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Brooke Stepp wasn’t going to make it to lunch.
Then 34 weeks pregnant with her second child, Stepp headed to a routine checkup with her doctor in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
Planning to meet her husband, Justin, after the appointment for a quick bite, she brought 2-year-old son Courtland along.
That family meal never came.
Doctors discovered Brooke was in labor. Allison Stepp, or Alli for short, was on her way.
“Nobody in our family had experience with a premature (Neonatal intensive care unit) baby,” Brooke told The State. “So we didn’t know really what to expect.”
Brooke was quickly admitted to the upper floors of Washington Regional Medical Center, though COVID-19 restrictions limited Courtland from joining her. Justin, then coaching receivers at Arkansas, raced over from the football offices to the hospital to be with Brooke.
A family friend from the Razorbacks’ recruiting office also headed to the Stepp’s house to keep an eye on Courtland until Brooke’s parents could arrive later that night.
Doctors worked to hold off Alli’s birth for a day-and-a-half. Two steroid shots were added in hopes of progressing her development as much as possible.
At 2:12 a.m. on Dec. 17, Allison Blair Stepp was born six weeks premature. She weighed just 4 pounds, 13 ounces and measured 18 1/4 inches.
“You just want to be able to help them,” Justin said, “and you’re pretty much helpless.”
‘What’re we going to do to win?’
Justin Stepp sat behind the steering wheel of his car just outside the SMU football facilities and paused. Slipping out the driver’s side door, he began walking toward the car tucked in front of his with a nervous gait.
Coaching receivers for the Mustangs during the 2015 season after a three-year spell at Appalachian State, Stepp had just taken a job on Chad Morris’ staff in Dallas. So too had his future wife.
A native of east Texas, not far from the Louisiana border, Brooke had known Morris and his wife, Paula, for years. During Chad’s two-year run as the head football coach and athletic director at Elysian Fields High School, Brooke babysat his daughter, Mackenzie.
After earning her degree in business administration from Texas in 2009 and a master’s degree in accounting from SMU the following year, Brooke was working as a CPA in Austin when Chad called to ask if she’d join his staff as the director of recruiting operations.
“It took one phone call,” Morris told the State. “I called her and she’s like, ‘I’m on my way.’ ”
As Justin pulled up behind Brooke’s car, Chad and Paula chatted with Brooke through her window. Sheepishly, Brooke revealed she was walking over to the SMU basketball game with Justin. “Ohhhhh” Chad and Paula responded in a melodramatic tone.
“I was so embarrassed, because all they’ve ever tried to do is fix me up with someone,” Brooke said through a laugh. “And so then when Justin pulls up and parks behind me and he sees me talking to them through my window — I’ll tell you what, for a second there I was like, ‘Is he even going to get out of the car?’ ”
Soon after their first date, Justin went into Chad’s office to disclose his relationship with Brooke. Morris offered him a brief sermon of sorts.
“I told Justin, ‘Listen, she has a job with me for the rest of her life. I will fire you in a heartbeat if you hurt this girl,’” Morris recounted jokingly. “I said, ‘You’ll be done, but she’s got a job with me the rest of her life and so I just want you to understand that right now. ... She’s like a daughter to Paula and I.’”
With football as the backdrop to their relationship — one that saw Justin ask Brooke’s father and Morris for their blessings before he proposed to Brooke — Brooke too brought a gridiron-like competitiveness to her approach with Alli’s stay in the NICU.
During her earliest hours, Alli was hooked up to a slew of varying wires. An IV hung near her. A CPAP machine was used to help her labored breathing. A feeding tube was also added to help her digest enough food and grow to the point she could go home.
Food consumption generally proves a challenge for premature babies, Brooke explained. Some babies can quickly handle food on their own. Others need extra help over time.
Each day as doctor’s monitored Alli’s condition, Brooke kept close tabs, taking comprehensive notes on her phone regarding how much food intake Alli needed to get out of the NICU.
“We’re a coach’s family,” Brooke said. “We’re like, ‘What are we going to do to win? What’re we going to do to get out of here?’ ”
A balancing act
While Brooke stayed at Washington Regional with Alli, Justin pulled double-duty running between the Arkansas football offices and the NICU.
