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Michael Isenhour's Memory Lives With Tech Toy Drive

Dec. 15, 2011

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By Matt Winkeljohn
Sting Daily

What you’re about to read is a tale that really is at least two because Michael Isenhour’s Toy Story has grown to encapsulate more than any single perspective.

The first tale, which was borne of the second as we’re damning chronology today, is of Georgia Tech student-athletes delivering more than 1,000 toys and about $4,200 to the Atlanta Children’s Shelter on Wednesday.

That one is chiefly a happy story tinged by sadness.

The second is a sad story saved by prospects of joy.

It is the background that gave birth to all of this: the death in 2002 of a former Tech basketball player who moved others by his inertia 10 years ago in creating a toy drive for children who lost parents in the 9/11 tragedy in NYC.

Isenhour drew ill soon after he came up with the idea, having been diagnosed in October, 2011, with acute lymphoblastic leukemia or childhood leukemia. He figured it out after fatiguing one day while spreading the word.

Second thing first.

The fruits of the 11th annual Michael Isenhour Toy Drive were delivered Wednesday to Peachtree and North.

In the midst of finals week, football players Roddy Jones and Jason Peters were again front and center. They were joined by softball’s Jessica Sinclair, swimming’s Kate Riley, Sharena Taylor of women’s basketball and Perron Jones of men’s track.

It was a big deal.

“Last year we took toys to three places. This year, we gave the Atlanta Children’s Shelter all the toys and all the money because they came across as the most needy,” said Leah Thomas, Tech’s director of Total Person Support Services.

“This time, the Children’s Shelter knew we were coming. They were eagerly awaiting us. As soon as we pulled in, they had a slew of people helping. Last year, it was just Roddy, Jason, Jessica and me carrying everything in the rain.”

Thomas wasn’t entirely tickled to talk about this.

She’s been recruiting other student-athletes, and she has quite a field to choose from. A-back Orwin Smith has been a diligent participant, and he would have been there Wednesday but for a conflict with finals.

Replacing Roddy and Jason may not be impossible. Then again, it just might. “They’ve been my go-to guys, and I’m looking for more,” she said. “It’s kind of emotional. They [both in graduate school], and they have one foot out the door basically. They’ve been fantastic.”

The ending of relationships can be brutal.

Charlie Isenhour, who a while back dropped off quite the batch of toys at Tech, knows this painfully well.

Ten years ago tomorrow, winter graduation day, he was gutted not for the first or last time. His eldest son, Michael, had already been hospitalized for 30 days, and the 6-foot-8 former center hardly looked himself upon slimming down from 255 pounds to about 200. But he was, for a time that day, beyond happy.

“He had taken his finals at home, which was interesting, and was about to graduate,” Charlie said. “Graduation morning, I’ll never forget this . . . he came downstairs with his suit and tie — which because he’d lost so much weight was huge — and he was so excited.

“We never made it because he started having heart problems. We went to the emergency room, and the doctors knew who he was. His heart valve had stuck open. They did everything they could to get him there in time, but they finally did it about one hour after graduation had started. He was crushed.”

The doctors knew Isenhour because a few months earlier, while trying to generate interest in the toy drive he’d started for 9/11 victims, the young man just didn’t feel right.

Even before pre-season practice began, he was having issues re-habbing from a modest off-season surgery. That fate-filled day helped explain why.

“And he was out putting up posters, and he came back and he just didn’t feel good. He was having trouble getting up hills,” Charlie said. “He stopped by doctors at Tech and had a blood test.

“He called me and said, `Dad, meet me at hospital.’ I said, `Did you blow out your knee?’ He said, `No, meet me in oncology department.’ I said, `Oh [crap]!’ This was just a few months after I’d lost my wife (Cheri) to breast cancer.”

Michael Isenhour was ¬that kind of guy. Frankly, he was a precursor to Roddy and Jason.

In a story about Isenhour’s death that was published by the ACC, former teammate Tony Akin said, “One of the toughest things for me was something his brother, Mark, told me. Mark said that one day in [spring of 2002], when Michael was in bed and really sick, all of a sudden he jumped out of bed and got on the computer.

“Mark asked him what he was doing, and Mike said, ‘I think Tony was at [an NBA] camp this weekend. I’ve got to see how he did.’ For him to care about me when he was fighting for his life, that tells you what kind of person he was.’ “

Charlie Isenhour’s different now, more appreciative, less fretful.

You lose a spouse and child in a span of 13 months, and you’d be different, too.

“It definitely does factor,” said Charlie, whose partners in real estate have helped him accumulate toys since the day he joined Prudential and a few of his colleagues were Tech graduates who knew of his son.

“I’ve heard people say it takes 3-5 years to get over a spouse, I’ve read 5-7, and also heard there’s no getting over loss of a spouse or a child. That’s absolutely true. Whether it’s Christmas, or my wife’s birthday, or Michael’s birthday, or the anniversary of their death, I feel it. I’ve had friends at work who have lost a child, but there’s not too much you can say.”

It wouldn’t be right to say there have been benefits.

Charlie Isenhour, whose younger son Mark is now the women’s basketball coach at LaGrange College and the father of his father’s two granddaughters, is different but not ever-sullen.

“I’m more emotional now, no question. My youngest son is, too,” Charlie said. “About four months after he passed away, I was downsized out of my job of 20 years. After what I’d been through, it didn’t bother me. We haven’t had much business for years, but that doesn’t bother me.

“Having a job and all that is important. When stuff happens, it doesn’t affect me anywhere near the way it did. That changes the way you look at things.”

Good may have come.

Dad has memories, hopes and dreams.

He will not forget going with Michael to Emory Hospital for treatment, and the conflicted joy of seeing his son serve as inspiration to others.

“The kids loved it when he’d come in, because he’d wear Georgia Tech sweats, and he was 6-8, and bald, and they got such a kick out of it because they said here’s a big guy who has the same thing I do,” Charlie recalled.

“Sitting in chairs, their feet wouldn’t even be touching the floor, and they’re throwing up, and most of them are bald. He’d try to hand out posters of the team or whatever, and the kids always looked forward to seeing him.”

Letters that poured in during Michael’s illness came from around the globe. Charlie said it was, “amazing,” to see the number of parents who thanked his son for going public and helping them keep their similarly-affected children continue rather than give up their chemotherapy treatments for sake of misery.

Charlie doesn’t have those letters because, he said, “There came a time when I couldn’t read them anymore.”

Maybe, though, some of those kids are adults now because they didn’t give up because Michael Isenhour inspired them.

Charlie remembers being told that while survival rates are poor for 23-year-olds diagnosed with childhood leukemia, there was at the time of his son’s illness a 60 percent survival rate for kids who were still kids.

So, he said, “You hear something good comes from everything, but when your child dies . . . maybe something good did come of it.”

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