he would even spend a minute with my son. It lets me know that anything can be done.”

But Thomas isn’t finished.

He visited Grandberry and Harris in Englewood, giving the boy a jersey, hat and gift card, and he has texted and called him since.

“I love him because he’s good to me,” Grandberry said. “He makes me happy.”

But Grandberry has inspired Thomas to do more. He reminds Thomas of his 7-year-old brother, Jared, who is autistic.

As part of his newly established J.T. Thomas Foundation, the Bears linebacker and six volunteers are driving a van to epilepsy centers — including ones in Orlando, Fla.; Atlanta and Nashville, Tenn. — before arriving in Chicago on Saturday to pick up Grandberry. Then they’ll drive to Indianapolis, where Grandberry and Thomas will watch Super Bowl XLVI at Lucas Oil Stadium.

As of Thursday, Grandberry didn’t know about “the surprise.”

“Whew, I have to take a deep breath,” Harris said, pausing for a moment. “I’m still pinching myself. Words can’t describe it. I probably still won’t believe I’m there when I’m there. I’m one in a million.”

Harris is a single mother who lives in subsidized housing. She styles hair when her schedule allows, but her life is devoted to her son, who was born three months premature, weighing just 2½ pounds.

Grandberry didn’t leave the hospital for three months because of liver and lung failure and other medical challenges. When he was eight months old, he returned to the hospital with pneumonia, and doctors predicted the worst.

“Everything was failing. They thought he wouldn’t survive,” Harris said. “If he did, he would be a vegetable. But God brought him through that.”

At 7, though, Grandberry was diagnosed with epilepsy, a brain disorder that causes seizures. At one point, he was taking 14 pills twice a day. Still, the seizures didn’t stop, and he underwent four hours of brain surgery on March 16, 2010.

It was a couple of days after Grandberry’s 12th birthday.

Two years later, Grandberry is learning at a preschool level, though he’s still experiencing one or two seizures a week. Sometimes they’re momentary, involving just a twitch or a shake. Other times, he’ll fall down, stare blankly ahead, foam at the mouth and struggle to breathe for up to a minute.

In those instances, Harris lays with him, talks and prays.

“He can have a 1,000 more, and I’ll never get used to it,” she said. “It’s just a frightening feeling when your baby is suffering and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

But Harris is humbled by her son’s unwillingness to complain, his refusal to break. When she saw him after brain surgery, Grandberry was smiling.

“He loves God with everything he has in him,” Harris said of her son, who goes to church weekly. “God knows my baby has been through a lot. But he’s the light of my life.”

Thomas is flattered that he could mean so much to Harris and her son. But he, too, is grateful for them.

“She really thanked me for what I did,” Thomas said. “But I thanked her, too.”

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