Starting this season, the focus of the Rare Disease Champion Award shifted to a team concept in order to provide a platform to recognize all the qualified leaders that have made a significant and lasting impact on the Rare Disease Community. The Rare Disease Champion Team ensures all the inspiring rare disease stories of qualified leaders in college football are shared and celebrated. Uplifting Athletes will honor the 2019 Rare Disease Champion Team at the Maxwell Football Club Awards Gala in Atlantic City and at the Uplifting Athletes Young Investigator Draft in Philadelphia March 6 and 7, respectively.
University: Kent State University
Vitals: 5-8, 180-pound, redshirt junior, wide receiver
Quick Hits: The native of Florida was diagnosed with the rare blood disorder aplastic anemia in high school, but continued to play football until 2016 when his rare diagnosis took a turn for the worse. He was forced to leave school, received a life-saving bone marrow transplant from his father and spent nearly 36 months away from the game before he was cleared to return in 2018. Antwan has appeared in every game the last two seasons for Kent State and was inspired to use his voice and platform to help others. So, he took a leadership role and started the Kent State Chapter of Uplifting Athletes. During his comeback season in 2018, Antwan was recognized as a Mayo Clinic Comeback Player of the Year and the Columbus Touchdown Club Male Athlete of the Year.
INSIDE THE STORY
Antwan is adamant about how his battles with the rare blood disorder, aplastic anemia, turned his life upside down.
He was diagnosed with the rare disease in high school, but it wasn’t until after his freshman year in college that his health took a serious downward spiral and became critical and life threatening.
Antwan loved playing football and was motivated to be the very best at his craft. He remained a very committed and focused athlete who has NFL dreams and aspirations.
During his 30 months away from Kent State, while battling for his life, Antwan realized he was lost in his day-to-day world and blinded by his ambitions around football. This is when he discovered a whole other person he had no idea existed.
His relationship with his father was always solid. And it became an even stronger bond when his father donated his bone marrow for the life-saving transplant Antwan needed. But during his lowest points physically, he discovered a new-found bond with his mom and brother that would never have developed had he not taken a sudden and drastic turn for the worse.
“Getting sick was such a blessing for me. I saw life from a different standpoint. I’ve made so many life memories since I got sick,” Antwan said. “I built a better relationship with my little brother. We were always good, but we were not tight until I got sick. He saw life differently … I saw life from a different standpoint. Same with my Mom. I was always tight with my Dad, but my Mom was a rock for me. Now we are super tight, too. Out of all the struggles I went through came a new life.”
And a new perspective for Antwan. During his two years away from Kent State and playing football, getting healthy and back on the field was a very powerful motivator. It was the fuel that drove him. At the same time, though, Antwan also discovered being a football player had consumed his identity.
He still has the dream to play in the NFL and is driven to take his very best shot. But that’s just one facet of Antwan the person.
Inspired by his high school guidance counselor, Antwan wants to mentor kids in the future. He enjoys serving and helping others by giving back. Not only is he involved with Uplifting Athletes, but he also visits an elementary school in town to spend time with the kids to serve as an example and mentor. He volunteers with Habitat For Humanity and tries to take advantage of every community service opportunity presented to the football team.
“Football is not my Plan A. I’ve always had a dream of playing in the NFL. I’m not giving up that dream. But there are a lot of things I want to do to help people in this world,” Antwan said. “I’m coming back to school to get my masters degree in counseling. I want to help other people. That motivates me. Whether its kids, people with blood disorders or cancer … whatever. I want to help people who are struggling.”
THE RARE JOURNEY
In 2013, after his sophomore year of high school, Antwan knew something wasn’t right. He struggled physically during track season and his originally diagnosed sinus infection was not going away.
Further tests revealed the three-sport athlete who was a star on the football field had aplastic anemia – a rare autoimmune disease in which the body fails to produce blood cells in sufficient numbers. Blood cells are produced in the bone marrow by stem cells that reside there. Aplastic anaemia causes a deficiency of all blood cell types: red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets.
His initial treatment protocol was working and despite missing his junior season of football, he returned to play basketball and run track. And Antwan played all three sports his senior year.
He received a scholarship offer to Kent State University and, once he arrived on campus in Ohio, was an impact player right away as a true freshman.
Following his first collegiate season in 2015, Antwan had a big-time setback and fell very ill again so he left Ohio and returned home to Florida. His doctors put him on the same treatment protocol that was successful the first time. Only this time it didn’t work.
Antwan needed a life-saving bone marrow transplant to survive. He lost nearly 50 pounds, spent almost all of 2017 in and out of hospitals before his father, Anthony, was matched and Antwan received his transplant.
After nearly 30 months away from Kent State, Antwan returned to school, but the scholarship offer that his head coach guaranteed would be waiting for him was off the table. The university had made a change and when Antwan returned to Ohio in early 2018, the entire coaching staff was new.
He would be given an opportunity to prove himself, but there were no guarantees of a scholarship. That’s all Antwan needed to hear. After being cleared by four doctors to make a return to the field, Antwan not only earned his scholarship back, he became a starting wide receiver right away.
In his first game back after missing the entire 2016 and 2017 seasons, Antwan caught a touchdown pass for the Golden Flashes. And he has played in every single game since and played a major role in Kent State winning its first bowl game in school history to close out a memorable 2019 season.
Right now Antwan is healthy and strong. But he knows his battle with aplastic anemia is not a done deal. The rare disease could return at any time.
WHAT THEY SAID“Being a survivor means beating the odds. There’s not a big chunk of people that survive this blood disorder. There’s not a lot of people who make it out of my hometown. Just to be able to survive the odds and be different. That’s what being a survivor means to me. My mom put a Superman “S” in front of it because she says I’m her Superhero. Being a survivor has a very special meaning to me for sure.” – Antwan Dixon