South Carolina center Eric Douglas thinks back to the hill at Mallard Creek High School in Charlotte, North Carolina. He remembers its steep face. He can feel his legs growing increasingly heavy as he raced up and down it under his father’s watchful eye.
Douglas began running and bear crawling up those familiar hills when he was around 8 years old. His father, Eric Sr. — a former all-conference lineman at South Carolina State — thought it a good way to get “Little Eric” into football shape as he began his Pop Warner career.
Ten to 15 times Eric Jr. ran up and down the hill. Another 10 to 15 reps came on his hands and feet.
The incentive was a trip to McDonald’s. If Eric Jr. finished the workout, a double cheeseburger, fries and a Sprite — or Hi-C depending on the day — awaited.
“That’s what I had to do,” Eric Sr. said. “I had to bribe him.”
Eric Jr. takes a deep sigh as his feet crunch against the pavement on South Carolina’s campus last week.
Fall is just around the corner. The hellish, late-summer heat that envelops Columbia this time of year has slowly begun to dissipate as he walks out of a ceramics class and picks up his iPhone.
Douglas, USC’s smiley man in the middle, is at ease these days. South Carolina is off to a 2-1 start in Shane Beamer’s first year guiding the Gamecocks. He’s also in his final season of eligibility anchoring South Carolina’s offensive line, concluding a career that has spanned five years and two head coaches. His shot at the NFL could come in the next few months.
But there’s a sorrow in Douglas’ voice as he navigates South Carolina’s bustling campus smack dab in the middle of downtown Columbia. His mind isn’t so much preoccupied with the upcoming Southeastern Conference slate or the next day’s practice.
Rather, it’s the memories of a high school game between Mallard Creek and West Charlotte on Sept. 26, 2014, that fill his mind. That’s the night seven years ago Eric Sr. suffered a stroke in the stands.
“I just remember all the times that I used to work out with him when I was younger,” Eric Jr. told The State solemnly. “It’s like, ‘This is the reason why I’m doing this.’ Everything that he tells me, man, I just appreciate it.”
A medical emergency at West Charlotte
As Eric Jr. continued to grow, so too did his football aspirations.
He played on a Mallard Creek squad that included future college standouts Grant Gibson (N.C. State), T.J. Moore (Florida/Charlotte) and Jordan Davis (Georgia) along its offensive and defensive lines.
The North Carolina powerhouse also lists Arizona Cardinals offensive lineman D.J. Humphries, Pittsburgh Steelers running back Jaylen Samuels and Cincinnati Bengals tight end Thaddeus Moss among its football alumni.
The 2015 season marked the final piece in a dynastic puzzle for head coach Michael Palmieri. The Mavericks were in the midst of a run toward a third-consecutive state title in just the school’s eighth year of existence. West Charlotte would be the fourth of 16 wins that year.
“The competition was unbelievable,” Palmieri told The State. “I mean, we had (Division I) players at every position.”
Eric Sr. was always cheery on game night. He spoke calmly and smiled often. He’d grow increasingly focused when kickoff neared as his football instincts piqued.
That night at West Charlotte, though, something felt off. Eric Sr. sweated incessantly as he trekked from the parking lot, up the steps to his seat and nestled into the stands. He tried to play it off as nothing.
His eyes became glassy, losing the usual twinkle that resided there. Trying to clap as Mallard Creek scored a touchdown, he couldn’t muster the strength to bring his two mammoth mitts together. Those around him became concerned.
Paramedics on site were called. Eric Jr. and the rest of the Mallard Creek football team stared up into the stands, unsure what the commotion was about.
Ambulance lights lit up the parking lot. Eric Sr. was promptly loaded onto a gurney. Eric Jr. and his mother, Charlene, looked on in horror. Little Eric tucked his chin into his shoulder pads and wrapped his left arm around his mother. Charlene latched onto her son. Ghostly looks enveloped their faces.
Slipping into the ambulance, Eric Sr. remained semi-conscious. Before the doors closed and he was sent off to Carolinas Medical Center he mustered one more sentence to his son: “Make sure you don’t get beat inside.”
“Now here I am with one foot in the grave and one foot on a banana peel,” Eric Sr. said years later. “… The reason why I told him those things as I was going into the ambulance was because, if I didn’t make it, I wanted that to be the last thing he heard from me — how to be a good football player.”
Recovering in a North Carolina hospital
Time in the ICU passes unconsciously. It’s dark and gloomy. Medical machines beep and buzz persistently. It always felt like nighttime.
With family members huddled around Eric Sr., doctors explained there was bleeding in his brain. Eric Sr. said he’d been skimping out on his regular blood pressure medicine. Doctors determined it’s what, in part, led to the stroke.
Two paths diverged. One involved a funeral. The other included weeks or months of rehabilitation. Doctors would know within 48 hours which road stood before the Douglases.
“You cannot leave me with these children,” Charlene thought. “You can’t leave me.”
At his father’s behest, Eric Jr. finished Mallard Creek’s win over West Charlotte before racing to the hospital. Eric’s ghostly expression remained. It also graced the faces of his sisters Charlee and, later, Endia — who was in graduate school in Alabama at the time, but raced home as soon as she could.
