Maternal instinct

Stephanie Scott always wanted her own child. Now she has 144 of them.

Stephanie Scott’s mother, Jean, was never the same after giving birth to Stephanie’s little brother, William, in fall 1972.

That day marked the end of the idyllic childhood Stephanie once enjoyed when her mother threw elaborate birthday parties for her, when she’d spend days making Christmas ornaments and the two of them would swim and ride horses on her grandfather’s farm in Tallahassee.

Stephanie used to bask in the joy of Halloween celebrations when the Green home filled with laughing, excited children and their parents.

“I felt treasured and important,” said Stephanie. “Kids would always ask me if they would be invited to other parties.”

Then it stopped. Depression came and stayed. For the next decade, Jean’s manic rages struck terror in Stephanie’s heart, setting her on a unimaginable journey in search of motherly love.

Stephanie learned to read her mother’s blue eyes. If she saw light, it meant her mom was in a peaceful place. If they appeared dark, she was depressed. And if they looked wild, she was suicidal, like the time she put a gun to her chin and asked Stephanie to help her pull the trigger.

Diagnosed with bipolar disorder, Jean was hospitalized for a summer, but when the bills started piling up, the family decided to bring her home.

Doctors warned Stephanie to watch her mother for signs of mania: pacing around the house non-stop, muttering to herself, laughing and crying for no apparent reason.

“I was 14 but felt very responsible for her,” Stephanie says.

Jean had only been home a few hours, when her eyes turned wild. Stephanie pretended she was sick so she could stay home from school to watch her mother.

The next day, despite her concern, Stephanie decided to return to school.

When the last bell rang, she rushed to the bus and found her father there waiting.

Your mother shot herself, he told her. She was dead.

“I couldn’t cry,” said Stephanie. “I felt like everything got locked inside me. I felt like I was encased in ice and concrete.”


Family of her own

Bearing a spray of yellow roses, Jean’s casket was lowered into the grave days later. Stephanie couldn’t help thinking Jean’s death was her fault. The guilt she felt was made worse by her father’s nightly drinking binges that lasted until he passed out.

Stephanie was left to look after her little brother, making sure he ate, went to bed, did his homework.

“William was my baby from the time he was born,” she said.

It wasn’t until her father decided to remarry a year or so later, that Stephanie began to feel some relief.

Her stepmother restored stability to the Green household, taking over the daily upkeep and meals, but Stephanie still helped William with his homework and drove him to baseball practice. She was in training to be the mother she never had. She dreamed of the day she had her own family. It would be healthy, and she would be the consistent, dependable mother Jean was before she got sick.

After high school, Stephanie went to Florida State to study law. She thought she wanted to be a prosecutor like her maternal grandfather, then state attorney for Florida, but she eventually realized she was ill-suited to the job. She was too tenderhearted.

Her senior year, she met the man she would marry and one semester before she was scheduled to graduate in 1989, the two of them moved to Dalton, where he’d been promised a job. Their union, however, would only last six years before they divorced.

Stephanie coped by throwing herself into her work managing operations at a local clubhouse.

She was working out at a gym one evening when a football coach at Southeast Whitfield High School caught her attention.

“I’d gone into a weight room to do curls,” Stephanie said. “I asked him to move over and when he spoke, I almost melted into a puddle on the floor. For the first time in my life I felt this overpowering attraction.”

A week or so later, on her 30th birthday, Stephanie and Tommy Scott went on their first date.

Over time, Stephanie began to fall in love with Tommy, but she loved his 6-year-old daughter, Nicki, from the moment they met.

“Nicki was part of the package that made Tommy so attractive to me,” Stephanie said. “I could have the instantaneous family I’d dreamed of.”

A year later, on Stephanie’s 31st birthday, Tommy proposed. He had just been offered a coaching job at South Gwinnett High School in Snellville and was building a home he hoped to share with her in Monroe.

Oh, yes, Stephanie told him.

She was overjoyed until a couple weeks later when she learned she was pregnant.

“I was devastated,” she said.

The girl who had dreamed of her own family was caught off guard. She wasn’t ready to give up her job in private club management, which required her to work nights, weekends and holidays. And a deep, dark fear emerged: What if she became mentally ill after the child’s birth like her mother did after William was born?

But everything changed when Stephanie went for her first ultrasound and found out she was having a boy.

Stephanie had loved looking after William when he was little, and she’d often admired the relationships she’d observed between fathers and sons in Tommy’s football families.

“Before the sonogram, it was a concept that was scary. After that, it was a real baby that I would have the opportunity to mother,” Stephanie said. “I was going to hold my baby in my arm and be the kind of mother I never had.”

The Scotts were married in July 1999 at Sawgrass Country Club in Jacksonville Beach, Fla. They wrote their own vows, and Stephanie made a point to include Nicki, giving her a ring and vowing to be “steadfast in my love for her.”

At first, her pregnancy progressed normally. She felt her baby’s first kicks and chose a name: Thomas Goodwin Scott V, Wyn for short.

But at 28 weeks her blood pressure spiked. Doctors were unable to bring it down, so they sent her to Northside Hospital. Stephanie thought doctors would take her son as soon as she arrived, but they were able to stabilize her blood pressure. She thought she was in the clear. But eight days later, her kidneys started to shut down and her liver function was “off the charts,” she said.

Stephanie’s worst fears were about to come true. She and Tommy had to make a decision: Take Wyn or perhaps lose them both.

They chose the former. Wyn came into this world weighing just 2 pounds, 4 ounces, but he was breathing on his own.

“They laid him on my cheek and my life was changed forever,” Stephanie said. “The love I felt for him was overwhelming.”

Three days later Stephanie went home without Wyn, who was left behind in the neonatal unit fighting for his life.


Absorbing the loss

At home, Stephanie took to the Internet, looking for all the things that could happen to premature babies. With each click of the page, her fear grew. Her only consolation came from pumping breast milk and delivering it to her son during daily visits.

Wyn’s weight started to creep up. On Thanksgiving Day, 17 days after he was born, the Scotts were finally able to hold their son.

“He looked at me and I knew he knew that I was his mother,” Stephanie said. “It made all the worries in the world go away.”

While she held him, Tommy alternated between snapping photos and filming the moments with his camcorder.

Still, Wyn was not out of the woods. He needed to get bigger and stronger. The Scotts understood. They were hopeful.

But a week later, more bad news arrived. Wyn had necrotizing enterocolitis, a disease that often occurs in premature infants. Wyn’s intestinal tissue was damaged and beginning to die. He was transferred to Scottish Rite for surgery the next day. The operation took more than three hours to complete. Every time the phone rang in the waiting room, Stephanie jumped to answer, but no information came about Wyn. The surgery seem to last forever.

When the nurses finally emerged, tears streamed down their faces. Sixty percent of Wyn’s colon was dead.

On Dec. 3, the couple dressed Wyn in a white and blue christening gown made by hospital volunteers. The hospital chaplain baptized him in the neonatal intensive care unit and laid him in his mother’s arms. It was the second and last time Stephanie would hold her son.

Just 25 days old, Thomas Goodwin Scott V took his last breath.

Stephanie Scott thought her life was over. She was sad and so angry.

All the hopes and dreams she held for Wyn had been dashed. She wrote them down in a little journal and placed it in his tiny casket, along with a Bible and a stuffed toy bunny wearing a blue vest from Nicki.

Stephanie did her best to get on with her life. She went back to work in January, and by late October she was pregnant again. Her joy was tempered by fear that it would be another loss to absorb.

Sure enough, just eight weeks into her pregnancy, doctors were unable to determine a heartbeat.

Stephanie no longer worried about her career or becoming mentally unstable like her mother. She just wanted a child of her own, someone she could mother.

In 2001, the Scotts decided to try fertility treatments. By the year’s end, Stephanie had spent her inheritance from her grandmother’s estate trying to get pregnant.

Then one day she and Tommy encountered a woman with infant twins in a Tifton restaurant. The woman told Stephanie she had adopted the babies, who were born premature. Their mother had abandoned them. One of them had undergone seven surgeries and was still medically fragile.

“When I saw that baby, I felt like God was talking to me,” Stephanie said. “It made me realize what a risk I was taking.”

In the car driving away from the restaurant, Stephanie told Tommy she was done with fertility treatments. If she was going to get pregnant, it was going to happen naturally. But a month later, there was more bad news.

At age 39, Stephanie learned she’d gone into early menopause. There would be no children for her, at least not any of her own.


Hitting rock bottom

“The shroud of grief I had wrapped myself in drew even tighter,” Stephanie said.

She looked for ways to heal herself, but nothing seemed to ease her pain. Letting go of the pain, meant letting go of Wyn.

To honor his memory, Stephanie started the Win for Wyn Foundation that gives football scholarships to graduating high school seniors.

She broached the subject of adoption with Tommy, but he was opposed.

He was deeply worried about his wife.

“I just didn’t think she was really ready for that,” he said. “If it didn’t work out, it could mean more heartache for her.”

Despite Nicki’s visits every other weekend and more during football off-season, Stephanie longed for a child of her own. She felt as though despair was choking the life out of her.

One night in October 2006, she took a bottle of Ambien from her medicine cabinet, washed the pills down with a glass of Merlot and sank down into a warm bubble bath.

Just as her body relaxed and her head started to slip under the water, the horror of her mother’s suicide came flooding back. Her grandmother had suffered a stroke at the news. Her father’s alcohol abuse followed. She remembered the pain and shame she felt, the gruesome nightmares.

And then, in her stupor, she imagined her husband telling Nicki about her suicide, the same way her dad had told her about Jean.

“I jumped out of that tub so fast, you would have thought it was on fire,” said Stephanie. “That was my rock bottom.”

Stephanie had another realization that dark day. She was being selfish, always thinking about her own pain. God must have wanted her to stick around for some reason.

Suddenly she was done wallowing in the past.


A new purpose

After losing Wyn, Stephanie had isolated herself away from friends and family, just as she had when her mother killed herself.

“I guarded my heart.”

