McGill Scholarship winner Riley Babbitt of West Milford never quit by Sean Farrell of The Record
The words just would not come out.
The loving mother couldn’t bare to say them.
Marcie Babbitt was afraid to tell her child about his diagnosis. She waited until Riley was about 12 to finally break the silence about Crouzon Syndrome and talk about the genetic disorder that constantly disrupts his life.
That moment in a Hilton Head pool meant so much for her. But not for him.
Now 19, Riley Babbitt doesn’t let his condition slow him down. He hasn’t allowed more than 40 operations and a childhood spent in doctor’s offices and waiting rooms keep him from a normal life at West Milford High School.
He is a tennis player. A basketball manager. And a National Honor Society student with a 3.96 GPA.
His partial hearing loss and blindness out of his left eye are only a small part of his story.
The quick-witted Highlander senior received The Record’s Charlie McGill Scholarship on Thursday night at the North Jersey Sports Awards for his fighting spirit in spite of daily challenges.
“He’s an inspiration to us,” Marcie Babbitt said. “He shows anybody that you can get through anything and do whatever you set your mind to. Anytime we’re whining about something, you can think of him. What am I complaining about? You don’t sweat the small stuff.”
On the surface, Riley Babbitt is like any other other teenager. He loves playing Nintendo and being with his two dogs, at least when he isn’t working part-time at Jenkinson’s in Point Pleasant. But life with Crouzon Syndrome can be quite challenging. He doesn’t drive or eat solid food, and every night is spent wearing a CPAP machine for sleep apnia. Simple activities like getting a haircut or seeing the dentist become more complicated.
“Bones are put together prematurely,” Riley explained of Crouzon Syndrome. “It’s harder to breathe through your nose. I can’t breathe through my nose, which is why I can’t smell.”
An endless cycle of examinations and appointments is all Babbitt has ever known. It began when he was born with his left eye on his cheek and with a collapsed lung. He was rushed from one hospital to another until doctors could figure out what had happened. They performed the first procedure on him a few days into his life and did skull surgery at five weeks.
“Nothing could stop him,” his mother said. “He was never the kid to say, ‘feel sorry for me’. He’s just like anybody else.”
“He doesn’t make excuses,” his dad added. “It is what it is. He just does what he wants to do.”
Babbitt never backed down from a challenge in high school, either. He became the statistician for the fencing team and worked out with the weight-lifting club. He was on the tennis team for a few years too, all while taking books and homework with him on rides into New York City to keep up with studies.
“My grades are my top priority,” Riley Babbitt said. “That’s why I’m not really good at tennis.”
It’s possible that Babbitt’s biggest impact came on another type of court. Coach John Finke was pleased to have him on the sidelines as a team manager for the last two years with the Highlander boys basketball team. Babbitt kept order on the bench and kept teammates feeling at their best.
“He absolutely thrived in that team setting,” Finke said. “He fit in. He always had some comments, whether they were comical or motivational. He was always there to lend some type of support. He got along well with the other support kids, my statisticians, the kids who filmed for me. He just fit in with everybody and became an important part of the team.”
Babbitt even checked into the Highlanders’ Senior Night game against Westwood this year for the opening minute. He took three short-range shots – sinking the last one – and drew a standing ovation from a full capacity home crowd.
“Just for him to be able to go out on the court and put a uniform on and do the handshake like he’s be watching the guys all year – well two years – I think that was more of a highlight almost than the basket,” Finke said. “It was really a great atmosphere. This is my 30th year coaching basketball starting this year. It might be in the top five highlights of my career.”
Life is about to change for Babbitt. There is already a high school graduate lawn sign in bright Highlander yellow outside his family’s Morris Avenue home. Babbitt is also getting ready to go to TCNJ to study biology and pursue a career in teaching.
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This month, he’s also scheduled for the third and final midface advancement surgery. It will give him more protection around his eyes, allow him to eat solid food and eliminate the need for a CPAP.
The recovery time is six to eight weeks, but Babbitt doesn’t seem to mind. He’s never been one to worry.
“Just imagine, you wake up in the morning,” Marcie Babbitt said. “You take off your CPAP that you had on all night because you can’t breathe that great. You’ve got a big ring on your forehead. You cough. You gag every morning from really bad reflux. You can’t see out of this eye. You’re hearing impaired so you’re left out of some conversations.”
“You’ve had multiple surgeries. You can’t drive because you can’t see out of that eye. You eat blended food every day. And none of this gets to you. He never complains, never feels sorry for himself. He’s the most positive, upbeat person ever.”