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After tragic loss, Wells family finds joy by adopting Ugandan orphans

Scott Wells was hardly the first player -- nor will he be the last -- to request to be allowed to sit out an NFL preseason game. But his circumstances were unique. Late last summer, the St. Louis Rams' new starting center approached coach Jeff Fisher and explained his situation. On Aug. 18, the night the Rams were supposed to play Kansas City, Wells' wife, Julie, was returning from a trip to Uganda. They hadn't seen each other in more than three months. And she was flying back with the family's three new roster additions: two sons and a daughter. Could he leave to greet them?

Absolutely, said Fisher. And so as the Rams were winning their first game of the season, Wells, a 300-pound NFL leviathan, was losing it. As a knot of friends and family members looked on and cheered, he stood in the Nashville airport, bear-hugging his wife, and their brood of children that had suddenly doubled in number.

*****

Here's a feel-good Thanksgiving story that begins on Thanksgiving Day in 2005. At the time, Wells was lining up in front of Brett Favre, as the starting center for the Green Bay Packers. A seventh-round pick who'd been cut as a rookie, Wells was happy to have steady work. His wife, Julie -- a high school sweetheart he had married after their sophomore year at the University of Tennessee -- was pregnant with their twin boys, Deacon and Maddox.

She had been sick throughout the pregnancy and sometimes became so dehydrated that she required IVs. And, strangely, she hadn't gained any weight. At 20 weeks, Julie started to experience contractions; then her water broke. Doctors warned that the babies' lungs wouldn't be sufficiently developed to survive outside the womb. Both boys died shortly after birth.

Scott and Julie held their bodies for two hours before handing them back to the nurses. The day after Thanksgiving, Julie was discharged from the hospital. She and Scott headed home to grieve and to explain to their son Jackson, then 2, why his two baby brothers weren't there.

A few days later, the Wellses held a small memorial service. Having decided that the babies should be cremated, they kept the ashes in a small baby block, next to framed footprints of the kids. Scott and Julie each got tattoos with the boys' names. More than ever, they were hell bent on having a large family.

They began thinking about adoption, but a daughter, Lola, followed a year later. Then a son, Kingston. Both were born within a few weeks of Thanksgiving. But why stop there? At their off-season home in Nashville, both Scott and Julie noticed that at the Presbyterian academy where the kids went to school, a striking number of families had adopted children. Scott is the son, grandson, and brother of a preacher -- "We all work Sundays; I just do something different," he says -- and he "took it as a sign."

They looked at a number of options for adoption, but settled on trying to find two children in Uganda under the age of three. A desperately poor country with a staggering rate of HIV and other disease, mired in corruption -- the legacy of Idi Amin's brutal regime -- Uganda was not included among the countries that ratified or follow the Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption.

Wells knew that meant that the process was likely going to be something other than smooth. On the other hand, it also meant that orphans there were particularly unlikely to be adopted.

As Scott, a history major at Tennessee, busied himself reading about Uganda, the family received a call from their adoption agency. Two boys, both of them two years old, had been pinpointed for a match. Julie and Scott scrambled to arrange childcare for Jackson, Lola and Kingston; get immunized; and purchase plane tickets. The agency called again. One of the boys, it turned out, had a five-year-old sister. Would they consider adopting her, too? "We weren't going to split up [the siblings]. We already knew there was a huge orphans crisis. Our daughter wanted a sister. Again, this is where God was leading us," says Scott. "And, by this point, what's the difference between five kids or six? You're playing zone defense anyway."

Before last year, Wells had never crossed an ocean, his only international travel consisting of vacations in Mexico and the Caribbean. Last February, at age 31, he had taken the longest flight of his life when he flew to Hawaii and play in the Pro Bowl for the first time. This trip in the opposite direction would be longer and decidedly less luxurious. After landing in Kampala, Uganda's capital, he and Julie rode for two hours to Jinja, site of the orphanage. They stayed in a "guest house," dorm-style accommodations. There were nets over the beds, occasional electricity and hot water every five days or so. The Rams had armed Wells with an FBI file on Uganda, but hadn't mentioned much of this.

