LOS ANGELES — Emily Barnard can’t talk. She can’t walk. She can’t move her hands.
But one thing the 13-year-old with Rett syndrome can do is smile, which she sometimes does when her father shows pictures and talks about their new favorite professional athlete.
The Barnards live in south Orange County, California, and Eric Barnard is a longtime Los Angeles Rams fan. But Emily’s hero isn’t Todd Gurley or Jared Goff or Aaron Donald. It’s Atlanta Falcons left guard Ben Garland, an Air Force captain and former practice squad player. Garland will start Saturday night’s wild-card game against the Rams after the Falcons placed starter Andy Levitre on injured reserve with a triceps injury.
Emily’s life-threatening condition, which includes limitless seizures and bouts with pneumonia, will keep the Barnards from attending the game, but they’ll give Garland plenty of moral support from home.
“I’ve never met a tougher person in the world than my daughter, and she fights every day just to stay alive,” Eric Barnard said, “but Ben’s a warrior and a fighter himself. When I first met him and talked to him, I was like, ‘What better guy to have his name across my daughter’s back than Mr. Garland.'”
Barnard never imagined his chance meeting with Garland at the Athletes First benefit dinner for at-risk youth, held last March in Dana Point would evolve into a special bond between his daughter and an unheralded offensive lineman that she has never met. Doctors diagnosed Emily with Rett syndrome, a rare genetic postnatal neurological disorder that impairs almost all aspects of a person’s life, in October 2006 after they initially thought she had either cerebral palsy or autism.
Eric Barnard tried to keep his daughter’s spirits up by transferring his love of sports to her through hockey player Scott Niedermayer, formerly a star for the Anaheim Ducks. When Niedermayer retired in 2010, Barnhard sought another athlete to identify with as their “favorite.”
Seven years later, Garland became Emily’s new superhero.
“I didn’t have any idea who he was,” Barnhard said of Garland. “I just knew he was this young, big kid who was eating all the food at the table. Then, as we started talking, I learned his story. And I thought to myself, ‘Man, this is an awesome human being. This guy has a sense of just wanting to help people.'”
That he was such a selfless personality is the reason why Garland was chosen as the Falcons’ nominee for the Walter Payton Man of the Year award, which recognizes outstanding community service and excellence on the field.
“He really sets an example of what you can do and go for it in life in the biggest way,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said of Garland. “He’s certainly done that. The work he does on the field, it’s as strong off the field. I think it’s always a good message to see how far a guy can take it, and he’s certainly an example of that.”
Garland, the Falcons and the Barnhards attempted to set up a FaceTime call during the season, but Emily, who splits time living with her mother, has been in and out of the hospital. Garland always retweets whenever Eric Barnhard posts a picture of his daughter wearing Garland’s No. 63 jersey — their way of keeping the lines of communication open. Emily expresses herself by moving her eyes, so her father will know she notices when he points to Garland battling the Rams’ Aaron Donald on Saturday night, even if she doesn’t understand the sport.
“It’s great,” Garland said. “Any time you make someone’s day, especially someone who is going through a tough time, it’s awesome. If a few minutes of my time can do that, that’s absolutely incredible. It’s absolutely worth it to take time out of your day.”
Garland had hoped to meet the Barnhards during this trip to Los Angeles, but circumstances won’t allow such. Eric Barnhard just appreciates that Garland keeps his daughter in his thoughts, knowing the seriousness of her condition.
“I have come to a place in my own head that I know, unfortunately, the Lord is going to take Emily from me before I go,” Barnhard said. “We just have to make her as healthy as we possibly can and do as much as a family as we can to give her a good life while we’re privileged enough to have her.”