By Malcolm Butler
Louisiana Tech punter Patrick Rea has never met Clemson defensive lineman Bryan Bresee.
In fact, Rea said he has never even seen Bryan play.
However, the two will forever be fraternity brothers in a fraternity that no one would want to be a part of.
Bryan’s loss of his 15-year-old sister Ella to brain cancer last week has been widely publicized, especially after Clemson coach Dabo Swinney openly thanked Sonny Cumbie and the Bulldog Football program for their support for the Bresees and the Clemson family following Saturday’s game between the two schools.
Swinney spent much of his post-game press conference talking about Cumbie wearing an Ella Strong t-shirt and the entire team’s gesture in hand-writing notes to the Bresee family to offer their condolences on the loss.
On Monday during his weekly coaches radio show, Cumbie was asked about the gesture and he told the story behind the story.
A story that started with Rea, the Bulldog freshman punter from Melbourne, Australia.
“Pat caught me Friday before we left to head to the airport,” said Cumbie. “He shared that his younger sister had passed away when she was little from a very similar situation. He wanted to do something to reach out to Bryan and his family.”
Pippa Rea was 11 when she passed away from DIPG, a rare, fast-growing tumor that forms in cells in a part of the brain stem called the pons. This tumor usually forms in children and has a poor prognosis.
In Pippa’s case, it was true. After being diagnosed when she was 9, Pippa passed away less than two years later.
“There wasn’t much that could be done,” said Patrick. “They were able to prolong it through things like chemotherapy and there were a few attempted surgeries as well. But because of the location of where it was, it was sort of inoperable.”
Patrick was 12 when Pippa lost her battle. He is now 20. And he remembers the pain and fully knows what Bryan and the entire Bresee family are going through. So when he heard the news, he felt compelled to act.
“I had a friend on Thursday night that sent me an article about Bryan’s story and what had happened (to Ella),” said Patrick. “As soon as I saw it, my heart just dropped.
“That night I started thinking what is something I can do? I didn’t want to just sit back and not reach out because I know when I was younger I had someone in a similar position that reached out to me. And that made a world of change. Just knowing that you are not completely isolated, not completely alone.”
So the next morning Patrick moved on what his heart was telling him to do.
“On Friday morning just as we were about to get on the bus to head to Monroe and get on the plane I ducked into Coach’s office,” said Patrick. “I said I’m sure you’ve heard about what has happened to one of the players at Clemson. I just really feel like (I want) to reach out to him and just sort of get in touch.
“You know, send him a message if he’s not going to be at the game, which he wasn’t. Coach Cumbie and I spoke about it for maybe 10 or 15 minutes. I told him my story, and that I wanted to be available and sort of help out Bryan if he needed. Just sort of be there for him.”
So Friday night after the Bulldogs arrived in South Carolina, Cumbie addressed the entire team.
“I shared with them the story about what’s going on,” said Cumbie. “I shared the story about Pat’s sister. I shared with them the story of why you will see me in pregame (warm-ups) with this shirt. This is why. We are supporting this family. We want them to know that they are loved and cared for from our standpoint as well as we can without even knowing them.
“I told our players not to feel obligated, but if they wanted to share a note or if they wanted to write a letter of encouragement … whatever they wanted to do. I think every player on our team grabbed one of the letters and wrote a note.”
It’s a teaching moment in life that hopefully the Bulldog players will remember. And what a great lesson during a time in our world where more kindness and empathy is needed.
“We don’t know them as a family, but we wanted to be there for them,” said Cumbie. “One of the things we talked about in our program a lot is service. How can we give? That’s what we talk about. How can we give to others and not just live from the standpoint of take, take, take. It was a wonderful gesture of our players’ hearts.
“We wanted them to know we’re thinking about them, and we’re praying for them. We talked to our players about the fact that writing a note today is a little bit of a lost art, and it takes time to do it.
“But it’s a moment where that family knew that for five or 10 or 15 minutes there was a concentrated effort by our players to think about them and a concentrated effort to put some thought into what we wanted to write and what we wanted to say. We are still continuing to pray for their family. We just wanted to try to provide a sliver of encouragement during an unimaginable trying time.”
So what did Patrick communicate to Bryan in his note?
“I had to grab two cards just because I couldn’t fit it all on one,” said Patrick. “I just told him how sorry I was to hear about the news. How I was thinking of him and his family at this time. I told him about my story to let him know he has someone if he ever needs anyone to talk to.
“I told him if he ever wants to reach out to someone, especially since we haven’t met. Sometimes people find it easier to talk to someone that’s not part of their circle. I told him I was always available, and I put my phone number at the end of the letter.”
Bryan Bresee and Patrick Rea may never meet or even communicate past this point. Who knows.
However, the Bresee family will know that Patrick, Sonny Cumbie and the entire Bulldog Football Family had them on their hearts and minds during one of the most trying times in their lives.
“I just sent my love from Louisiana Tech and from myself and from my family,” said Patrick. “I told my mother about the situation, and she wanted to pass her wishes on to them as well. It was just letting him know that I’m here for him no matter what he needs.”
Ella Bresee’s funeral is today.
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