Kiffin, Ole Miss family give thanks
After the Dallas Cowboys face Oakland on Thursday and the Ole Miss Rebels complete their regular season that night at Mississippi State, finally, they can all gather -- Monte Kiffin, the Cowboys' defensive coordinator, his wife, Robin, their children, Heidi, former USC coach Lane and Ole Miss defensive line coach Chris, the kids' spouses and all seven Kiffin grandchildren.
Then it will be time for Thanksgiving.
Chris and his wife Angela have celebrated this holiday with every midnight feeding and diaper change since Sept. 17. On that warm Tuesday in Jackson, Miss., Christian Monte Kiffin was born at Batson Children's Hospital. He was 6 pounds, 14 ounces of miracle baby, according to the team of doctors who awaited his arrival.
He came out "kicking and screaming and red as could be," Angela said, a far cry from the condition she and Chris were told to expect.
Hours before his birth, after three uncertain months that followed their unborn son's summer diagnosis with a serious heart condition, doctors advised Chris and Angela that the baby might appear blue at delivery, that he may not move or cry.
Best-case scenario, doctors said a week prior: The baby would require heavy medication, a catheter and breathing tube but no surgery right away, and that he would remain hospitalized for three to five days.
More likely, he would immediately need the first of three heart operations and an extended hospital stay.
Christian went home after less than 48 hours. He spent his first night in the neonatal intensive care unit, attached to monitors, which found no sign of heart trouble. Subsequent visits to the pediatrician back home in Oxford, Miss., revealed no problems.
"They don't have an explanation," Angela said this week. "The heart doctors came to see us, and they just said it was amazing. They said, 'Congrats, he's a little miracle.' That's honestly what one of them said to me, that he's a miracle baby.
"I'm still in shock."
Chris and Angela have an explanation.
"We believe in the power of prayer," Chris said. "He's our baby boy, but we were not in this alone."
The Kiffins, amid the backdrop of a rocky football season for their family of coaches, received unending support from Hugh Freeze and the Ole Miss program. Chris and Angela said they never lost faith that their son would arrive in good health, largely because of daily encouragement delivered by the Ole Miss coaches and their wives and their family and friends.
"We're surrounded by a great group of believers," Angela said.
And now, on this holiday, comes their time to give thanks.
Last fall, as Chris Kiffin helped Freeze take the Rebels to a bowl game for the first time in three years and organize the nation's No. 5-ranked recruiting class, Angela miscarried at 14 weeks.
The Kiffins have two girls, Grace, who turns 4 next month, and Taylor, 2.
Chris badly wanted a boy. So after the heartbreak, with the OK from Angela's doctor, they quickly tried again. In the spring of this year, after they learned Angela was carrying a boy, she said it was the happiest she'd ever seen her husband.
Then in mid-June, at a routine checkup, an ultrasound technician noticed what looked like white spots inside the baby's chest.
"My heart just dropped," Chris said.
Angela was referred to a maternal fetal medicine doctor in Memphis, then to a pediatric cardiologist. She underwent hours of tests on two visits, expecting a positive resolution until the doctor shared the diagnosis: right ventricular dysplasia, a disorder that prevents the heart from properly pumping blood.
The doctor told the Kiffins to expect three surgeries before the child turned 4. Their son would likely survive, but he would never play sports, the doctor said, because his heart would not support the necessary oxygen flow to handle athletic competition.
"That was probably the hardest thing," Angela said, "getting that news."
Understand that the Kiffins' relationship was forged on sports. They met during a pickup basketball game over lunch in 2008 at Nebraska, where Chris worked as a football coaching intern and Angela directed the women's basketball operations.
She played point guard at Creighton before coaching at her alma mater and at Nebraska. Chris, a former defensive lineman at Colorado State, grew up around football as Monte rose to prominence at the helm of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defense.
Chris toiled in the shadow of Lane, who became the youngest head coach in NFL history in 2007. After jobs at CSU, Idaho and USC under his brother, the Nebraska position helped Chris land his first full-time job on Freeze's Arkansas State staff in 2011.
