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UW-River Falls athletes battle for baby Leo on and off court

September 26, 2014

Leo Russell Babler sleeping soundly at home. The Lionhearted game will take place at 7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 26, in the Karges Center. The women’s basketball team will be selling t-shirts for $15. (Photo courtesy of Lionhearted Fund)
Leo Russell Babler sleeping soundly at home. The Lionhearted game will take place at 7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 26, in the Karges Center. The women’s basketball team will be selling t-shirts for $15. (Photo courtesy of Lionhearted Fund)

Often sports teams face challenges on the field or court but an assistant UW-River Falls Falcons coach and his family are facing a challenge much bigger than just a game.

For nine years Mike Babler has been a part of the women’s basketball team as an assistant coach under Cindy Holbrook.

Last season, the team had to overcome some challenges such as losing players to injuries and the inexperience by a team filled with majority underclassmen. By the end of the season, the team started to get in rhythm with each other but it was too late, as the team did not make the WIAC tournament. This season Babler and his family have another challenge to overcome.

Babler’s grandson, Leo Russell, was born to Ryan and Lewann (Ihrke) Babler, both of whom are UWRF graduates. After Leo was born, the family was shocked to find out that Leo had a lethal form of dwarfism called Rhizomelic Chondrodysplasia Punctata (RCPC), which is an extremely rare genetic disorder. The disorder carries distinct characteristics such as cataracts, shortness of limbs, some important organs aren’t fully developed, seizures, and joint stiffness. This form of dwarfism is so rare that about 60 children around the world have been reported with having this type of dwarfism.

Because of the high medical costs that are required in order for Leo to maintain a healthy life, Babler and his family created a Go Fund Me page and named it the Lionhearted Fund, telling people about his grandson’s disorder and how people who are interested could get involved.

“This has really given me a passion to do anything I can for my grandson,” Babler said about his grandson’s disorder.

Coach Babler credits the social media site Facebook as being a very instrumental part in sharing Leo’s story with people from all over, saying he has received donations from “across the ocean and donations from Hawaii.”

Babler has also created red tshirts which say Lionhearted Fund on the front and Leo with the number nine on the back. He showed these shirts to the players on his team asking them to wear them to help spread the word about Leo to people around campus. The basketball team took this idea and ran with it by coming up with the idea for a fundraiser selling the t-shirts for 15 dollars a piece with all proceeds going to the fund.

“It’s something that we take for granted that we wanted to help give back to him,” said junior captain guard Richell Mehus. “Coach Babler has done so much for our basketball team that we want to give back to him as much as we can.”

Not only has the women’s basketball team become involved, the volleyball team is also doing its part in helping Babler’s grandson. Coach Patti Ford has taken it upon herself to get her team involved in whatever way they can. After talking with Babler about his grandson and the t-shirts that he created, she decided to get the volleyball team involved in an effort to get the UWRF community involved but also getting the city of River Falls involved.

When asked what she has done for the fundraiser she said, “the idea kind of came along the same lines of the ALS Ice Bucket Challege,” referring to the viral Facebook videos of people pouring ice water over their heads to raise awareness of ALS. Ford continued by saying, “Mike’s son-in-law and daughter are both graduates of UW-River Falls and Mike’s been apart of the athletic program and I just thought this would be a really good gift back to one of our own.”

The Lionhearted game is set for 7 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 26, in the Karges Center. The women’s basketball team will be in attendance selling t-shirts for the Lionhearted fund and the volleyball team will wear the red shirts to show their support for Leo and the fund. For more information about this event visit the UWRF sports page at this link: bit.ly/1vasDbD. If you cannot attend the game and would like to make a donation or learn more about Leo and his condition, you can visit the Go Fund Me link: hgofundme.com/cfgmts.