At times, Jacob Jarvis' parents wonder why. For so many years, his mom and stepdad wondered why he - and then his younger brother, Noah - had to be afflicted with such a terrible disease as Duchenne muscular dystrophy. Now Chad and Tracy Studebaker ask themselves another "Why?" question. This one is much more uplifting: Why has the Ohio State football program embraced their boys so completely that they're essentially honorary members of the team?

At times, Jacob Jarvis' parents wonder why.

For so many years, his mom and stepdad wondered why he - and then his younger brother, Noah - had to be afflicted with such a terrible disease as Duchenne muscular dystrophy.

Now Chad and Tracy Studebaker ask themselves another "Why?" question. This one is much more uplifting: Why has the Ohio State football program embraced their boys so completely that they're essentially honorary members of the team?

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Jacob, 15, and Noah, 7, regularly go to practice from their home in Delaware. The boys eat with the team. They've sat in on a coaches meeting. After the Cincinnati game, Jacob was given the game ball.

"I think about this a lot," Chad Studebaker said. "Why would a team do this? It kind of restores your faith in humanity."

Ask Ohio State's players and coaches, and the answer is clear. They say they are getting more from the friendship than they are giving.

"Not even in the same ballpark," coach Urban Meyer said.

Sign of trouble

The first sign that something was wrong with Jacob's body came at a soccer game.

"When he was 3, I had him in pee-wee soccer," Tracy Studebaker said. "Chad and I were dating, and he said, 'He doesn't run normally.' His grandma noticed that, too."

She took Jacob to the pediatrician. Tests revealed Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a genetic disorder in which muscles weaken and degenerate because of the absence of dystrophin, a protein that keeps muscle cells intact. Most people with DMD live only into their 20s.

Tracy was devastated. The dreams she had for him would have to be adjusted.

"I decided this is how life is," she said. "He has to know that I'm strong so he can be strong."

Chad and Tracy married in 2004, and two years later, Tracy became pregnant with Noah. In utero testing showed that he, too, had Duchenne.

Noah hasn't shown outward signs of the disease, but Duchenne has progressed in Jacob. He is unable to walk and has limited use of his arms and hands.

Jacob is introverted by nature, and his parents worried that he might not find a passion. Then, when he was 10, Jacob became interested in sports, particularly football.

"The light switched," Chad said. "He couldn't get enough of the Big Ten Network or ESPN."

Chad's best friend from high school is the uncle of Ohio State freshman lineman Kyle Trout. Through them, Jacob and Noah were invited to Ohio Stadium to watch Ohio State's Friday Night Lights camp for prospects in July 2013.

Jacob was in his wheelchair on the field when Meyer approached him.

"He said hi to me and gave me a high-five," Jacob said.

Then Meyer started tossing him a ball and taught Jacob how to throw a spiral.

"I was amazed," Jacob said.

Chad watched from a distance, stunned by what he saw. Meyer would tend to his duties at the camp, then continually circle back to visit with Jacob.

"I saw an incredible spirit," Meyer explained. "His eyes were just glistening, being in the Horseshoe, on the field."

Connection

That day would have made for a nice memory, but Meyer was determined that it become more than that. He invited Jacob and his family to practice, and they have become regulars, particularly on Thursdays.

"To see the joy in his eyes when he's with Urban Meyer…" Tracy said. "He is just so excited to be with them. I think it takes his mind off of, 'Yes, I have this stupid disease. At least I've got this.' "

Asked how he deals with the challenges of having Duchenne, Jacob replied, "I don't think about it and just keep going. I just think about the positive things, not the sad things."

That attitude is part of the reason the team has embraced him.

"I just love that kid," Meyer said. "He's one of the favorite people I've ever met. He has impacted this team. Whenever he comes, the players go right to him.

"I talk to my players about the gift of gratitude and compassion. The cool thing is that at Ohio State that's not new. That started many, many years ago with 'Pay it forward.' It's incredible what coach Tressel did, coach Cooper, coach Bruce and, obviously, coach Hayes. That's the culture of Ohio State."