"I remember walking out of that building," Chris said, "telling Angela, 'There's absolutely no way that boy will not play sports.'"
The Kiffins sought a second opinion. In July, doctors in Jackson at the University of Mississippi Medical Center agreed with the assessment from Memphis. In fact, they identified numerous additional heart problems.
"There were moments, of course, when it was hard," Angela said. "But it was still a moving target, and they always told us they wouldn't know the exact extent of the problems until he was born."
Chris focused on shutting out the negative thoughts.
"You have to have a go-to," he said, "and mine was my faith and that God had a plan for him. I really believed that, and every time I started to worry, I relied on it."
His sister, Heidi, marveled at Chris and Angela's strength.
"They helped me not worry as much," Heidi said.
But as August neared and the football season approached. Chris couldn't make the five-hour, round-trip drive with Angela to her weekly appointments in Jackson. The Kiffins needed help.
Freeze, the 44-year-old coach in his second season at Ole Miss, and his wife endured a situation in 1999 with which the Kiffins could identify. In Jill Freeze's second of three pregnancies, they received a positive test for Down syndrome.
The Freezes faced additional tests and options, but chose to rely on their faith. Jordan, their middle daughter, was born healthy. Now 14, she stars in basketball and volleyball.
Their experience touched Chris and Angela.
"The No. 1 core value in our program is faith," Hugh Freeze said. "When I say faith, the last thing we are is preachy. We're so far from perfect. I've made mistakes. We all make them. But there comes a point in life for me -- and the example I try to set -- where you recognize that you don't have all the answers.
"You need something bigger than yourself. For some people, that may just be friends. For some people, it may be something else."
Chris, 31, and Angela, 34, embraced the support. Every Tuesday after mid-July, she drove to Jackson for a round of appointments, leaving Oxford at 5 a.m. Angela hired the Tori Aplin, the wife of Ole Miss intern Ryan Aplin, to watch the Kiffin girls for several hours.
Then the coaches' wives took over. Leslie Wommack, the wife of defensive coordinator Dave Wommack, took a couple shifts. So did Jill Freeze and neighbor Tracy Allen, whose husband, Tom, coaches the Ole Miss linebackers.
They babysat, made dozens of meals for the Kiffins and carted the girls to activities.
"Truthfully, we just prayed," Tracy Allen said. "That's the role the wives played. We faithfully prayed that God would heal [Christian]. I believe he did. I don't believe the doctors made a mistake."
Nicknamed Cookie before his birth by sisters Grace and Taylor, Christian arrived during a bye week for the Rebels, three days after a road win at Texas.
After an Oct 5 visit to Auburn, the Rebels played six straight home games before the trip this week to Starkville for the Egg Bowl. Chris still works long hours, but the lack of travel has helped him and his family get acclimated.
"His sisters are in love with him," Chris said.
Angela took Christian to each of the five Ole Miss home games in October and November. The Kiffins said they accepted the doctors' lack of answers. They did not lose faith in their medical team.
It sounds almost impossible. They don't think so.
"We don't hold him," Tracy Allen said, "without thinking of him as a miracle."
Football season is always a crazy time for the Kiffins. This year, it took on new meaning.
As life changed for Chris and Angela in Oxford, the Rebels rebounded from three straight SEC losses to reach seven wins for a second straight year. An eighth could come Thursday.
Meanwhile, Lane was fired on Sept. 29 after a 3-2 start in his fourth year at USC. Monte, who left the Trojans after last season, has faced his share of scrutiny in Dallas. The Cowboys are 6-5 before the Raiders visit on Thursday.
On Friday, all the Kiffins will gather to celebrate, win or lose, in Dallas. Heidi Kiffin said it will be "chaos." In a good way.
Chris will introduce his son to Monte and Lane. "I'm sure it'll be emotional," Chris said. "It'll be special."
Much like these past five months.
"Christian's story reminds me that there is so much more to life than X's and O's," he said. "It gives you perspective on wins and losses. It reminds us that Dad, Lane and I all have a different story and path in our profession, but at the end of the day, we are family.
"Nobody can take that from us."
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