CARY, N.C.--The harder Noah Fondren pushed to get to the finish line, the further away it seemed.
The third baseman for Cullman (Ala.) High is 18 years old now, but six years ago he had an end point in sight that was impossible to reach. He sees that now. Back then, as a sixth grader, he fought as hard as he could to achieve everything he wanted, not understanding that the only finish line he would reach if he continued would be his death.
Fondren's battle with anorexia began innocently enough. The 12-year-old had heard the odd comment about his appearance, joking comparisons to others, pointed words that meant no harm from the people who spoke them. He couldn't help but hear those phrases over and over in his own mind.
"I was around a lot of athletic friends I looked up to," Fondren said. "They were a bit older than me, and looking back on it now, they probably just matured quicker than I did.
"I would never expect a kid to think this, but I always wanted to look like them. They were better than I was at sports, and so I made the connection that they look more athletic than I do, so what do I need to do to do that?"
Fondren had been named Travel Ball Select's Alabama 11U player of the year the previous season, but he felt that losing weight would put him on track to improve. Already a star pitcher, hitter and infielder, he believed that cutting calories would help him look better, feel better and play better, more like the older athletes he admired.
So Fondren ate less, and when he lost seven pounds in the first week he counted that as a moral victory.
Enthusiastic about his weight loss, Fondren went to his father Shannon to share the news. Shannon, the father of two sons, didn't know what to think, because it was something that had never occurred to him as a potential problem.
"I wasn't happy at all," Shannon said. "But from the beginning . . . (Noah) thought it would make him a better player, and it was eating him alive. Performance-wise, I could see it on the field. You're weaker, and you can't throw it as far. You can't hit it as far. You don't have a chance."
Noah was so proud of himself, pleased at what he perceived as success. When he tried on the baseball pants he had worn the previous season, they fell to the floor, and his smile spread from ear to ear.
But he was alone. As Fondren continued to see results, the people around him began to take notice. His friends were terrified of his ever-changing appearance. They offered opinions that he believed to be false, because he was finally becoming the person he so wanted to be.
"In my head, everyone else was wrong and I was the only one who was right," he said.
Fondren admits that he then "spiraled out of control." He lost 30 pounds in about three months, dropping from 120 pounds to 90.
Fondren realized that cutting back on his portions was effective, but what he didn't know was that it was never going to be enough. Fondren started skipping one meal a day, then two, then three. Mealtime became miserable for his family because it was a constant fight. He reduced his caloric intake to fewer than 1,000 per day, but no matter how much weight he lost, he couldn't shake the idea that he needed to lose more.
"I went from eating less to eating only healthy foods to eating less of healthy foods to hardly eating at all," Fondren said. "Once you develop that mindset of an eating disorder, there's no finish line . . . You can't win.
"I had to realize that not only could you die from this, you could never be able to play the game you love ever again."
Noah expected his weight loss to help his performance on the field, but he quickly realized the opposite was true. He had worked his entire young life to be the best player he could be, but he had erased that progress in a matter of months. His obsession went so far that his father--and coach--refused to bring him to the field some days for fear of what might happen.
"He could hardly make it through a game," Shannon said. "It was just a battle. There were even some games that we couldn't even take him to, because he wouldn't drink."
It wasn't much longer before Shannon and Kayse Fondren had no resort but to take their son to Children's of Alabama pediatric medical center, seeking help and treatment for a problem that they finally realized they couldn't solve at home.
"It was the hardest time of our lives," Shannon said. "I know what he was going through was hard for him, but it was also hard for us. For me, personally, I didn't know how to deal with it. I didn't understand it. I would get mad at him, when it was not something that he chose to do. It was something that he couldn't control."
To truly help their son, the Fondrens first had to walk away from him. "When we checked him into Children's that first night," Shannon said, his eyes welling with tears, "they wanted to make us leave, and we couldn't stay with him because he chose not to eat what they wanted him to.
"They wanted to make us leave, and he was begging and just crying as hard as he could for us to stay. Oh my gosh, that was the hardest thing I've ever done."
