July 8, 2013
By Phillip Marshall
AUBURN - Chad Slade, at home in Moody during Auburn's bye week last season, made the 30-minute drive to watch his high school football team play at Ashville. Little did he know that it would be a night that would literally change his life.
Someone asked Slade, an Auburn offensive lineman, if he would take a picture with a little boy who was a big Auburn fan. Slade readily agreed, and that's when he met 6-year-old Thomas Sullivan.
"We just connected," Slade says. "We really did."
Slade learned that Thomas, the son of Heather Lambert and Tommy Sullivan, was battling an aggressive form of brain cancer. A friendship was born between the hulking offensive lineman and the little boy that was Superman because of his love for super heroes and his own heroic fight. It was a friendship that would touch people involved with Auburn football and beyond.
On May 26, little Thomas' fight ended. He died in his mother's arms. Slade was an honorary pall bearer at his funeral.
"It was one of the toughest things I've been through," Slade says, "but knowing he's not in pain anymore made me happy. I felt sadder for the parents. A mom should never have to bury a child. Heather was so strong. I don't know how she did it."
Slade was back on June 22, which would have been Thomas' seventh birthday, when Superman balloon into the heavens in his honor.
"Thomas was just such a strong boy," Slade says. "Just seeing him, just getting to meet him was a great thing for me. When you would see him smile, it just gave you chills."
Slade became a regular part of the lives of Thomas and his parents. He got Auburn offensive linemen to wear wristbands in Thomas' honor. Quarterback Kiehl Frazier and his father, Robin Beach, went to Children's Hospital to deliver a football autographed football. Aubie and the Auburn cheerleaders went, too.
"It made a big impact on us," Beach says. "Unless you absolutely don't have humanity left in you, you can't walk into a situation like that and not be moved. I think it made a big impact on everybody, including Chad and Kiehl. It was hard to walk away from there and not have a tear in your eye."
Thomas touched others in other places. A friend gave his parents an autograph signed by the Alabama football team to auction off. They sold it three times, only to be told by the buyer to take the money and keep the ball an auction it again.
Thomas' courage inspired others - children and adults - fighting battles of their own.
"He fought a tough battle," Slade says. "He was the strongest little boy I've seen. They'd say he had a month to live, and two months later he'd still be going. He was a great little boy. Being able to go up there and see him and being able to send him stuff was a great thing for me."
It came as no surprise that Slade reached out to a sick little boy. It's the way his mother, Nikki Shorter, taught him to live his life.
"I was always taught if you keep a positive attitude you will be rewarded," Slade says. "I can't go around being negative to people. If I'm having a bad day, nobody will ever know. I just try to do what's right for people. I don't want anybody to see me as a negative person. I try to separate myself and be more of a positive leader, more of a role model.
"My mom has always been like that. She has always told me that, no matter what happens to you, you have to keep a positive attitude. Sometimes you want to give up and quit, but you have to just keep going on."
Phillip Marshall is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow Marshall on Twitter: