Richmond Times-Dispatch Weekend

Cornell’s effect is relentless­ly positive

- BY WES MCELROY Wes McElroy hosts a daily sports talk show at noon on 910 and 105.1.

Through 20 years in this business, I’ve gone some amazing places and met some special people. One of those is my radio sideline assistant for Virginia Tech football: Cornell Cranham.

There’s no one else like Cornell. Cornell was born in 1992 3½ months premature, weighing only 1 pound, 9 ounces. He was left behind by his birth mother, ventilator dependent in a hospital incubator with severe health conditions that made the outlook for his survival grave.

Yet in 1994, after 15 months at Children’s Hospital of The Kings Daughters in Norfolk, Kim Cranham, an occupation­al therapist, saw something that few, if any, did: hope. Kim convinced her husband that Cornell deserved a chance at life, despite the doctor’s warning that even if he beat the less than 50% chance of survival, he would never be able to talk, walk or show emotion.

Twenty-seven years later, Cornell is more than just surviving. He’s talking, and for seven Saturdays this fall, he’s been walking up and down with me on the sidelines for home games at Lane Stadium.

My first introducti­on to this amazing person came from my dear friend and broadcast colleague, Virginia Tech play-by-play man Jon Laaser, who randomly texted me one day last March: “I’ve hired you a sideline assistant. Read this.” It was followed by an online link to “The Cornell Effect,” a book released in January written by Dr. John Cranham, a dentist and Kim’s husband, about their journey raising Cornell in a biracial family along with their daughters Kaitlyn and Kristen.

“I was captivated with the inspiring way with which the Cranhams took Cornell in, and then the appreciati­on he had for an unexpected life,” Laaser said. “By the end of the book, I knew I wanted to give Cornell a special experience, but then I also realized our crew and specifical­ly me could benefit from having him and his personalit­y around us.”

“It was complete shock, then excitement, followed by a bit of anxiety,” said John Cranham of Cornell’s reaction. “He worried a little bit because he didn’t know exactly what he would be doing, and he wanted to do a good job.”

Laaser and his wife, Renée, visited the Cranhams’ Smith Mountain Lake house one Saturday in the summer to put Cornell’s mind at ease and give him the job descriptio­n: follow me around, take notes, write down your observatio­ns and pass them along for the broadcast.

Cornell was even invited to attend a Virginia Tech football practice to meet the coaches and players at the beginning of the season, a real treat for someone who adopted the Hokies and attended games while Kaitlyn and Kristen attended Tech.

While I knew what Laaser was doing was special, I had my own reservatio­ns — not about Cornell, but about me. How would I handle it? Could I teach him anything? Would I be patient enough? What were his limitation­s?

Renée Laaser had given me a heads-up that Cornell was very softspoken. This was due to his lungs not fully developing — he had a tracheosto­my until he was almost 4.

“The airway above his tracheosto­my site had closed off, so they had to take cartilage from his ribs to reconstruc­t his wind pipe,” Dr. Cranham told me. “An over 10-hour procedure which they tried when he was 2, but it did not go well. We almost lost him multiple times and they had to retrach him seven weeks later. They repeated the surgery at 3 years old, which was even more difficult because of all the scar tissue, but all that surgery was right by his vocal chords. There was a risk he could have lost his voice completely. That didn’t happen, but it did damage his ability to speak loudly, and left him with his own unique sound.”

Cornell does have a unique sound. He also has a unique swagger. At our first game together, five minutes with Cornell put my mind at ease, especially when his boldly confident first words were “You ready for tonight, Wes?”

He was.

His speech, while soft, was clear, and his ability to walk was fine — except he seemingly bounces with more energy each step, which is good because my only concern for 4-foot-11 Cornell became the same as it is for me on the sidelines: If you see the play coming right at you, “run!”

Corn, as we call him, dived right in. He listened in on sideline huddles and observed defensive coordinato­r Justin Hamilton diagrammin­g plays on a dry erase board. Cornell feverishly scribbled on his notepad.

He was so locked in that at one point in his first game, former Hokie and current New England Patriot Dalton Keene approached Cornell behind the Virginia Tech bench to tell him how he was moved and inspired by his story. I watched as Keene tried to engage Cornell in conversati­on, but he was too engrossed in what Jafar Williams was telling the wide receivers.

Cornell is all business.

In fact, one of our favorite stories comes from the only day we had a health scare with Cornell. It occurred early in the season, when Jon Laaser told him he could meet me in the booth at 1:15 p.m. to go down to the sidelines.

Upon entering the broadcast booth, Laaser encountere­d a deep-breathing, hunched-over Cornell, to which he asked, “Cornell, are you OK?”

The response was: “Elevator. [big breath] .... too slow, [gasping for air], didn’t want to be late, so I ran up.”

Here was a young man whose lungs never fully developed, who went through nearly a dozen extremely painful surgeries to create his voice, and was told he would never walk, yet his passion for this opportunit­y had him sprinting seven extended flights of steps from the ground to the top of Lane Stadium because he didn’t want to be late for one second of one minute of his life.

“You can feel his positive nature and the way he goes after his own life,” Dr. John Cranham said. “He just loves people and he loves his life. People are drawn to him.”

In the middle of the season, Virginia Tech coach Justin Fuente took time to address the team about Cornell and his story and offered copies of “The Cornell Effect.”

The response by the players was overwhelmi­ng. Not just by those who read the book, but those who have taken the time to get to know Cornell.

“There’s very, very few people in the world like John and his wife, and those people shine a little bit of light in this dark world,” said Virginia Tech linebacker Dax Hollifield, who on multiple occasions has chatted up and fist-bumped Cornell on the sidelines. “I’m very happy to call them my friends and just to have met and let Cornell be in my life. It’s changed me. It’s been an amazing opportunit­y.” Indeed it has.

Cornell has reminded me that sometimes what seems so big isn’t and what appears so small, like walking, talking and smiling should never be taken for granted.

“I think the reason he is so happy and positive is at some visceral level, he remembers how bad his life was in those early years. How hard he fought to stay alive. Once he got over the hump he lives every day like it’s a miracle,” added Dr. Cranham. “You asked what it is about him that people are drawn to .... that’s it.”

That’s the Cornell Effect.

 ?? SCOOTER WALLER ?? Cornell Cranham (left) is the sideline assistant for Wes McElroy on radio broadcasts of Virginia Tech football.
SCOOTER WALLER Cornell Cranham (left) is the sideline assistant for Wes McElroy on radio broadcasts of Virginia Tech football.

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