2015 Heart of Houston Recipient

Greer Underwood 2015 Heart of Houston Recipient

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Matt McKean, Photographer

Above: Jeremiah Castille, left, a former Alabama football player, congratulates Muscle Shoals Middle School student Greer Underwood and her mother, Dawn Woodall, after presenting Underwood the 2015 Heart of Houston Award. Below: Underwood’s family stands and applauds with her classmates after she receives the award.

Muscle Shoals student given Heart of Houston award

Greer Underwood sat in the middle seat of the front row of the bleachers at Muscle Shoals Middle School gymnasium.

greerShe was flanked on the left and right by family and behind her were hundreds of classmates. She sat with her hands in her lap, not sure what to make of all the attention focused on her. Underwood was honored Thursday as the Heart of Houston award winner. The Jeremiah Castille Foundation gives the award to one middle school student in Alabama who defies the odds and perseveres through adversity. She exemplifies that, her family, principal and school counselor agrees. “It’s just my daily life,” she said.

The heart of Greer

Four years ago today, Underwood had a heart transplant after being diagnosed with cardiomyopathy after developing a sinus infection that never got better.

Before her transplant, she had a massive stroke. She was the first pediatric patient to have a left ventricular assist device that helps the heart pump oxygenated blood through the body. The device helped Underwood’s heart until a heart was found for the transplant.

To get her through the surgeries and the recovery, Underwood relied on prayer and her faith in God.

“I grew up in church,” she said. “God has been a big part of this, in keeping me strong and keeping me faithful.”

‘Everything in stride’

Her mom, Dawn Woodall, added, “She took everything in stride. That is her God-given personality. Our house is centered on Christ. Greer had that instilled in her, and we’ve tried to teach her that everything you go through is for his glory. There is so much glory that God has gotten from this.”

Since her transplant, Underwood has committed herself to helping other heart-transplant patients by raising money for the American Heart Association. She was selected to speak this year at the Heart Ball in Birmingham. After she told her story, more than $250,000 in additional donations flowed into the organization.

Underwood and her family have maintained a relationship with the family of her heart donor, Noah Worthington, in Terre Haute, Indiana. During the Heart of Houston presentation, Underwood dedicated the award to her donor.

Woodall said the families built a walking path to a baseball field at a park in Terre Haute to honor Noah Worthington. Underwood helped get donations to pay for the project.

“There are a lot of pavers there with Muscle Shoals, Alabama, on them,” Woodall said.

‘We’ve got a winner’

The Heart of Houston award is named for Houston Thrailkill. Now a University of Alabama student, Trailkill was in the eighth grade when a fire destroyed his family’s house. The family lost all possessions, and the one Thrailkill wanted back the most was a Bible that Castille autographed years earlier after speaking to Thrailkill’s church group in Cullman.

Castille replaced Thrailkill’s Bible with a new one with a fresh autograph, and Castille named the award in his honor after seeing Thrailkill’s commitment to his faith and character in dealing with the traumatic fire.

Each year an Alabama middle school student is selected to carry on Thrailkill’s legacy.

Muscle Shoals Middle School Principal Matthew Carpenter received an email earlier this school year asking for nominations for the award.

“I get hundreds of emails, it seems like, every day, but this one caught my attention right off the bat,” Carpenter said. “And, I remember I printed it off, and I called Mrs. Aikens, our counselor, to my office and I said, “We have a student who can win this award. There is no doubt in my mind.”

“We have a student that is part of our student body who exemplifies what this award stands for.”

Castille said the award honors students who are like Trailkill, but it also honors students who have the same resiliency Castille had to overcome in his youth with an alcoholic mother and dysfunctional home life in Columbus, Georgia.

Castille played on the 1979 Alabama National Championship team and played six seasons in the NFL with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Denver Broncos.

“I grew up with a lot of rejection,” Castille told the sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students gathered to honor Underwood. “As I grew up I was told my life was not going to amount to a lot. What I want to let you know today is other people’s opinions don’t matter. It is what you decide. You make a decision and that decision will make you.”