Kristen Eargle wasn't thinking about her family's struggles.
About the 73 days her daughter, Landrey, spent in a Dallas-area hospital after birth.
Of Landrey's open-heart surgery in her first days, the nearly 20 hospitalizations and Landrey's diagnosis at Monroe Carell Jr. Vanderbilt Children's Hospital of a rare gene mutation – CSNK2B – that at the time was the first of its kind in North America and just the fourth globally confirmed disorder for the gene.
Note Landrey Eargle also combats myoclonic epilepsy, congenital heart defect and an immunodeficiency, among her battles.
Kristen Eargle wasn't confronting these realities without an eye on helping others.
Instead, the wife of veteran college football coach Josh Eargle kept studying her daughter's smile and wondering how to harness that unflinching hope into an uplifting aid for others.
“I’ll get overwhelmed with maybe a new medical prognosis. My head goes to the worst, and I can start worrying about what that looks like now, five years from now and when she’s 80,” Kristen Eargle, mother to Kourtney, Landrey and Stallings, told FootballScoop. “I remember driving home from a Children’s Hospital outpatient visit. We were given some tough news from an immunology perspective.
“I started telling him everything and crying. He says, 'What’s Landrey doing right now?' I reply, 'What? You’re not hearing me!' He says, 'What is Landrey doing right now? I turned my head right around and see her smiling in her car seat. 'She’s smiling.' He (said), 'Well that’s what we are going to focus on.'
“We can choose to worry about things we can’t control in life or we can chose to focus on the joy in our life; what we are grateful for. That’s what Joshua has guided us through from building a nonprofit to walking through Landrey's journey.”
Landrey's arduous path encompasses all of her nearly nine years of life; the Eargles' nonprofit, Ruler of Hope (rulerofhope.org), spans the past 27 months.
“Landrey's middle name is Hope, and Landrey means 'Ruler', so that's Ruler of Hope,” Joshua Eargle said. “Through that we're trying to raise finances and awareness for critically ill children of all kinds.
“We want to help cardiac patients, especially children. We want to help families. And as much of the finances that are given to us that we can, we want to help fund research for chronic illnesses. Our foundation is just kind of getting off the ground but if can help one family here or one family there, that's a blessing to be able to help. We're driven to bring that message of hope that people gave to us through Landrey. She smiles every morning. She still deals with everything. She smiles through seizures. She's a joy of our life. For us to share hope and finances here and there, to help bring attention to critical illnesses, it's just been really awesome for our family to do and give back.”
The whole giving back thing is growing; the tight-knit fraternity of football coaches – and even more so their wives – has a chance to spread Ruler of Hope's mission like, well, the latest offensive craze Joshua Eargle studies in his senior analyst role at the University of Memphis.
With earlier help from Austin Peay, where Eargle spent the 2018 season as the Governors' record-setting offensive coordinator and briefly served as interim head coach after Will Healy's departure for the top job at Charlotte, as well as a powerful financial gesture from Georgia coach Kirby Smart, several Bulldogs' players and that athletics department that same season, as well as most recently from his Kansas Jayhawks' family, Joshua Eargle sees the football field as extension of his mission field.
“Everywhere we've been we try to involve the young men in our lives,” said Eargle, coaching at the collegiate level since 2003 following his playing career at Memphis. “We view coaching as our mission. Whether it was when I was head coach at East Texas Baptist or coordinator at Austin Peay or a coach at Kansas. Even through Covid this past year with Kansas, we fought to find a way to still bless kids.
“What you find out is that, especially the universities I've been able to be at, you've often got great resources around you. Student-athletes playing football by and large realize an opportunity and responsibility to give back to others. And when they do this community service, they walk away changed – maybe more than they helped. Kids are fighting for their lives 23 hours a day. But for one hour, one evening, to be able to go in there and take their mind off that, you can give them a little bit of hope for tomorrow.”
Most recently, hope springs from Ruler of Hope's partnership with Kansas City-area Ronald McDonald House.
Sure, COVID-19 and accompanying health restrictions precluded in-person endeavors from the Eargles and Jayhawks' players.
The pandemic could not rob their determination to provide relief.
“When COVID hit, and Landrey's had 18 hospitalizations and just a long battle, and my heart, I would wake up in the middle of the night and my heart was so heavy for families during the pandemic, having to quarantine, and these children are still fighting illness or waiting for transplants or surgeries,” said Kristen Eargle, a former ESPN reporter whose 'Coach's Wife Life' podcast has provided a candid space for family bedrocks in the profession. “Landrey's healthy right now, but there are people in there, the children's hospitals are always full. I would think about it over and over. So we did the 'Drop and Dine' program. Someone comes in and cooks a nice dinner and you have volunteers to play with children. How can we use this, how can we let these families know they're still loved and cared for in this pandemic? We came up with the idea that, 'What if we did a virtual trivia night?' We could drop off dinner play Disney trivia with them.
“We had about seven football players, and the Voice of the Jayhawks (Brian Hanni), and they were able to just cut up and had good time. I was just so excited, fired up. I didn't sleep for two days. Even if it's 40 minutes they don't have to think about their battle. Some kids were actually in the hospital, took the call from the hospital, and at the Ronald McDonald House. That night we tweeted it out, and then a couple other Big 12 schools reached out and said, 'Hey, let's spread this.'”
Ruler of Hope still is spreading its hope and its resources; the organization has a board, has added corporate partners along the way and continues its underlying mission: spread hope, one family at a time.
“It's grown a lot in just two years. It's always surprising to me to see the different families, coaching families, who maybe just saw something on social media,” Kristen Eargle said. “Here's some money to go do something with. I would love to continue blessing other families, allocating research for emergencies, get more coaches' families on it, the college football community.
“I always wondered, 'God, why did you give Landrey to us?' and I think it's for a purpose. I think the purpose of Landrey's life is to change and grow us. I now can see lot of people can struggle, you face challenges not brought on yourself, and how do you get thru those moments? How do you choose joy today? That's our motto: choose joy today. It's a battle of the mind. We're going to continue sharing that, to work with more and more coaches and families and to see it grow maybe across the country. Almost like satellites of Ruler of Hope all across the country. To see it take hold even more would be very special.”
Joshua Eargle knows, simply, Landrey isn't done lending inspiration.
“We are born good. We are good people. I see that in the game of football all the time,” said Joshua Eargle, calling Kristen the Eargle family team captain. “I saw that in the University of Georgia and what they did. People are innately good. Somewhere along life we just get blinded by our circumstances.
“Landrey is a great reminder to choose joy, to choose hope. She's done that for us and others. Kourtney and Stallings, we raise them. Landry raises me and Kristen. She teaches us to be the best we can be. She is wise beyond her years. She doesn't say one word. And she can teach me more than I could ever teach her.”
It's Landrey's way, one smile at a time.