- Tania Ganguli, ESPN Staff Writer
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HOUSTON -- Chris Myers leans over his baby Keane, cradled in his wife's arm in Room 18 of Memorial Hermann Hospital.
When they named him Keane, they didn't know the name's roots meant "fighter" and "handsome." Between his parents, still groggy and numb, the 6-month-old boy continues to fight through his next challenge.
Chris, Houston's Pro Bowl center, puts his hand on Keane's soft blonde hair. He lowers his bearded face and kisses his son.
"Keaner, are you in there?" Jenny Myers says gently as she soothes him. She wipes tears from around her eyes and strokes his little right hand with her left thumb.
Blood-caked stitches run down the front of Keane's face, from the bottom of his newly shaped nose to the sewn-together upper lip that makes a peak at the center. His lips never fused together in his mother's womb. Neither did the roof of his mouth. At birth, the flesh that should have made up the underside of his nose down to the center of his upper lip protruded in a pink bulb in the center of his face, detached from the other sides of his lip. He needs special equipment to eat. Without surgeries, speaking would be a challenge.
For six months his parents have worked to help him eat even with the defects, helped reshape his lips by attaching a retainer-like apparatus to it and helped shield him from strangers' callous stares. And for six months, he's taught his family and their close friends lessons in empathy and acceptance.
Today's surgery took three hours. Wires and tubes still connect him to a machine checking his vital signs. One ankle is wrapped in green medical tape with teal dinosaurs on it.
"I don't see my baby, and it's hard for me," Jenny says.
She misses the gappy smile Keane showed often that came with his bilateral cleft. She worries about the shape of his upper lip. She worries about the swelling in his cheeks.
"We have to trust Dr. T," Chris says, reassuring her as he's done many times before. "He seemed positive nose-wise and lip-wise."
The rest of his teammates are preparing for a light practice the day after the Texans' fourth preseason game. Some will be cut later in the day as the Texans work to reduce their roster to 53 players. But coach Gary Kubiak excused his center from traveling to the game and from the day's activities so he could be with Keane for the first of a series of surgeries that could last into his teenage years. Before a team meeting that day, Kubiak calls to see how the surgery went, wanting to update the rest of the Texans.
Right now, though, Myers' job doesn't enter his thoughts. All that matters is Keane. His life will change because of this surgery.
Their first two children are spunky, blonde-haired girls -- Makenna is 3 and Cailin is 21 months old.
So when Jenny Myers found out she was having a boy, she planned a surprise for her husband. She enlisted Sean Washington, the Texans' director of player engagement, to decorate Chris' locker with a baby boy's outfit. Chris returned from practice to the surprise and a flurry of congratulations from teammates.
"Any time you have a son, it's your little prince," running back Arian Foster said. "I don't care -- any man, what he says, having a boy you're a little bit more happy initially than having a girl."
When she found out their baby boy would be born with a cleft, Jenny waited until Chris came home.
It was the middle of October when the Texans were preparing to face the Baltimore Ravens. Jenny went to an appointment by herself and noticed something strange on an ultrasound. She asked the technician about it and the woman didn't answer. Later her doctor confirmed the cleft.
She cried constantly for a week.
"I just felt so bad for him," Jenny said.
She wondered if she'd done something wrong that caused it, but her doctor assured her it was sheer chance.
"It was something you're not prepared for, and we had no clue about this kind of condition," Chris said. "It's a defect, a physical defect. It goes along with if you have it in your family history. Certain cultures have it. If the mom was exposed to certain chemicals. We basically didn't hit any of the underlying factors leading up to it."
After the initial shock passed, Jenny and Chris submerged themselves in research. They learned just how common cleft lips and palates are: One in 700 live births produce a cleft baby. Keane didn't have the heart problems that cleft babies sometimes do.
They interviewed surgical teams, choosing the doctor with the personality and methods that made them feel most comfortable. They spoke with a surgical team in Philadelphia, Jenny's hometown, in case they move to the Northeast after Chris retires from football.
Jenny found solace in an online community of mothers who also had cleft babies.
"You have all these thoughts as a mom and you're like, 'I shouldn't be thinking this,'" Jenny said. "But it is normal. Scared to see him, scared to see what he looks like. There's no one -- they don't all look the same. But then reading that all these other moms felt that way, that's what really helped me.
"You feel awful. It's my baby -- obviously I'm gonna love him, but there were all these unknowns that I was scared of."
One baby caught her eye. Adley Neel's mother, Brittany, wrote a blog about her experience. Jenny followed her story so closely that as Keane's due date approached, she reached out to Brittany and they supported each other.