Nearing the end of his third season in Fayetteville and his first under head coach Sam Pittman — who replaced Morris after a pair of two-win seasons — Justin spent his mornings coaching practice and his afternoons toiling through whatever varying responsibilities the Razorbacks asked of him.
A trip to the hospital followed once he finished at the office to spend time with Brooke and to get up to date with Alli’s treatment. Then came rushing back to the family’s home to put Courtland to bed. Once Courtland fell asleep, Justin headed back to the hospital to spend the night with Brooke in the Ronald McDonald House on the fourth floor of Washington Regional’s Women and Infants Center tower.
Each morning, the cycle started over.
“We had (Alli) at 2:30-something in the morning,” Justin said. “And you know, at six o’clock — four hours later — I was sitting there making sure NLI’s came in on signing day.”
While Justin balanced bouncing from the football offices to the hospital to the house and back, Morris put in a call to South Carolina head coach Shane Beamer.
If Beamer’s staff wasn’t full, Morris had a receivers coach he thought Beamer ought to talk to.
“I said, ‘Look, if you’re full on staff, I get it.’ ” Morris recounted. “‘But this is a guy — let me tell you — you won’t go wrong hiring (Stepp).”
Beamer reached out to Stepp on Morris’ word. Square in the middle of Alli’s NICU stay and the end of the 2020 season, Stepp explained the situation and asked that any further conversations wait so the year could wrap up and he could loop Pittman in on the potential move.
Beamer agreed, expressing to Stepp he was his No. 1 choice and as long as he could be in Columbia the day before spring ball started on March 20, he could take as much time as he needed. Even Beamer’s wife, Emily, hopped on a call with Justin, Brooke and Shane after Justin accepted the job in case she could help.
“We had heard from so many people that we knew that knew (Shane and Emily) that they were great people,” Brooke said. “You can hear and people can talk all they want, but when you actually see it, it’s a whole other thing.”
Returning home, a move to Columbia and memories that last
Justin carefully picked Alli up from her temperature-controlled bed and hugged her in his brawny arms.
Justin and Brooke had been able to hold their daughter briefly the night she was born, but not for the lengthy hours parents hold so dear. Once unhooked from the tubes and wiring that helped her progress through her earliest days of life, it took doctors nearly 30 minutes to reattach all the varying medical equipment once Alli was back in her bed after being held.
“Seeing your child hooked up to all that,” Brooke said, “even though the doctors are telling you that they’re going to be OK, is hard.”
Alli slowly progressed through her treatment as her time in the NICU eclipsed two weeks. She could eventually be held semi-regularly. But as the days at Washington Regional wore on, the stress wore on the family.
Courtland cried at dinner a handful of times, knowing Brooke would have to head back to the hospital that night. Christmas Day meant splitting time at Washington Regional with Alli and heading home early in the morning to open presents with Courtland back at the house.
“Justin and I both have said there will never be another Christmas or New Year’s that we don’t think about the NICU nurses and doctors and families that are up there in the hospital,” Brooke said.
Eighteen days after Alli was born and rapidly shifted to the NICU, Justin accepted the job as the wide receivers coach at South Carolina. Twenty-four hours later, Alli was released from the hospital. The Stepps were heading home.
In the months since Alli’s discharge, she continues to see a doctor for her regular checkups. No lingering issues have been detected.
Courtland has also quickly thrust himself into the role of supportive older brother after being overwhelmingly cooperative and well-behaved during his parents’ time at the hospital aside from a momentary lapse here or there.
Allison Blair Stepp arrived into the world six weeks earlier than anyone anticipated. But in just 19 days of life, she offered her parents and those closest to the family a lasting sense of appreciation.
Gone are the wires, tubes and incessant beeping of medical devices that marred a nearly three week stay at Washington Regional. Instead, they’ve been replaced with tears, smiles and memories — subtle emotional reminders of a newborn home at last.
“It was a longggg process, man,” Justin said. “Gosh, I would not wish that on anybody. But (it) definitely puts everything in perspective.”