ALEXANDRIA — Former University of Alabama football player Jeremiah Castille came to this community’s high school Wednesday to recognize someone who’s risen above adversity, as he did in his childhood.
He found that person in 14-year-old 8th grader Grace Gill.
Castille awarded Gill a $1,000 scholarship to the college of her choice on Wednesday after delivering a motivational speech to the high and elementary school student body. Though her mother and father and teachers have known for weeks that Castille was coming, the award was a surprise to Gill, and came after a year of tribulation for the girl and her family.
Students gathered in the school’s gym to hear Castille talk about his own childhood: He overcame the poverty and drug abuse of his parents to play football for the University of Alabama, part of the last team Paul Bear Bryant coached.
Castille did that, he said Wednesday, because of the discipline and willpower that came from his faith in God.
“The reason I’m here today is, we’re going to recognize someone who’s had some adversity in their life,” he said. “She made it into a stepping stone.”
Castille called for Grace. She rose slowly from the balcony bleachers where she sat, and made her way down to the gym’s floor.
“I was in shock,” she said after the ceremony, surrounded by her family, Castille, her teachers, and her pastors looking on. Though she’s only 14, and college is still a long way off, she’s got a plan.
“I really want to go to UAB, to get into nursing,” she said. “With everything that’s been going on ... it’s made me really think about it.”
Everything that’s gone on gets back to the adversity Gill’s faced. It starts with her family’s house. It burned to the ground in December 2014.
One month later, her family still sifting through the rubble of their lives, trying to rebuild, Gill was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer.
“Osteosarcoma,” Lisa Gill, her mother, says, a cancer that starts in the cells of bones, especially the long bones of the legs. The diagnosis meant eight months of chemotherapy, knee replacement surgery and three more surgeries on her lungs.
Doctors tell Gill she’s in remission now. After months of being homebound, she returned to school at the start of this year.
“She’s still recuperating, but she’s participating in church, and in activities at school, as she can,” her mother said.
Gill’s hair, lost to the chemo, has grown back, thick and dark, but short. She made the school’s color guard team in February of this year.
“Grace has always been a positive person ... that’s how she’s been through the whole thing,” Lisa Gill said. “She’s a Christian, and she has a strong faith in God ... I think that’s where she gets it.”
The scholarship will be held for Grace until she’s ready for college, Castille said Wednesday.