Tyler McKinney stared blankly ahead as he listened to doctors explain the final options for his younger brother, who lay unconscious in a hospital bed in the other room.
Just 24 hours before, Seth McKinney, 15, had been jumping on the trampoline at his mother’s home after school on Oct. 15.
He began to feel severe pain in his head and walked inside to find a parent. He then lost feeling in his left leg, then his right.
He collapsed on a bed and began to have a seizure. Seth was rushed to Blue Ridge Regional Hospital in Spruce Pine.
Tyler and his older brother, Alex, were at football practice at Mitchell High School (Bakersville, N.C.) when they got the call from their mother. Tyler is a junior on the football team, and Alex, a former player, has been an assistant coach this season.
“Alex came up to me during practice and said, ‘We’ve got to go,'” Tyler said. ‘”Something has happened to Seth.'”
When they arrived at the hospital, Seth had been diagnosed with a rare condition called arteriovenous malformation in his brain, an undetected birth defect that causes arteries and veins to wrap around each other and leads to severe complications.
Seth had suffered a brain aneurysm, which had caused hemorrhaging.
They flew him to Johnson City Medical Center, where the family allowed doctors to attempt a risky life-saving surgery.
“The neurosurgeon told us there was a one and a million chance that Seth would survive the surgery,” Tyler said. “But we couldn’t live with ourselves if we didn’t try.”
Seth survived the surgery, but the next day remained unresponsive and on life support. Doctors tried to take him off sedatives, but that only triggered more seizures.
“They told my parents first, and I saw my mom bawling, and I knew were going to have to take Seth off of life support,” Tyler said.
Doctors pulled the family into the next room to discuss options to donate Seth’s organs, but also prepare them for the toughest moment of their lives.
They would have to say goodbye.
“Alex and I walked in the room, sobbing our eyes out,” Tyler said. “I grabbed his little hand and I said, ‘Hell of a fight, big guy.’ I kissed him on the forehead, and tickled his feet a little bit like I used to do when we wrestled. Alex said his goodbyes … and that was that.”
Seth died Oct. 16, only four minutes after being taken off life support.
“He gave it all he could,” Tyler said. “But I really feel like God said it was his time.”
‘It’s almost like he knew’
The high school held a memorial for Seth on Friday, hours before Mitchell High School was set to host Polk County in a conference football game.
Tyler didn’t plan on playing.
“My heart wasn’t in it,” Tyler said. “But I decided to play because I think that’s what Seth would’ve wanted.”
‘Just outrun him’
Tyler fumbled on the first play of the game that night.
The coaching staff had decided to hand the ball off to Tyler on the first play.
“I’m a wide receiver so they don’t usually hand off the ball to me,” Tyler said. “After that I was kind of nervous that I was just going to fall apart.”
He went on to score on the opening drive, his first of three receiving touchdowns on the night.
Seth had always ribbed Tyler after football games about how he should’ve run during certain plays. Seth would always tell his brother, “You should’ve hit him with a spin move.”
On Tyler’s second score of the game, he heard his little brother’s voice.
“I felt him tell me to go left and then go right,” Tyler said. “Then when I broke free and heard him say, ‘Just outrun him.’ I was not getting caught that game.”
Since that Friday, Tyler has played the best football of his high school career, catching 13 passes for 271 yards and five touchdowns while leading Mitchell to the third round of the 1AA NCHSAA playoffs.
He’s done so while wearing a white armband over his right arm that reads “Seth Strong.”
“There is not a second I’m not thinking about him,” Tyler said. “Every second of every day I think about Seth. But when I’m playing football, I can focus on happy memories and not that he’s not here.”