Payton Barragan

Portage junior Payton Barragan had to give up basketball as a result of neuromyilitis optica, a central nervous system disorder that caused her to lose sight in her left eye.

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Basketball means the world to Payton Barragan.

The Portage junior has played hoops since her Rookie Division in the city's youth basketball league and was hoping to be on the varsity this season.

"It's been my life forever," Barragan said.

Last January, that life changed. Barragan was experiencing vision issues she initially thought could be resolved with contacts. The morning after a game against Valparaiso, she was taken to the emergency room, having lost sight in her left eye.

"It was scary," Indians coach Marc Bruner said. "We're close with her parents (Mark and Tammy). Tammy's been on staff (as freshman coach) longer than anybody. She's extremely loyal. You're worried as a staff and as a parent. You think of her like your own child."

Barragan had meningitis when she was in seventh grade, so the family went to her neurospecialist in South Bend that day. Ever the trooper, she wanted to play in Portage's game at Mishawaka that night, but Bruner nor anyone else wanted to take the chance, no matter how difficult it was to tell her.

In a couple days time, Barragan was diagnosed with neuromyelitis optica. It is a central nervous system disorder that primarily affects the eye nerves and spinal cord. The disease is so rare, there are less than 1,000 people in a state with NMO, on the average. Barragan has to undergo plasma pheresis to remove harmful antibodies and takes medication daily. The vision loss, however, is permanent. Other than a brief glimmer of color at one point early on, she has been blind in her left eye.

"As a coach, it hit me hard," Tammy said. "I know how badly she wanted it. As a mother, that's the hardest part, not watching her be able to do it, to wear a varsity uniform, to letter."

Despite her condition, Barragan wasn't going to give up basketball without a fight. She went through spring workouts and attended all the team camps in the summer. Unfortunately, it didn't go well.

"We tried to do what we could," Bruner said. "Her strength is her shot, but she had no depth perception. You could see it in practice. She wasn't confident far away from the rim. It affected her as a player, but it was more about what could happen to her."

Barragan knew as well. She came to Bruner before open gym in the fall to let him know she wasn't going to play.

"It was pretty hard," she said. "I was frustrated. Walking the halls, I can't see to my left. I bump into people. It's adapting. It's how it is."

Bruner would be lying if he said it wasn't emotional.

"You don't want to lose good kids who get good grades," he said.

Earlier this semester, Barragan tried to bring attention to NMO at the high school, but couldn't get anything off the ground.

"It's a credit she wants to do something," Bruner said. "I think it's awesome."

That's where Bruner took the reins. He approached Barragan in the cafeteria one day about having an NMO awareness game and printing T-shirts for it. She loved the idea.

"Many people don't know about it," Bruner said. "A lot of times, it's misdiagnosed as multiple sclerosis. We want to try to help get it diagnosed quicker. We talked to the kids and they wanted to do anything they could."

Orders for over 300 shirts, which will come in Monday, have been made.

"The guy has a big heart," Tammy said. "(Bruner) cares about the kids."

Portage and E.C. Central players will wear the green shirts in warmups before Tuesday's game, and the coaches will keep them on during the nonconference contest.

"It's the only time you'll see us wearing green," Bruner said, noting it's rival Valpo's color. "East Chicago jumped out to us because she played AAU with some of their kids, We see them at team camps and we get along well. (Cardinals coach) Eric (Kundich) jumped at the chance. He could've easily said no, that he wants to focus on the game. He's been great."

Barragan declined the chance to be manager for the team, saying it would be too hard to be around the team and not be able to play. She occasionally peeks in at her mom's practice, but doesn't get too involved. Tuesday night will be special.

"It means everything, how much the team, coaches, especially Bruner, care," Barragan said.

What the future holds remains an unknown. Barragan has a great rapport with kids, so she may work in child care, like Tammy, who teaches pre-school. Through it all, her faith in unwavering. She and her dad pray every night.

"Everything happens for a reason," Tammy said. "We told her, God has other plans for you."

This column solely represents the writer's opinion. Reach him at james.peters@nwi.com.

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Sports reporter

Jim was keeping standings on his chalkboard from the time he could print and keeping kickball stats in grade school at St. Bridget's. He covers all manner of prep sports for The Times and is a long-suffering Chicago Cubs fan.