8-year-old girl battling bone marrow disease forms bond with Belhaven football team

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College football season is in full force across the South, and as always, it never fails to bring some heartwarming moments with it.

That was the case when Natalie Hughes led the Belhaven football team out of the gates during their home opener against Millsaps. Natalie, an eight-year-old battling aplastic anemia, was dubbed the team’s “little sister” going into the season after head coach Blaine McCorkle got word of her fight with the bone marrow disease through a player’s father.

Following a transplant Natalie underwent in April, the Blazers led by McCorkle walked from campus to the Children’s of Mississippi Hospital in Jackson to cheer her on from the ground level.

“Coach McCorkle reached out. He’s an amazing person,” John Hughes, Natalie’s father, said during a recent episode of Good Things with Rebecca Turner. “He wanted to show support and said, ‘Do you mind if we come and cheer her on.’ I was like, ‘Well, that would be awesome, but you can’t come inside because we’re locked in the transplant unit, but we have a really good view of the outside entrance.’”

The team showed out in full force with signs painted in Natalie’s honor. Some were even doing somersaults, according to John.

The Belhaven football team cheering on Natalie outside Children’s of Mississippi (Photo from Blaine McCorkle/X)

“It was actually amazing and what surprised me the most was they walked all the way there just to see a normal human being,” Natalie recounted. “It was pretty awesome.”

Four months later, as Natalie had continued to show signs of improvement over the summer, the Blazers invited her to the Belhaven Bowl to be with them before the annual Riverside Rumble. Along with leading the team’s charge into the stadium, she also flipped the coin during the pregame meeting between officials and captains.

“Every football game, they flip a coin and I got to do that,” Natalie said. “I also walked through thousands of people – like thousands. Everyone was screaming and I heard people screaming my name.”

As for what keeps Natalie going as she makes progress in her recovery, the eight-year-old had some wise words.

“I realized I have two options: I can sit in this hospital bed all day and not get to succeed in life and die right there or I can keep my life going and keep having adventures like I do and keep having a happy life,” Natalie said.

The full interview with Natalie and John Hughes can be found below.


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