SportsMonday: Cameron McGrone, Aaron Redd and learning to be a big brother
Lynn Redd sat and waited for an inevitable call.
It was July 4, 2018, and her two sons were out at a nearby fireworks show in their hometown of Indianapolis. For many, it’s a routine Independence Day venture. For sophomore linebacker Cameron McGrone and his younger brother, Aaron Redd, it was a monumental step.
What is routine for many is not routine for Aaron. When he was four years old, Aaron was diagnosed with autism. He’s 10 years old and attends public school with some accommodations, but Lynn estimates his development aligns more closely with that of a second or third-grader. Throughout his life, these challenges have manifested largely in outbursts triggered by big crowds with loud noises — a commonality for many on the spectrum.
Cameron has long been steadfast in his desire to help his brother and lead him to new heights. Last summer, his break from football coincided with July 4th; he saw a window of opportunity.
“(Aaron has) always loved the look of fireworks,” Cameron said, “just the sounds he could never get over.”
When Cameron speaks about his younger brother — about his challenges and feats, his personality and gifts — he does so with an inimitable pride. He is, in other words, like many doting big brothers. There are things Aaron has accomplished that Cameron never thought possible, and he wears those feats as a collective badge of pride.
What’s clear, in speaking with his family, is that Cameron has been as instrumental in forging those feats as anyone. July 4, 2018 was a prime example.
As was her natural instinct, Lynn’s mind sprang to the possible downfalls that evening. She clung to her phone. Could Aaron really handle this step? Or would he be overwhelmed? Would Cameron be able to handle a meltdown?
As the fireworks began lining the sky, Cameron pulled out his phone, opened Snapchat and turned it around. Aaron scanned the skyline, his head craned squarely ahead, sound-cancelling headphones attached to his ears. He was locked in.
After taking a quick video, Cameron typed out “Lil Bros first firework show” with two heart emojis. He saved it and sent it along to his mother.
Lynn opened up the text from Cameron, watched the video and started to cry.
“I know when David (Redd) and I are long gone, Aaron will be taken care of,” Lynn said. “Because Cameron loves him and he’s loyal to him, and he’ll make sure he’s taken care of.”
When Cameron was young, he always wanted a little brother — a companion to run around in the yard or play games with. At nine years old, he was elated when Aaron was born.
It didn’t take long for the family to realize something in Aaron’s development was awry. At a few months old, he started crying frequently, “being kind of inconsolable,” Lynn describes. He was mute until the age of four, forcing Cameron and his parents to find alternate ways to communicate. They started using sign language, but there were still gaps, particularly for a boy desperately hoping to forge a relationship with his lone sibling. Lynn taught Aaron to call Cameron “Bubby” because Cameron was too hard to pronounce. In time, Cameron started referring to Aaron as “Lil Bubby”.
“Cameron didn’t know — he was frustrated mostly because he wanted to play with his brother, but sometimes Aaron would have temper tantrums and fits where we all couldn’t control him,” Lynn said. “We couldn’t get him to calm down.”
At first, Aaron’s school deemed his condition “a sensory issue,” as he continued to hit the requisite physical milestones. At the age of four, though, the doctors at Riley Children’s Hospital in Indiana decided to run the gamut of tests and eventually came to their conclusion.
“(Cameron) didn’t understand why his brother was kind of delayed,” Lynn said, “and I just told him ‘Your brother’s a little different. He learns a little different. Everybody learns things at different times of their lives.’ ”
That understanding did little to quell day-to-day struggles. When Cameron was in eighth grade, he was an ascendant wrestling star, eventually winning the county title. Scouts flocked to see him wrestle.
One afternoon, he was slated to wrestle in Pemberton Heights, a particularly high-profile meet near the end of the season. Aaron was having a good day, Lynn recalls, so she brought him along. It was always a guessing game, evaluating the pros and cons of a given environment, coming to a conclusion then keeping her fingers crossed.
That day, she brought Aaron into the gym. Things subsequently went south.
“Aaron just started bucking and screaming and crying, and I just couldn’t stay in there,” Lynn said. “Because a lot of people don’t know, they just stare at you and, ‘Gosh, why doesn’t she make that little boy be quiet?’ Or, ‘That boy needs to be spanked.’ You hear people whispering.
“And Cameron just had this look on his face.”
That was hardly abnormal. Aaron struggled with the noises and crowds at Cameron’s sporting events — the buzzer at wrestling meets, the gun at track meets, the whistles at football games.
“There were situations like that where I’m not sure if Cameron was looking into the crowd to look for me, but I know there were several times he was looking for and didn’t see me there,” Lynn said. “So he was like, ‘Were you even at my game?’ ”
There was never any bottled-up resentment baked into that frustration for Cameron, but during high school something changed for him. Cameron wanted his brother to be able to go places, do things, have those experiences that embody childhood. And, despite the nine-year age gap, he wanted them to share those ventures together. As brothers do.
So Cameron took matters into his own hands.