It didn't take much time before Noah understood for himself that he needed to get better.
"It was a battle," he said. "In my head I realized what I was doing to myself, and I wanted to get out of it, but it was like I had a split personality. I had another side of me that said, 'You're giving in. You are losing, and giving in if you cooperate with them' . . . That's what twisted my mind."
It wasn't until the doctors threatened to shove a feeding tube down his throat if he refused to eat that Fondren realized how serious the situation was. He was in the hospital for a week to get up to a weight established by the hospital. He felt optimistic as he left Children's of Alabama, but without the doctors to push him and monitor his progress, his disorder resurfaced. He was motivated to make changes in his life, but they didn't come easily. Fondren credits his faith for helping him recover.
"The strength, the power, the control that this disorder had on me was too great to overcome on my own," Noah wrote in an award-winning narrative he published earlier this year. "I realized this on the way home one night from baseball practice. My head was leaned against the window and I remember thinking to myself, 'I'm ready. I'm ready to be healed . . .'
"Looking back on it today, that was the night I was healed. Not physically, not mentally, but spiritually. The Lord began to soften my bitter heart. He began to slowly change my mindset and set me free from this evil obsession."
Noah didn't begin to catch up physically until his sophomore season at Cullman High. He worried that his battle with anorexia had stunted his growth and left him too far behind to catch up to his peers.
"Getting to a healthy body again took a long time and a lot of effort," he said. "It was different from the disorder, and it was hard to look at myself in middle school and ninth grade. Mentally I felt like I was doing fine because I was wanting to be healthy again and recover, but physically my body couldn't catch up to what I wanted it to be. So playing sports was what brought my confidence down so low. I couldn't keep up with all my friends like I had my whole life.
"My sophomore year, I started on the varsity team as third baseman, and I was scared the whole year because I still didn't feel like I belonged. We ended up winning state that year, and I went 6-for-11 in the state championship, but to me it was about my team."
It wasn't until the following November, when Fondren received his first college scholarship offer to Auburn, that he finally began to feel some sense of relief. Samford and Troy also made offers to the now 6-foot, 190-pound third baseman in his junior year, and he eventually committed to Alabama.
Now, Fondren is approaching the end of his senior year. He has been to the state championship three times. He has played with his senior teammates since they all started on the same travel-ball team at the 9U age group, and they're hoping to have one last hurrah together before going their separate ways.
"As a baseball player, he's phenomenal," Cullman coach Brent Patterson said. "He makes plays at third that we take for granted. Then also, the personality that he brings to our club is huge, too, because he's a goofball. (But) on the flip side, he's an unbelievable competitor . . . So you can't overstate how important he is for our program."
Fondren's baseball prowess and fight with anorexia prompted Patterson to nominate him for the Bryant-Jordan student-athlete scholarship program, awarded to Alabama's top preps. He also won the Alabama Public Television young heroes honor, one he was officially awarded while in North Carolina for the National High School Invitational tournament.
"For a guy, and someone who is supposed to be a 'tough baseball player,' and for him to open up and say, 'Here's what I went through,' . . . that takes a lot of guts," Patterson said. "So I'm very, very proud of him."
Patterson believes that coaches who hear Fondren's story might be able to intervene on behalf of other kids battling anorexia.
Fondren has always been open to sharing his story, well aware of the stigma attached to eating disorders, and particularly around eating disorders in males, and he is working to shatter the stigma.
His unique situation brought a new perspective to all those around him, and as he continues to open eyes, he wants to offer assistance. His hope is that if a young male athlete can come forward and openly discuss his battle with an eating disorder, it might open the floor to further conversations for people who don't feel they have a voice.
"I've never met, or talked to, or heard of a man going through it," Fondren said. "And I don't really know of anybody in sports. Those two just don't really go together. I feel alone in that, but I'm glad that I can be an example for people who may go through it . . .
"And I hope that people can see me and know that it can happen to anybody, and that you don't know who is affected by your words."
-- Alexis Brudnicki is a freelancer based in Toronto and a former BA intern