Former Wittenberg coach suffers heartbreaking loss of daughter

The Wittenberg football program has honored many former Tigers over the years by wearing stickers with initials on the sides of their helmets: Dave Maurer and Ron Duncan in previous seasons and Ron Murphy in the season opener two weeks ago against Butler.

A little girl joined the list of those football men Saturday night when the Tigers played DePauw at Edwards Maurer Field. The letters “AG” on the side of the helmets stood for Arlee Grace. Wittenberg fans might not know that name, but they would recognize her last name: Waddle.

For three seasons as a player and eight seasons as a coach, seven of those as defensive coordinator in charge of some of the best defenses Wittenberg has fielded, Greenon High School graduate Andy Waddle made his mark with the Tigers. Even though he moved on to Marietta College a year ago to become a head coach, his name won’t be forgotten around Springfield.

Waddle hopes the same holds true for his late daughter, Arlee Grace. That’s one reason he and his wife Kerry Jean Waddle decided to share their heartbreaking story. The main reason is they hope Arlee Grace’s death last Friday raises awareness of the pregnancy complication, vasa previa, that resulted in the death of their firstborn.

“She’s my hero,” Waddle said Tuesday. “She gave everything she had in her life. If it took her life to spread the message, would I choose that? No, I would never choose that. But maybe God chose that for her. I want to memorialize her. I want to remember her. But if in her life, she can save others, man, what an awesome life.”

A beautiful angel

Two weeks ago, Andy Waddle had never heard of vasa previa. His team beat Kenyon 29-11 in its season opener Sept. 6, and the Waddles prepared for the birth of their girl next week. Marietta didn’t have a game Sept. 13.

On Sept. 12, Waddle said his wife noticed blood, and they drove to the emergency room. The baby’s heart rate was fine. Kerry Jean’s heart was rate was fine. The doctors thought there was a partial tear of the placenta and planned a C-section.

“They said, ‘Your baby’s coming today. Congratulations,’ ” Waddle said. “Then we went back into the area where Kerry Jean was, and it changed drastically. The baby’s heart rate began to drop. She was rushed into an emergency C-section. Unfortunately, our little girl didn’t make it.”

Vasa previa is a rare condition in which the fetal umbilical cord blood vessels run close to the external orifice of the uterus. There is a danger of the vessels rupturing when the baby moves into the birthing position because they are unsupported by the umbilical cord or the placenta. It occurs in one of every 2,000 pregnancies and carries a mortality rate of 50 percent in undiagnosed cases.

Arlee Grace was carried to full term at 37 weeks and was a healthy baby until the bleeding began.

“I don’t know a timeline, but if we had a C-section 15 minutes earlier, we probably had a healthy baby,” Waddle said. “If we had a C-section 30 minutes earlier, we definitely do.”

Waddle got to hold Arlee Grace after her death and had to deliver the news to his wife when she awoke after the C-section. Hours before, they had felt the baby move. Throughout the pregnancy, they had sung to Arlee Grace. They loved her already, Waddle said, and just waited for her arrival.

“This was something we had hoped and prayed for for a long time,” Waddle said.

The Waddles made a decision then to take photos with Arlee Grace and to share her story. They posted the photos to Facebook on Sunday. Wrapped in a blanket, Arlee Grace wears a pink and blue hat as the Waddles lie in bed with her.

“Her name is ‘Arlee Grace’ (double name just like mommy) and she was 6 pounds, 3 ounces,” Andy wrote on Facebook. “The name Arlee means ‘a promise’ and Grace ‘the free and unmerited favor of God.’ We believe they have taken her heart valves to save another child and hurting family. She is our Hero and will always be so loved! She is a beautiful angel in Heaven and so pure! … God added a member to his army. Kerry Jean is doing fine, but we are both heartbroken.”

Kerry Jean, a native of Leesburg, Ohio, overcame aplastic anemia five years ago thanks to a life-saving bone marrow transplant. She was still recovering in March 2010 when she met Andy. They married in July 2011.

“Both really have great faith in their life,” Wittenberg coach Joe Fincham said. “Kerry Jean’s been through some tough things. They both come from really strong families. I talked to Andy for about 10 minutes on Saturday. Even then, they wanted to use Arlee Grace’s passing somehow as a positive. They’re just really special people. It’s awful that bad things happen to good people.”

Fincham, the father of three, said his wife Rita came up with the idea to honor Arlee Grace with the helmet stickers. The coach described the Waddles’ experience as every parent’s worst nightmare.

“My daughter Samantha, who just absolutely adored Coach Waddle when he was here, cried through the day Sunday,” Fincham said.

Kerry Jean shared Arlee Grace’s story Tuesday.

“Vasa Previa, if caught by doing a sonogram, will result in a healthy baby being born at 35-36 weeks,” she wrote on Facebook “Unfortunately, it isn’t always tested for despite occurring in 1-2500 pregnancies. Arlee Grace is making a difference on earth even though she wasn’t here very long. Her heart valves have been used to save other lives. She has inspired me and Andy to be better people and better Christians. I pray that we can change the future of others with Vasa Previa by raising awareness.”

Being an example

This isn’t a story often told publicly. The Waddles are telling their story in hopes of making a difference. Andy spent 20 minutes Wednesday talking about his heartbreaking week on the phone. Arlee Grace’s funeral was the next day.

“For us, God has given us a platform, both with my career and this unfortunate tragedy,” Andy said. “And somehow we want to make sense out of Arlee Grace’s life. For us, if somebody had told us this was something they could test for and it cost us more money and it was just something they could do, whatever, we would have taken that. We would have taken every precaution necessary. I know so many other parents would, too.”

Waddle doesn’t understand why it’s not a required test.

“From what I read about, it is a sonogram,” he said. “It is not much harder to figure out — a little bit, but not much — than the sex of your child and they don’t test for it. I would love to change that protocol.”

A week like this puts football in perspective, but football is Waddle’s job and the job continues. He returned to practice Sunday night after his wife got out of the hospital and talked to his team about losing Arlee Grace, calling it one of the most gut-wrenching things he’s ever had to do. He talked about having courage in the face of adversity and overcoming challenges.

Waddle did not keep normal office hours this week as his team prepared for a road game at Otterbein in Westerville. He praised his coaches for picking up the slack.

On Saturday, Waddle led his team onto the field for the first time since his daughter’s death. Just like his old team in Springfield, his new team wore stickers on their helmets honoring Arlee Grace.

Waddle looked all business on the sideline. He always has. This was one week, however, in which anyone who heard the Arlee Grace story remembered football’s place in the world.

“We’re kidding ourselves if we think it’s the most important thing because it’s not,” Waddle said.

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