Things are different now for Greenbrier senior Gavin Ledbetter.
He still walks the same halls at GHS. He still plays whatever sport is in season (football, wrestling or track). And he still desperately packs on the calories to try to fill out his lanky, 6-foot-4 frame.
But Ledbetter’s outlook on life will probably never be the same. After suffering a life-threatening injury in a football game at Fairview last season, Ledbetter is fortunate to have his health and a normal senior year.
“I’m living the life I want to live,” he said. “I love every moment of it. Just the fact that I’m coming to school every day and seeing these great teachers, teammates and classmates, I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
Ledbetter’s idyllic existence was turned upside down in September 2018. First, he contracted strep throat the week Greenbrier was slated to play the Yellowjackets. After pleading with his mother, Maranda Lynch Knight, and his doctor, Ledbetter was cleared to play. He couldn’t stand to miss a game.
“Gavin without sports is like a bird without wings,” Knight said. “He loves playing.”
Coincidently, Ledbetter took a helmet to the throat while making a tackle against Fairview. The hit left an imprint of a facemask on his neck. His throat was already tender from having strep throat and combining that with the helmet hit proved to be nearly fatal.
“(Gavin) wasn’t complaining,” Knight said. “Typically, he doesn’t complain. He went to his dad’s house in Erin for the weekend, and then slept all day Saturday, which was unusual.”
Ledbetter and his father, Chris, had planned to go fishing or hunting that Saturday morning after the game. But Gavin couldn’t get out of bed and slept until 7 p.m., when Chris finally woke him. That’s when they realized something was seriously wrong.
“I couldn’t eat or drink anything,” Gavin said. “I was breathing through a hole the size of a toothpick.”
The Ledbetters went to the emergency room in Houston County and spent the next few hours trying to figure out what was happening. Once doctors determined the severity of Gavin’s condition, he was rushed via ambulance to The Children's Hospital at TriStar Centennial in Nashville.
“His tonsils were almost swollen together,” said Knight, who immediately left her Greenbrier home and beat the ambulance to the hospital. “That was probably one of the scariest feelings I’ve had as a parent. My heart sunk.”
Gavin then underwent emergency surgery on his tonsils. His breathing issues stemmed from a throat abscess, a pus-filled pocket that forms near the tonsils. The surgery was successful, and Gavin spent a few nights in the hospital to recover.
However, his fate could have been much worse had Chris not rushed him to the emergency room in Erin.
“The people at Houston County said if I had waited another hour, I probably would have stopped breathing in my sleep,” Gavin said. “If my dad hadn’t woken me up, I probably would have stopped breathing.”
That wasn’t the only bullet Gavin dodged. As they later found out, the abscess had already formed before the Fairview game. Gavin’s throat came very close to rupturing. Doctors said if he had been hit in a slightly different part of his neck, he could have died on the field.
“I’ve told him all of his life that he is his mother’s hero, and he proves that more and more every day,” Knight said. “Gavin is here for a reason, and he proved that by going through all of this.”
Amazingly, Ledbetter returned for the final few games of the 2018 season. He revisited the hospital with a swollen throat last winter, but taking intermittent antibiotics solved the issue.
“I was back as soon as I could be,” he said. “The first day I got to be back out there, I was so happy. I was dancing around in practice.”
Knight was initially hesitant to let her son return to the field. But she knew Gavin wasn’t going to quit. She still anxiously watches every game, breathing a sigh of relief every time he gets up after a tackle.
“He’s not going to stop,” she said. “It’s going to take more than that to put him down for good. I go to every game – it would take an act of Congress for me to miss one of his games.”
Ledbetter, who plays split end and cornerback, said he hopes to play football or wrestle in college. He is set to become the first high school graduate from his father’s side of the family. His younger sister, Hallie, will eventually follow in his footsteps.
This wasn’t the first time the family had to deal with a difficult health issue. In January 2017, Ledbetter’s aunt and Knight’s sister, Valerie Lynch Chi, lost her battle with cancer. It was a crushing blow to the family that adored her.
“She kept the family positive when most people would be falling apart,” Knight said. “She was the favorite aunt of all the nieces and nephews. Even now that she’s gone, she still is.”
Ledbetter writes his aunt’s name on his wrist tape and prays before every game. He said he takes comfort in knowing that her spirit remains, and he draws inspiration from her valiant fight with cancer.
After dealing with his aunt’s death and fighting through his own health scare, Ledbetter has a strength and perspective not found in many high school seniors. And he uses that strength to keep moving forward.
“She didn’t let (cancer) affect her attitude,” Ledbetter said. “That’s what I try to do. Circumstances come up, but you try to overcome them and keep the best attitude you can.”