But that guard began to loosen.

Instead of asking God to rescue her, she began having conversations with him. She took Bible study classes and attended grief workshops. She met people like her who had lost a parent when they were young or struggled with infertility. She began to forgive her mother and understand the disease that drove her to suicide. She began to realize that you don’t necessarily have to give birth to be a mother.

Stephanie was ready to let people in. She started with the football players at Mill Creek High School where Tommy was defensive coordinator at the time.

The bleachers were an interesting place for a coach’s wife. Parents said disparaging things. This coach ought to be fired. That player should be pulled from the game. The comments made Stephanie uncomfortable.

And then there were the parents with small children who always reminded her of what she was missing.

One night Stephanie noticed people on the sidelines taking photos of the game. She’d always enjoyed photography so she asked the head coach if she could do the same. It was the perfect way to get away from the static in the bleachers.

She began to capture moments during games and team practices — action shots of spectacular plays, playful exchanges between the boys, teaching moments between coaches and players. Then she began posting the images on her Facebook page, and the kids took note. Stephanie started to get to know the players as they began commenting on her pictures and sharing their stories, some of them heartbreaking.

For years, she had wallowed in her pain and taken every opportunity to relive it. Now she was seeing the devastation that had wrought in her life. It had driven her to shut herself off from the world. To always see the bad. To devalue her own life.

She began to realize there was blessing in loss.

Stephanie recalled reading a quote by Booker T. Washington: “If you want to lift yourself up, lift up someone else.”

That became her mantra. Helping others became her purpose.

In 2011, the Win for Wyn Foundation gave out eight $1,000 football scholarships.


Labor of love

One Wednesday in August, Stephanie roamed for two hours around the Reinhardt University football field, where Tommy is now a football coach.

Every few minutes she raised her Canon 80D and pointed. Click. Another shot of gridiron action captured.

She wiped the sweat from her brow and continued to the other side of the field, handing out smiles and hugs to the players between clicks of her camera.

After practice, players lined up and Stephanie passed out frozen fruit pops as they headed to the locker room.

One of them grabbed her in a bear hug.

“I love you,” Stephanie told him.

“Love you more,” he shot back.

“Impossible!” she said laughing.

Who but a loving mother would take pictures, hand out treats and deliver hugs for two hours under a blistering hot August sun?

“It’s a labor of love,” she said, her voice pitched between speech and song.

Stephanie has become a constant presence in the boys’ lives. When she’s not on the sidelines during games and practices, she’s texting them pictures and inspirational slogans or posting them on Facebook.

“I always look forward to Thursday because I know someone cares,” one boy commented on Stephanie’s weekly Facebook post.

Boys have learned they can confide in Stephanie and she will always have words of encouragement for them.

“I’ve been amazed at how people open up to her and say things that they would never say to other people,” said Tommy. “These kids will tell her things they won't tell anybody else. That’s truly her gift, and I’m so proud of how far she has come.”

Stephanie’s heart is “unlike anything I have ever seen before or will ever see again,” said former Reinhardt football player Gordon Thigpen. “There are hundreds of young men of all races, backgrounds, religions and creeds who would do absolutely anything she asked of them.”

They call her Mama Scott. It’s a name she embraces.

Exhausted from the August heat, Stephanie lingered another half hour after practice before her husband emerged from the locker room. They headed to Buffalo’s for dinner and the never-ending conversation about football — the season opener against the Cincinnati Christians, who will start, who won’t start, and on and on.

Stephanie took it all in, happy for the time with her husband. She hoped those who didn’t make the cut weren’t too disappointed. She considers the Reinhardt Eagles, all 144 of them, the sons she never had. Ten years ago, she could not have imagined such peace and contentment. She was done with hopes and dreams.

But her faith and the Reinhardt Eagles have made her whole.

“It’s heartbreaking what she’s been through, but at the same time heartwarming that she can come out on the other side still able to give,” said Reinhardt’s athletic director Bill Popp. “That takes a lot of grace.”

Eighteen years after the death of Wyn, Stephanie Scott can see purpose in her tragedies.

For so long, all she ever yearned for was a son. Instead, she got hundreds.

Stephanie, shown here with Reinhardt football player Kareem Warren, has a talent for getting people to open up to her. Photo by Rebecca Breyer

When I heard about Stephanie Scott’s story, I was curious how she made the leap from not wanting to live to believing that, as she put it: “There is meaning and purpose in tragedy and it is one of life’s truest blessings.” Over months of meeting and talking with Stephanie, I discovered those weren’t just words; she lives and breathes them every day as Reinhardt University football team’s beloved team mom.

Gracie Bonds Staples
staff writer


Gracie Bonds Staples has been writing for daily newspapers since 1979, when she graduated from the University of Southern Mississippi. She joined the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2000 after stints at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the Sacramento Bee, Raleigh Times and two Mississippi dailies. Staples lives in Johns Creek with her husband of 31 years, Jimmy. They have two daughters, Jamila, a third-year medical student, and Asha, a reporter and weekend anchor at Fox10 news in Mobile, Ala.