Darkness surrounding him, heartache consuming him, Todd Stoner closed his eyes and the vision appeared.
His ailing 2-month-old son, Clay, was transformed into a teenager. He was wearing a football uniform and crouched like a linebacker.
All odds were against that vision ever becoming reality. It would take a miracle. Still, it brought Todd momentary comfort. At that point, Todd, his wife, Ellen, Clay and the entire Stoner family needed all the comfort they could get.
Just two months after experiencing the highest of highs, Todd and Ellen were experiencing the lowest of lows. Clay had cancer. Doctors said Clay would not live to be 10.
"I just felt completely devastated," Ellen said. "You want everything to be all right, but you just don't know what is going to happen."
"I was 10 feet tall and bulletproof," said Todd, a helicopter pilot stationed in Jacksonville, N.C., at the time. "I didn't think anything could touch me but everything changed when we heard. It put everything in perspective."
Tonight, the Stoner's will gather for dinner. Clay will be there. The baby they said would not grow to live past 10 is a strong, intelligent 17 year old.
So really, it would be silly to call tonight's dinner a Thanksgiving meal. Every day is Thanksgiving for Clay and his family. Today, nobody would know Clay is not supposed to be here. The senior running back is coming off an excellent season in which he ran for 1,329 yards, scored 16 touchdowns and averaged more than five tackles per game.
A baby who once fought for his life has grown into a fast and powerful football player.
"He is on a mission whenever he is out there," Montoursville coach J.C. Keefer said. "Clay knows that he probably shouldn't be playing football with all the odds be has beaten."
The miracle is not what Clay has done this season. The miracle is that he is here.
As their son turned 2 months old, Todd and Ellen noticed a growth forming on Clay's right eye. They hoped it would dissipate but it kept growing bigger. When doctors analyzed it, they said it was a cancerous tumor. It was golf-ball sized and pushing against the eye. Because Clay was so young, a bone had not formed around the eye, meaning doctors could not go in and operate.
Chemotherapy was the only option. It was a nasty one for a baby, too, and doctors told the Stoner's the odds of watching Clay grow up were slim.
Their immediate family 10 hours away, the Stoner's had nowhere to go. Instead, their church and their friends found them. Doctors might be pessimistic, but these people were not.
"Our church was amazing. They would not let us think anything other than God would do a miracle and that's what got us through," Ellen said. "There were probably 18 people in the hospital with us. There was so much support and that meant a lot. That was something that carried us through and I don't know where we would have been without it."
There is no documented proof all the prayers made a difference but nearly a month later, the bone that doctors said had not and would not soon form grew into place. Surgery could now be done. Young Clay, though, experienced more turmoil and lost several units of blood during the operation. Doctors feared he might not survive.
Again, Clay proved them wrong. He pulled through and the golf-ball size tumor that came falling out looked like one an 80-year-old, not a 2-month-old, would have.
The cancer was gone, but another problem replaced it. After removing the tumor, doctors sewed the bones together and worried that Clay's sight would not return. He wore a patch over his right eye, was injected with steroids and was completely blind.
Months later, Clay had 20-20 vision. The Stoner's and the doctors really had no scientific explanation for the amazing recovery. Something more powerful seemed at work.
"We were put in a position where our backs were against the wall and we just had to believe that God would heal him," Todd said. "They were telling us it wasn't looking good, but we just decided to believe what The Bible said. We stood on our faith and believed and kept praying and believing. In a span of over a month, we go from having a kid that has cancer and is blind to being healed of cancer and having 20-20 vision, so God is so good."
"It's one of the worst things I went through in life, but one of the best things. I wouldn't change it for anything because of what I've learned from it," Ellen said. "It changed my perspective for the rest of my life. You realize there is a purpose to everything and you realize what a gift everything is."
Clay understands that as well as anyone. Those who have watched him play football, realize how much he appreciates that gift. He is only 5-foot-7, but Clay is 162 pounds of fearless, pure energy. He often is or is one of the smallest players on the field, but has made running over or tackling much bigger and heavier players a calling card.
The more things have changed, though, the more they have stayed the same. The last two seasons again tested Clay's character. As a junior, he broke his hand in Week 4 against Jersey Shore. Early this season, he was battling a painful back injury that threatened to end his season and scholastic career.
Clay never missed a game.
Todd remembers the bone in Clay's broken hand sticking through the skin and hearing it scrape as Clay wrapped it. Clay played the rest of that season with a huge cast on his hand, but never missed any time and was even back to running and catching the ball late in the season as Montoursville won its last four games and reached districts. By season's end, he still led the team in rushing and ran for 188 yards in a season-defining 49-35 win over Athens.
"Some of the plays, he was making...I can't even explain it," Keefer said.
Clay opened his senior season with a 135-yard performance on five carries against Warrior Run. He did, though, in pain. As the next week went by, the pain increased. It was so bad by Thursday that Clay had trouble, walking, sitting and sleeping. Keefer all but ruled him out for Friday's game at Central Columbia and, in some ways, the Stoner's found themselves in the same position they were nearly 17 years earlier.
Again, Clay and his family relied on faith. Lewisburg two-time all-state linebacker Brandon Smith lent a hand, driving nearly 30 miles to pray with Clay. Faith and belief were all the Stoner's had at that point.
Again that was enough. That Friday morning, Clay woke up and felt little pain. Keefer had told him he was not going to play, but Clay said he was fine. Keefer and the team trainer were not convinced and took him to the football field that afternoon. Clay suited up in helmet and shoulder pads as both coach and trainer took turns hitting him hard, trying their best to simulate game action. Clay never buckled and was hitting those two even harder by session's end.
Clay played that night, scored a touchdown and only grew stronger while the pain went away throughout the season. The senior became Montoursville's first 1,000-yard rusher since 2009, averaged 7.8 yards per carry, played relentless defense and helped the Warriors win eight games and reach the district semifinals for the first time in four years.
"It was fun to be a part of it and fun to play with all my friends," Clay said. "Every program take its hits but we just worked hard and brought everything back and had a great season."
Talking about his past is easier for Clay than talking about himself. He is the consummate team player, but there can be no mistaking that Montours-ville would not have enjoyed the type of season it did without him. The numbers only tell so much. The stats do not measure the force of Clay's will or the leadership he provides. Just by being out there, Clay is serving as an inspiration and showing his teammmates what can be accomplished, no matter the odds.
"You kind of understand why he's so resilient and as tough as he is," Keefer said. "The coaches always say, 'appreciate every snap like it's your last,' and very rarely do you get kids to really understand what you're trying to get across. Clay is one of the very few who understood before his last game was over what it meant to play every snap like it's your last because you never know when that last snap will be. He knew and he gave 100 percent on every play."
Clay knew because he basically had already lived it. He is the player that was never supposed to be out there. After nearly having everything taken away, Clay is living every day, savoring every experience and playing every play with extra purpose.
He knows how blessed each one is.
"It's totally miraculous," Todd said. "Knowing he had cancer and to watch him play football now is amazing. It's a miracle every time he takes the field because he's supposed to be dead at this point."
Clay said he will not play collegiate football so the football journey is over. The bigger journey continues. Todd's vision became reality and now Clay is ready to write the next chapter. This is a feel-good story whose ending is nowhere in sight.
Some overuse the word miracle. Others do not believe miracles exist.
The Stoner's do believe in miracles. They see one every day.
There is no other way to explain it. Their son is alive. Their son is strong and intelligent. Their son is thriving.
Clay is their miracle.