Jenny and Chris prepared their daughters by showing them photographs of what their brother might look like. Makenna told people her brother would be born with a boo-boo on his lip and a boo-boo on his nose.
After the initial tear-soaked week, Jenny never wallowed again.
"My brothers call me the ice lady," she said, laughing. "I'd just rather be positive."
She worried for a while, though, that Chris never seemed to release the sadness she knew he felt.
That happened after Keane was born on Feb. 26. Chris saw his son in the neonatal intensive care unit, struggling to eat because of the gaps in his lip and on the roof of his mouth.
"You physically see him in the hospital, what he has to go through, trying to eat and having to put a feeding tube down," Chris said. "It was tough going in there and seeing him having to be taken care of by all these different nurses. Everything's done the right way. You trust everything that's going on, but it's your kid and you don't have him."
He broke down.
In America, 4,437 babies are born each year with a cleft lip and 2,651 with a cleft palate, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The birth defect increases the chances of ear infections, and some children who have it also have heart problems. Some children born with clefts around the world are shunned or even abandoned. The families of many of them can't afford the surgeries they need to be able to speak properly and eat successfully. The cleft palate removes the separation between the nose and mouth. They struggle to socialize and smile.
Keane's heart works fine. His family could afford the best care and they all embraced him from birth. Even Makenna barely noticed the bulb on the front of his face. She was more concerned about his belly button when she met her brother for the first time.
"I'd heard about his condition when he was first born," Texans left tackle Duane Brown said. "I wasn't familiar with it exactly. Seeing him, I felt so bad for him because you feel like a child like that having to go through that must be so painful. But he was one of the most happy babies I've ever seen in my life. It's inspiring to see something like that."
At home, Keane smiled often and had two doting sisters. While the girls took more of their mom's feisty personality, Keane seemed more laid-back, like his father.
"The one (child) with the issues that he has, he's always smiling," Chris said. "He only cries if he's really hungry or really tired."
Keane was fitted for a NAM (nasoalveolar molding device), an apparatus that is like a retainer. His parents had to tape it onto his face to make the bulb under his nose and the gaps in his lips smaller. Jenny made Chris hold him when their pediatric dentist taught them the process.
"He cries; you have to hold him down and I have to pull his lips together," Jenny said. "We're stretching everything. I can do it in my sleep now. I just kind of go in a zone and try not to think about it. Anyone new that watches cries, so I try to do it privately."
It became such a part of the family's routine that one day their daughters asked to borrow some tape. They said their dolls had boo-boos, too.
The process is so emotionally taxing that many parents of cleft babies can't bring themselves to strap the device on their children. Keane needed a bottle with a special nipple that would fit under the NAM. He needed weekly visits to a dentist.
The parents didn't want to disrupt their daughters' lives, so they took their yearly summer vacation on the New Jersey shore. Jenny flew back to Houston once a week for Keane's dentist appointments.
"Dr. T said the dentist and the parents are like the offensive line," Jenny said. "'They do all the work and get no credit. All I do is sew it up and I get all the credit.'"
Keane drew stares.
"It's one thing if you're looking and you're taking a second glance or a third glance at an adult who can sit there and give you that mean mug back or dirty eye back and say 'What are you looking at?'" Chris said.
They grew protective of their baby.
Once a man turned and cocked his head completely sideways as he stared at Keane. Another time a woman on a plane told Jenny, "I'm sorry about your baby's face." The rest of the passengers rose to Jenny's defense.
They both prefer questions to stares and are happy to explain Keane's condition.
They've seen their whole family grow more empathetic.
"It's such a good lesson for them," Chris said of his daughters. "They're little enough now, they know not everyone looks the same -- some kids are born different. I think they saw another kid with tape on his face or whatever it might be, some sort of deformity. This might lessen the shock factor for them that everyone has naturally."
Chris was already active in charities, mostly ones benefiting military veterans and families. But when choosing where to send the money made from sales of T-shirts he initially created for his fellow offensive linemen, he opted for Operation Smile. The organization helps children worldwide who don't have access to the same medical care or equipment his child does. During a four-day pre-sale, the "Trench Life" shirts, made by Running Game Clothing, sold enough to donate $5,000 to Operation Smile.
Jenny's 7-year-old niece, Ava, sold bracelets she made to donate to Operation Smile. They raised $500. Ava's father, Jenny's brother, plays professional soccer for the Philadelphia Union, so Ava made the bracelets for his teammates. She calls Chris "Uncle Moto," after a hippo in the movie "Madagascar 3."
She told her aunt, "Aunt Jenny, we're going to have to make them for Uncle Moto's team, but we'll have to make them a lot bigger."
