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Rex and Jennifer Hudler began a non-profit organization called Team Up For Down Syndrome after their first son, Cade, was born with Down syndrome. This article, reprinted from the Philadelphia Inquirer, tells the beginning of their story.

Visit the Official Team Up For Down Syndrome website.

 

Philadelphia Inquirer

Jim Salisbury, Inquirer Staff Writer

 

The moment Rex Hudler had waited for his entire adult life arrived in the wee hours of the morning on Nov. 4, 1996, when his first son, Cade Allen Hudler, was born.

The snapshot is fresh in his mind. Cade, his head covered with red peach fuzz, was beautiful. But the infant was strangely quiet. The first minutes of life sped by, and Cade didn't cry.

"Is he OK?" Rex Hudler asked the delivery-room nurse.

The nurse said nothing. The moment would gnaw at Hudler's soul for days.

"I could sense from the nurse's reaction there might be a problem," he said. "I could feel it. She heard me ask if he was OK, but she never acknowledged me.

"Right there, I sensed something wasn't right."

Two days later, the night before mother and son were to leave the hospital, Jennifer Hudler felt the same anxious pang that, privately, had been tormenting her husband.

A different nurse, stopping by late to check on Cade, made an off-the-cuff remark about the little boy's physical appearance.

Jennifer Hudler played dumb, but as soon as the nurse left, she broke into tears and phoned her husband.

"I think Cade might have Down syndrome," she told him.

Today, the Phillies will play their home opener with a team changed drastically from the one that opened 1994 as defending National League champion.

New faces abound. The best-loved player, Jim Eisenreich, is gone.

Fans connected with Eisenreich because of his skill, honesty and professionalism. And also because his life had been touched by a difficult human reality called Tourette's syndrome; because he used the disease to reach out to the public yet never let it keep him down.

"When I hear people talk about Jim Eisenreich and all he overcame to play this game, I get goosebumps," said Hudler, 36.

"I'm hoping I can be to the Philadelphia fans what he was. I'm not saying I'm going to replace him. I'll never have that guy's hitting skills. But I do have some of the same characteristics he did. I'm a real person, just like Jim Eisenreich."

Hudler, like Eisenreich, is honest, hard-working and professional. And like Eisenreich, the man he ostensibly replaced on this Phillies' roster, Hudler's life has been touched by a reality of the most human kind.

His little boy, 5-month-old Cade, has Down syndrome.

From her hospital bed, Jennifer Hudler expressed her fears but begged her husband not to bother the doctor. It was so late.

"OK, honey, I won't," Rex Hudler said, a calming voice. ". . . OK. I love you. I'll see you in the morning."

Naturally, the next thing Hudler did was wake that doctor right up.

The doctor, groggy, told Hudler to relax, the nurse was probably wrong. Just in case, he'd order a blood test in the morning, before they took Cade home.

The car ride should have been one of the Hudlers' best moments ever. Here they were taking their first son home. But instead of exploding with joy, they were tortured: What would that blood test say? Cade still hadn't cried. He wasn't eating well.

Deep down inside, Rex Hudler already knew.

"I'll never forget the day I brought my first boy home," he said, his eyes filling with tears. "It was the saddest day of my life.

"It seemed like I was robbed of the joy. It hurt so bad I didn't know if I wanted to live anymore."

After three long days, the Hudlers learned the results of the blood test. Their emotions ran the gamut - sadness, anger, disappointment, guilt.

"We just looked at each other like, 'What did we do?' We don't do drugs. We take care of ourselves. We just kept asking why? We cried for two days straight," Hudler said.

Jennifer's thoughts focused on her husband, the man offered a football scholarship to Notre Dame, the man who has played professional baseball for 20 years, the man who always wanted a son with whom to share his passion for sports.

"It was very tough on Jennifer at first," Hudler said. "She was thinking of my boy, and me being a major-league player and him not having the chance to do what I did.

"I have to be honest," he added. "Sports was one of the first things I thought about, too."

A few days later, not even remotely resembling the upbeat and spirited character he is, Hudler returned to the gym in Anaheim. It was Dec. 10, less than two weeks before he would sign with the Phillies.

The guys he calls his boys - former Angels teammates Mark Langston, J.T. Snow and Jim Abbott - were all there. Weeping, Hudler told them about his son.

It was at this point, he says, that he received a sign that told him Cade was a very special blessing.

Abbott's story is well-known. He was born with one hand yet grew up to pitch in the major leagues. He was just the person Hudler needed.

They hit the treadmills and began jogging.

"Hud," Abbott said, "my parents had me when they were still in high school. Can you imagine how they felt when I came out with one hand? They were devastated."

Abbott kept on talking, kept on pumping up his friend's spirits.

Gradually, Hudler saw the light.

"Abby wasn't saying look at me, now, I'm a big-league ballplayer," Hudler said. "He was saying miracles can happen. I swear, God put me there, with Jim Abbott, to give it to me straight."

Hudler raced home, burst through the door and told Jennifer: "Honey, Cade is great. He's a blessing. He's going to be outstanding."

At first, Jennifer Hudler looked at her husband like he was crazy. Then she smiled. The ebullient spirit was back in her man. Together they would handle this just fine.

"Cade came to the right place," Rex Hudler said, "because we're going to love him to death."

Cade Hudler, named for his daddy's great-grandfather, has already been introduced to baseball. He spent the spring in Clearwater with Mom, Dad and big sister Alyssa, who is three. He went to his dad's games at Jack Russell Stadium, and he will be at the Vet today.

The severity of Cade's condition won't be known until he's about school age. Down syndrome is a congenital disorder caused by a chromosomal abnormality. It causes varying degrees of mental retardation and a variety of physical abnormalities.

The Hudlers are hopeful that Cade's case is mild, because he lacks some of the features of Down syndrome babies. For instance, he hears well, his eyes are set normally, and he lacks a crease on his palms common in Down syndrome children.

And, finally, there is the comforting fact that, after being taken home, he's spent only one day in a hospital. Many Down syndrome babies have extended hospital stays during their first year of life.

Rex Hudler says he has accepted that his little boy will never follow in his athletic footsteps.

"I've cleared that hurdle," he said. "This takes all the pressure off. No one expects Cade to do anything. He's not going to have to live up to any expectations of playing in the big leagues like normal healthy boys whose fathers are ballplayers."

He paused.

"Oh, Cade's going to play baseball," he continued. "It might be in the backyard, but I guarantee he'll play it and love it."

The Hudlers say their lives have been "enhanced" by Cade. They believe he was sent to them for a purpose, so that he, through his parents' warm, outgoing nature and his father's visible profession, can touch the lives of other families touched by Down syndrome.

"I feel like we've been called to a higher parenthood," Rex Hudler said.

"Cade might not be perfect to human eyes. But God made him perfect for me and my family. He's going to be a light for other Down syndrome children. I just know it . . . I just know it . . . I just know it."

Copyright The Philadelphia Inquirer Record Number: 9704120136