One afternoon, Cameron asked his mom if he could stay after school to watch a volleyball match. Lynn went down to the school to pick up Aaron and await the end of the match, so she could bring Cameron, too. But this day, Cameron decided, would be different.
“I fully planned on going out there and hanging out in the parking lot, like I’d always done,” Lynn recalled. “Then Cameron was like, ‘Bring Aaron in here.’ ”
With his mom apprehensive, Cameron brought Aaron into the gym. The two watched the game together, Cameron sure to prep Aaron when a buzzer was imminent. Aaron loved hanging out with his big brother. Cameron cared deeply about his progress. It didn’t take long for Cameron to realize it was working.
“Cameron would point up to the shot clock,” Lynn recalled, “and be like, ‘OK, Aaron, 20 seconds til the buzzer.’ And Aaron would be like ‘OK, 20 seconds.’
“He would keep saying to himself over and over and over ‘Here comes the buzzer. The buzzer’s coming.’ Or, ‘They’re gonna blow the whistle. They’re gonna sound the buzzer.’ He would say it out loud and repeat it over and over to himself, and Cameron would do it too, to try to prep himself for the noises so he wouldn’t be so scared.”
Going to games together became a regular venture, a brotherly bonding experience in more ways than one.
“Even though we’re like nine years apart, it kind of feels like we’re twins sometimes,” Cameron said. “We go everywhere together, we laugh at everything together. It seems like we just do everything together.
“And especially when he was diagnosed with autism, I just wanted to keep him around me to make more memories and build a better bond, so that he really knew I was there for him. When he was developing autism, it kind of kicked us into the next gear with our bond and relationship.”
Slowly, Aaron grew more comfortable in big crowds and with loud noises, so long as he had advanced warning. Instead of a yell, Aaron would confront his anxiety with a nervous chuckle. The progress was real and tangible. During Cameron’s junior year, Aaron started attending his football games, a direct result of Cameron’s efforts.
At that point, McGrone was rapidly evolving into a star. Aaron would come to games, at times still wary of potential pitfalls, but thrilled to see his brother. When Cameron’s team would score a touchdown — fireworks and cannons booming — Lynn would often see Cameron turn around to look at Aaron’s reaction.
As that cautiousness turned to pride, Aaron’s attendance at games became more regular. One moment sticks out, a memorable snapshot of growth in a life full of hurdles.
In a game late in McGrone’s senior season at Lawrence Central, he trailed a ball carrier seemingly bound for a go-ahead touchdown. But he made up the distance, leaping at the runner’s back and punching the ball out. Lawrence Central recovered the fumble and secured a 14-12 win. His teammates leapt around on the sidelines, as McGrone threw his right arm in the air.
Shortly after the game, he greeted his family — Aaron included.
“Bubby, you won the game!” Aaron said to him. “You won the game!”
This past year, Cameron took Aaron to see his first movie — “Bumblebee” — and again Lynn anticipated disaster. She clutched her phone, told Cameron to call at the first sign of trouble and waited.
All she got in return was a text from Cameron: “I can’t text, Mom, the movie’s on.”
Lynn recently gave Aaron an old iPad, which he can use to FaceTime Cameron. Cameron makes sure they talk once per week, thrilled when Aaron mentions the names of new friends and after-school activities.
Aaron relishes trips up to Ann Arbor because he knows what that means: Cameron will see him, Lynn and David before the game; spend a night with them at the hotel; grab breakfast with them before heading back to Indianapolis. If Aaron’s lucky, Cameron will let him spend the night in his dorm room.
“(Our relationship) is at its best place it’s even been,” Cameron said. “He’s doing things I never thought he was going to do. Just like interacting with other kids, he’s really excelling in school. At first glance, it seems like autism is a bad thing. People can always fight through it and still be able to excel in place that everybody else can.”
Added Aaron, via texts from Lynn: “I love my Bubby.”
And as Cameron’s on-field role has grown, Aaron has only gained more opportunities to cheer for his Bubby. McGrone’s seven tackles-for-loss and 30 tackles rank fourth and third on Michigan’s defense this year, respectively. The sophomore has entrenched himself as a stalwart MIKE linebacker — filling a maniacal, aggressive role vital to Don Brown’s defense — and doesn’t seem prone to relinquishing it any time soon.
A year ago, Aaron would ask Lynn where Cameron was. When she’d point to the sidelines, he’d ask why he’s not on the football field.
“You’re going to have to ask Coach Brown,” she’d say, with a laugh, “but I don’t know.”
For Cameron, it’s the little things that get him. The hugs and phone calls. Movies and fireworks. It wasn’t so much that Aaron could come see him play football — but that Aaron had overcome a fear. Helping Aaron along the way was never a responsibility for him, always a reward.
The reward of being a big brother.
“Being that it’s my first sibling, and I knew it was going to be my only one, I just wanted to make the bond really special,” Cameron said, “and make sure when we’re both old, we’re still best friends, we’re still hanging out all the time.”