Game ball

Jacob is close with several players, especially tight end Jeff Heuerman.

"We talk about anything - from school to girls to football to everything," Heuerman said.

Girls?

"He gives me better advice than I give him," Heuerman said with a laugh. "I don't know anything about that subject."

Heuerman surprised him last December by coming to Jacob's birthday dinner. He has given Jacob the cleats, signed by him and Braxton Miller, that Heuerman wore in the 2012 Michigan game.

Linebacker Joshua Perry, who went to the same middle school - Olentangy Shanahan - that Jacob attends, was a guest at Jacob's surprise birthday party on Saturday.

"Him being around really gives us motivation and makes us look in the mirror a little bit," Perry said. "Sometimes we might come out here and have a little bit of a bad attitude (from the grind of football). Then you realize that other people have a little bit more going on in their lives, and we have to have a more positive outlook.

"Guys on this team have taken on a service-before-self type of mentality. We rally around a lot of these things."

This year, the team decided to raise money for Duchenne research. In October, the team gave Jacob's family a $10,000 check.

"Ten thousand dollars isn't enough to pay him back for everything he's done for us," Heuerman said. "I don't think you can put a price tag on that. It's special."

Jacob and Noah went to midfield as honorary captains for the coin flip before the Cincinnati game. After the victory, Ohio State presented Jacob with the game ball, with an emotional Heuerman doing the honors.

"That was one of my favorite all-time moments," Meyer said.

The scene was captured on the Big Ten Network showThe Journey.

"In that moment," Chad Studebaker said, "I thought to myself, this is unbelievable. I can't buy this experience. I could donate a million dollars to the university, and I wouldn't have this experience. What an honor to bestow on a child who's facing Jacob's condition.

"Several players came up afterward and said, 'Thank you very much for being part of our program.' For me, it was very surreal."

Jacob's family won't be going to New Orleans for the Sugar Bowl, but he will make the first decision of the game for Ohio State. As the visiting team, the Buckeyes will make the coin flip. Heuerman, one of Ohio State's captains, consults with Jacob before each game to decide what to call.

The answer is always the same.

"Tails," Jacob said.

Meyer smiled when told that Jacob would be making the call.

"Couldn't be a better guy," he said. "I feel better about it already."

'Awesome family'

The Studebakers are hopeful for a breakthrough in Duchenne research. Jacob is part of a clinical trial at Duke University. Every three months he flies to North Carolina for treatment that doctors hope can slow the progression of the disease.

"We're very fortunate we live in Columbus," Chad Studebaker said. "Some of the best research is happening here in Columbus as well as on the East Coast."

Dr. Jerry Mendell, an Ohio State neurologist who's a leading researcher in the Duchenne field, said that progress has been made in terms of quality of life and extending lifespans. Finding a cure has been frustratingly elusive, though Mendell added, "The science is lined up to do that."

Meyer said he tries not to think about Jacob's long-term prognosis.

"I just want to enjoy every moment with him and make him smile," he said. "Awesome kid, awesome family.

"They're incredible parents. They're completely devoted to their boys. They're part of our family."

For which Jacob and his family are deeply grateful.

"Jacob is definitely a better person because of the team," Chad said. "He has better social skills because of the team. He's happier because of the team. He's got less to be depressed about because he looks forward to going to the games and practices.

"I don't know what's going to happen in his fragile life. His life expectancy is early-to-mid 20s. We think about that constantly. I say to Jacob all the time, 'If this experience, if this journey ends today, you've had a wonderful journey. Hopefully it doesn't, but regardless we're going to appreciate this moment every time you get this opportunity.'

"It's just been a wonderful thing."

If you wish to donate to Duchenne research, the Studebakers have helped establish the Little Hercules Foundation at littleherculesfoundation.org. The Ohio State football team donated through the Coach to Cure MD foundation at coachtocuremd.org.

brabinowitz@dispatch.com

@brdispatch