PULLMAN – The tunnel the players use to walk into Martin Stadium is dark. Such was the case Saturday afternoon, not too long before the Cougars’ final home football game of the 2011 season.
The seniors gathered, holding Washington State flags, ready to run on the field for their going-away ceremonies. They chatted, hugged, slapped hands, anything to erode the nervousness in their stomachs.
Brandon Rankin grasped his flag and reflected.
Back to his youth in rural Shallotte, N.C. Back to his mom. Back to high school. Back to his two football-inspired journeys west. Back to this summer. All in the past.
On the field was his future.
For Brandon, there was a true light at the end of the tunnel. She was standing on the field among the other players’ parents.
It was “Miss Gail,” as Brandon calls her, the Washington State learning specialist who took Brandon under her care, helping the defensive tackle on his obstacle-strewn collegiate path.
Gail Gleason has helped Brandon shoulder his academic load, made heavier by his attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and learning disabilities in reading and math. She’s done that all the while carrying her own Sisyphus-sized rock, her son Steve’s now-public battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.
How the 6-foot-5, 287-pound football player from the coastal woods of the South and the grandmotherly educator from Pullman came to help each other is a tale made just for this day.
Rankin was always big. And, in his senior year at West Brunswick High under coach Jim Fletcher, his football talent became apparent.
“He took me under his wing and told me I had the ability to play at the next level,” Rankin said.
But there was a problem.
“I struggled in school all my life,” Rankin admits, saying concentrating in the classroom wasn’t easy. “I would wander off and go into my own world. That didn’t work out too well for me.
“It’s hard for me to study and keep things in my head, remembering. I have to go over and over things so they will stick.”
School is never easy for those with ADHD and a lack of resources may have also been a factor.
“He got support in athletics,” Gleason said. “He has pictures he has shown me of his junior high coach and his high school football coach, and things like that, but the academics, I don’t think, were the same.”
However, Fletcher’s wife, Lynda, is a learning specialist and she helped Rankin in high school. He got his degree but was not an NCAA qualifier.
So he headed to Butte JC in Northern California, where in two years he helped the Roadrunners win a state title but still didn’t do enough to earn NCAA eligibility.
With Washington State offering a chance to become the first person in his family to go to a four-year college, Rankin headed back to Shallotte and Fletcher.
“I took classes, sat out and got eligible,” Rankin said, passing math, English and anatomy classes.
Despite the obstacles, he could play major college football – and work toward a degree.
Gail Gleason taught in Spokane and on the West Side. She raised her two boys. And, a few years back, joined Washington State’s staff while working on her PhD.
That was 2005, a week before Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans.
Her son, Steve, who played football and baseball at WSU in the late 1990s, was a safety with the Saints. When Katrina hit, WSU president Lane Rawlins sent out an email saying the school would help. Gleason replied, mentioning her son. The president asked her for a plan.
“What plan?” she asked, laughing.
In the next few days, Gail and Steve came up with the Backpacks for Hope project.
She’s been with the Academic Resource Center, working with athletes at the school, for the past four years. She also has begun work on her dissertation, examining how a natural disaster impacts a school district, focusing, of course, on New Orleans.
Her path crossed Rankin’s after he enrolled at WSU in the spring of 2010.
“I went through the spring semester and I didn’t do so good,” Rankin said. “She started working with me that summer. She said she worked with kids like me who needed extra time.”
She liked him immediately.
“He’s got a great sense of humor,” she said. “He’s a very gentle person, even though he’s big and tough out on the field. But for me, the special thing is he wants to keep improving as a student.
“He’s taking advantage of the opportunity. He sees his degree as a tremendous opportunity. He’ll be the first in his family to get a degree.”
The past two years haven’t been smooth. It’s still hard for Rankin to focus, but he said Gleason has taught him tips, such as carrying a recorder to class, taping the lecture while just listening.
Later, he takes notes off the tape, often with Gleason’s help.
Still, after last year, the NCAA pulled Rankin’s eligibility. He wasn’t progressing quickly enough after failing a class.
“I was like three points shy of passing,” he said. “Me and Miss Gail, we studied so hard for that final, on weekends, all the time. I was confident I was going to do good.”
WSU appealed, citing Rankin’s learning disabilities and his efforts to graduate. The NCAA relented.
The tenacity Rankin shows on the football field, having butted his head through enough holes to make 18 tackles, 3.5 of them behind the line of scrimmage, including 2.5 sacks, also shows up in Gleason’s office.
“Even though it’s not easy for him, he doesn’t give up,” she said. “And that’s very special.”
Going into the final semester, Rankin said he needs a couple of more classes to graduate with a degree in social studies and a minor in comparative ethnic studies.
“I didn’t think a couple years ago I would be about to graduate college,” Rankin said, smiling.
A couple of years ago, Gail Gleason’s life was easier. That was before Steve’s ALS diagnosis.
Surrounded by young athletes who need her help, Gleason has used her work as a shelter against the storm.
“This job, it’s easy to get lost in it, but feel like I’m doing something,” she said. “I’m thankful for the people I work with and I’m thankful for the kids.”
A couple of weeks ago, Steve traveled from New Orleans to raise the Cougar flag before the Arizona State game.
He also met with and talked to the players prior to their upset win over the Sun Devils.
“The kids were wonderful in supporting Steven and they were so thrilled to meet him,” Gail said, trying to keep her composure.
Rankin, more than most, saw the pride Gail felt. And her sadness.
“She’s like my mom, so I know she’s feeling that pain,” he said.
If nothing can make it go away, at least seeing Rankin’s success, among others, helps.
“He has a vision where he wants to go,” Gleason said of Rankin. “He does talk about playing at the next level, but he wants to go into coaching … and he wants to have an ADHD support group for parents.
“He doesn’t just take, he wants to give.”
Rankin has one more thing to share.
In May, he wants to share his graduation with the three women he says made it possible: his mother, Lynda Fletcher and Gail Gleason.
He expects them all to attend.
“That’s what I really care about,” he said.
And he knows it wouldn’t have happened without Gleason.
“Her sticking with me, taking her time, skipping lunch breaks so we could study, that’s what I’ll remember,” Rankin said. “Doing anything she could to help me pass these classes.
“She’s like my mom out here. She’s been terrific. If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t be here. I told her, I want her, my mom, hopefully Miss Fletcher, those three ladies, here, so they can watch me walk. If it wasn’t for them, I don’t think I would be walking.”