Chris and Jenny arrived at the hospital on Aug. 30 at 5:30 a.m., dressed casually -- he in sweats and she in yoga attire -- for a long day ahead. They surrendered Keane to the medical staff. He wasn't allowed to eat for six hours prior, so he fussed. The surgery began a few hours later.
It's now around 9 a.m., and time passes slowly. They hide their nerves, keeping busy. They decide to visit some kids in the hospital. Chris goes in; Jenny hangs back. He talks to the kids, asks if they watched last night's game, then makes sure they aren't Cowboys fans.
One girl hugs tight the paper on which he signed an autograph. He asks if she wants one for her brothers.
"No!" she says. She'd rather make them jealous.
Another visit has special meaning.
"This will be cool," Chris says as he waits to enter the room, his eyes shining with anticipation.
It's a 7-year-old girl named Michelle Galvan, who is recovering from her third surgery for a unilateral cleft lip. Dr. John Teichgraeber, the surgeon affectionately known as Dr. T, also did Michelle's surgery. Visiting her will be like a glimpse at Keane's future.
Michelle is wearing grey leggings, yellow socks and a T-shirt with a picture of Harry Styles of the boy band One Direction. She has a thin vertical scab a little to the left of the center of her lip. She wasn't born with a cleft palate, only a cleft lip.
"She said she looks ugly," says Crystal Galvan, Michelle's mother.
"No, you're beautiful!" Jenny says immediately.
The two moms talk about the surgeries and about their doctors. Michelle's most recent surgery was a bone graft taken from her hip that will help repair a cleft in her gum. Keane might have the same surgery at her age, but his doctors hope by then the bone can be grown from stem cells. While they talk, Chris leans down to Michelle.
"Should I grow my hair out like Harry?" says Chris, who sports a shaved head.
The moms talk about meeting others with clefts and how that helps them. Crystal tells Jenny she works the night shift at a neighboring hospital, which allows her to help her daughter with the liquid lunch she'll need.
Before they go, Chris asks for a favor from Michelle.
"Can you smile all the time?"
"I don't know," Michelle says, softly, as if she's not so sure that's a good idea.
"If anyone bothers you, I'll come beat them up," Chris says.
Then he asks for a high-five ... and gets it.
Back in the family waiting area, the door swings open to reveal Dr. Teichgraeber, a man as colorful as the lime green bits of his shirt that peek out under his white lab coat. His laid-back personality was part of why the Myerses wanted him to treat their child. That, and the before-and-after photos they saw of his surgery.
"Turned out great," he says, grinning.
The surgery lasted three hours. He didn't have to trim Keane's nose. He tells them both the nose and lip will look different after a few days, so it shouldn't look perfect now.
"When you commit the kind of time you've committed, it helps," Dr. Teichgraeber says. He sees many patients whose parents don't.
Jenny smiles, Chris leans forward in his chair, tugging at his chin.
"Relax," Dr. Teichgraeber says. "It's all finished."
"It's OK when you say that," Chris says with a smile. "When I say that, it doesn't work."
They have to wait 20 more minutes before they can see Keane.
At 11:08 a.m., Jenny's phone rings. The air conditioning repair man is on his way to their home. Life hasn't stopped. Her parents are at the house, so she tells him to go ahead with the repair.
Chris muses about a text from teammate J.J. Watt, in which Watt wishes Keane luck. Chris thanks Watt, and then tells the NFL's reigning Defensive Player of the Year he's pulling for him to make the team today.
Soon the hospital chaplain arrives to take them to Keane. A woman named Tuesday is their nurse. Tuesday is a hockey fan; she knows nothing about football. She doesn't understand why everybody keeps bothering her about their VIP patient.
Room 18 of the Pedi-PACU is peaceful and calm.
Their baby boy's second smile is dramatically different. Jenny and Chris spend about 30 tender minutes with him before nurses help them detach him from the wires and tubes. As they leave, one nurse reveals she is a Texans fan. She didn't want to bother them before.
They drive home, where Makenna, Cailin and Jenny's parents are waiting outside. Makenna wrote "Welcome home Keane" in chalk.
"I want him to have his other lip back," Makenna says inside. "Was my lip like that?"
Finally calm enough to eat, Jenny takes a bite of a sandwich sitting on the counter. Their fridge is filled with leftover barbecue from last night, which Texans quarterback Matt Schaub sent over. Soon Makenna needs a nap, Cailin needs her diaper changed.
Their handsome fighter lies in a bassinet as the activity of the house goes on around him. His fight isn't over, but none of the people in his home will let him make it alone.