Charlene steeled a brave exterior. With Eric Sr. hooked up to a litany of wires and her children anxiously awaiting any news on their father, it was on her to remain calm.
Cracks developed, but Charlene held firm.
“I knew that I couldn’t fall apart,” Charlene said. “Because I had to stay strong for all of them.”
Doctors worked quickly to contain the bleeding in his brain. If it didn’t subside itself, they’d have to drill a hole and stop it manually.
Less than 48 hours after the stroke, the bleeding abated. Eric Sr. would recover, though the future remained cloudy.
For almost two weeks he remained in the hospital, healing slowly, but continuously. He was later moved to a full-time rehabilitation center at Atrium Health Rehabilitation Hospital in Pineville, North Carolina. There Eric Sr. received around-the-clock care.
He learned to breathe again. He learned to write again. He learned to walk again.
Ever prideful, Eric Sr. insisted his family only visit on weekends. He didn’t want his rehab to inhibit their day-to-day lives.
Each Sunday, Charlene and the kids attended the 9:30 a.m. service at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church on the north side of Charlotte. Next came a visit to the rehab hospital to check in on Eric Sr.
Charlene, Eric Jr. and his sisters would visit with Eric Sr. for a few hours before he asked they go home.
“Look, forget about me,” Eric Sr. told his family. “Concentrate on academics. Concentrate on faith and family. Concentrate on football. I’m in rehab with professionals. These guys know how to get me ready.”
‘It’s OK. You’re home. You’re living.’
There’s something eerie about returning home after a major medical emergency. The life you’ve left behind is there, but the memories and fear of future health issues persist.
Eric Sr. said he felt like everyone was always watching him. The independence the former football star enjoyed in his past life felt further and further away.
Eric Jr. and Charlene helped him up and down the stairs each day. Eric Jr. stood in front, while Charlene took the back when Eric Sr. stepped gingerly down the steps. Eric Jr. had to take the lead. He was the only one who could catch his father if he fell.
“Big Eric got frustrated a lot,” Charlene explained. “But we’d have to remind him, ‘It’s OK. You’re home. You’re living. It doesn’t matter how long it takes you to get up and down the stairs. You’re here.‘ ”
Eric Sr. worked hour after hour to regain his independence. Days were long. Nights were longer.
One evening, Charlene left Eric Sr. at home with the kids so she could travel out of town for a funeral. There was no food in the house, so Eric Sr. texted the kids he was hopping in the car and driving down the road to Papa John’s to pick up a few pizzas.
Within seconds of firing off his message, the kids’ feet pitter-pattered around the second floor and raced down the stairs. Eric Jr. rushed toward the door. He wasn’t going to let his father drive alone.
Father and son slowly sojourned down the streets of Charlotte at 20 mph. They went through the drive-through line and scooped up the pies before returning to the house.
A trip that normally took five minutes turned into 20. It didn’t matter. It was a step.
Returning to football and an anniversary at South Carolina
Seven years since he collapsed in the stands at West Charlotte, Eric Sr. will be at Williams-Brice Stadium watching Eric Jr. suit up against a 3-0 Kentucky team.
Father will expect a single text from son before the game. It’s the same text Eric Sr. has received every game day for the past 2,554 days: “I want to make you proud.”
“Just to see him, how happy he is with what he’s doing every day,” Eric says, stuttering momentarily before sliding into his next sentence. “It makes me go harder. It just makes me go harder.”
During his time on bed rest, Charlene’s sister, Jennifer Freeman, texted Eric Sr. with updates on Mallard Creek’s games.
Charlene insisted Freeman’s notes become more and more intermittent as Eric Sr.’s blood pressure increased every time he received a text or call.
“That’s just how he (was),” Charlene said fighting off a chuckle. “He really wanted to be at the games.”
Eric Sr. has since kept his blood pressure under control. He’s also become an advocate for Black men getting their own blood pressure checked and monitored so they don’t endure the same fate he did.
In the time after his stroke, Eric Sr. secured cardio equipment to store in the garage. The home gym has helped him lose 71 pounds.
Asked what he weighs now, he sheepishly avoids a reveal. Instead Eric Sr. provides a visual. He’s hoping to get back down to his playing weight in the low-300s. The end goal? Fitting into the old South Carolina State letterman sweater he’s kept all these years.
“I can put it on,” he said. “But my goal is for it to look like it did when I wore it in college.”
The memories of days running up and down the hills at Mallard Creek still stick in Eric Jr.’s mind. So too do those of the night his father was taken off on the gurney or the long hours spent helping him rehab.
Between school and football practice that fall, Eric Jr. served as his father’s unofficial trainer.
Two arthritic knees made re-learning walking patterns difficult on Eric Sr. His son wouldn’t let him relent.
“I think he was getting me back for those drills I put him in when he was 8 years old,” Eric Sr. quipped. “The roles reversed. He started pushing me. Can you believe he started yelling at me?”
The incentive for Eric Sr.’s workouts wasn’t a trip to McDonald’s. It was a life felt fleeting only months before.