After winning his first high school wrestling tournament in November 2016, Alex Randell went straight to the hospital. He couldn’t wait to give his prize to his older brother, Maxie, who was on a ventilator and fighting for his life in the intensive care unit.
When Alex got there, he placed the medal around Maxie’s neck.
“You earned this just as much as I did,” he recalls telling his brother, “because you’re a true warrior.”
And he’ll never forget what happened next. For the first time in a month, Maxie smiled.
Battling pneumonia at the time, Maxie recovered, though it wouldn’t be the last of his complications.
Maxie was born with Canavan disease, a rare and progressive genetic disorder that causes the brain to degenerate. In most cases, children with Canavan develop life-threatening complications by age 10, according to National Organization for Rare Disorders.
But Maxie, who turns 22 in October, is a fighter. That’s one of the many traits that Alex, a 17-year-old incoming senior at Notre Dame College Prep in Niles, admires about him.
In the weeks leading up to that 2016 tournament, Alex’s coach drove him to the hospital after every practice. There, he would eat dinner, study and sit at Maxie’s bedside, holding his hand and encouraging him to not give up.
“It was uncertain as to whether we would hear him laugh again,” Alex said. “There were times when he was in the hospital that we were uncertain we were going to come home with him.”
Alex can’t imagine life without Maxie — it’s one of his biggest fears.
Though the Randells’ home in Buffalo Grove has three bedrooms, the brothers choose to share a room. If Maxie makes noise in the middle of the night, Alex will often get up to check on him even if he has to wake up early for wrestling.
“Maxie and I have basically been best friends for my entire life,” Alex said. “I’ve been a part of his everyday life, [and] he’s been a part of my everyday life. Our lives have been entwined since I’ve been born.”
Alex’s life as a young child tended to revolve around Maxie — not that he minded. His mother, Ilyce, would push Maxie in a wheelchair with one arm while holding Alex in a baby carrier with the other arm.
“Alex went everywhere with us,” Ilyce said.
And he wanted to help. At 2, Alex started feeding Maxie soft foods — applesauce, macaroni and cheese — with a spoon. There was another time, Ilyce said, when she left the two boys alone in the living room and came back to find Alex helping Maxie with his physical therapy stretches.
“It’s amazing,” she said. “I grew up with brothers, and we loved each other, but we grew up fighting, and just your typical sibling relationship. But Alex has never been like that with Maxie. He’s very gentle. . . . They’re really, really close. If you ask Maxie, he’ll tell you his favorite person in the world is Alex.”
Alex is more than a brother. He’s a teammate and protector.
When the Randells attended a Renaissance fair more than a decade ago, Alex, who was 6 at the time, told a 12-year-old boy to get off the bench in front of them because he was blocking Maxie’s view.
“He wasn’t super polite about it,” Ilyce recalled with a giggle.
Maxie can’t move of his own volition. Yet the two play “Buddy Baseball,” a program that pairs volunteers with children and young adults who have disabilities to help them play baseball.
“It’s great bonding experience with my brother,” said Alex, who also sometimes volunteers at Maxie’s summer day camp. “Growing up alongside my brother showed me how valuable these people are and how they can be overlooked a lot. [It] made me want to reach out to other people in the community as well and help them.”
Alex, who won in freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling in the 106-pound weight class at state last season, dreams of wrestling in college. Earlier this month, he represented Team Illinois at the Junior Nationals Tournament in Fargo, North Dakota. It’s considered the biggest high school tournament in the country, with many college scouts in attendance.
Maxie, who likes to watch Alex’s meets, couldn’t make the trip.
Alex fell just short of placing in the Greco-Roman tournament, which was the goal. Though his plan was to bring his medal back to Maxie, which had become a sort of tradition, he landed himself on the map for some Division II and III coaches.
That makes Maxie smile, which is one of Alex’s favorite things to do.
“His smile can light up an entire room,” Alex said. “I wake up at 5:30 every day during the school year to get a morning workout in, and he’s usually awake, too, and when my dad brings him out on the couch, he’s just beaming. He’s pretty much always happy, and that makes me happy.”