On the first day in Jinja, Scott and Julie went to the orphanage to met the three children, 2-year-old R.J., Elijah, 3, and Caroline, 4. If this striking white woman and her husband -- a bald-headed mountain of a man, with a red beard not far from Brett Keisel territory, and an array of tattoos -- didn't look like any other adults they'd ever seen, it didn't much matter. "You take it in, you look at these children," says Julie, "and it's like, 'This is real, this is happening.'"

Then their true adventure began. They had been warned in advance that the process was going to be a test of faith and patience. It was. "You have a court date and they say, 'Come back in two hours.' You come back in two hours and they say, 'Come back in three.' In three hours they say to come back tomorrow. Tomorrow becomes next week. And they hold the cards. You smile and you don't say anything."

The agency the Wells used, unlike others, refused to pay bribes to officials. Which was a net good, but prolonged the process. And Wells' status as a professional athlete didn't exactly grease the skids either. When the couple finally appeared before a judge, he looked at Scott, confused. "If you play football, how do you run with all that weight? You're too fat." Wells explained that football meant American football, not soccer. "I'm not paid to run. I'm paid to hit. Never mind."

Another complication: Scott had recently visited Dr. James Andrews, the renowned sports surgeon, for a procedure on his knee. (Fearing infection, doctors advised him not to travel to Uganda until his sutures had healed.) Armed with thera-bands and a physio balls and suspension training system, he rehabbed at the guest house. There was no ice, though, so he cut his sessions short at the first sign of swelling. By night, he familiarized himself with the Rams' playbook on his iPad.

After four weeks, Scott and Julie had legal custody of the three kids in Uganda, but had no visas for them. Their three biological children had been with one of their grandmothers for a month. And Rams training camp was about to start, so Scott had to go back.

Julie had a choice: she could return to the U.S. with her husband -- which would mean leaving three kids for whom she had legal custody. Or she could continuing fighting -- by herself, in the middle of Africa. She chose the second option. A world away from her family, she filled out form after form, endured the false starts, shuttled between the courthouse and the orphanage countless times. Meanwhile, Scott leased a 12-seat suite at the Edward Jones Dome so the whole family could watch him on game day.

Finally, after nearly 10 weeks in Uganda, Julie� ("The real superhero of the story," says Scott)� received the visas. When the whole family finally met in Nashville, Jackson, now big brother to five, was the first to break down. Everyone else followed. Says Julie: "I learned that you can do more than you think you can. You're stronger than you think you are. And you're willing to do anything for your kids -- whether they came from your body or not."

*****

As if the wildest year of his life needed another twist, Wells' season with the Rams has been awash in frustration. In the first game, a loss to the Lions, he broke a bone in his left foot. He hasn't played since, though he is expected to return Sunday at Arizona. A young team in the throes of rebuilding, the Rams are 3-6-1 and haven't won since September. It's a long way from Green Bay, where Wells was the center -- literally and gravitationally -- of a team contending for the Super Bowl.

But the real adjustment has come at home. During the season, the family lives in a sprawling suburban McMansion, halfway between the Rams' practice facility and the Edward Jones Dome. In the off-season they'll live in Nashville. "Welcome to the circus," Wells says, as he greeted a visitor over the symphony of kids wrestling in the family room. "Organized chaos," is Julie's characterization.

There are allegiances that change daily, colds that get passed around, and endless constellations of teacher conferences, doctors appointments and games. Caroline and Eli are transitioning from Luganda, their native dialect, to English. Putting three, 3-year-old boys to sleep in the same bedroom is an extended nightly challenge. This fall, all six kids are being home-schooled.

Scott and Julie are learning as they go. It's not easy finding a vehicle smaller than a school bus that accommodate six kids, five of them in car seats. A dinner reservation for eight means that the tip is often included in the bill, a nuance that took Scott a few meals to realize. If Target and Costco had loyalty rewards programs, the Wells family would get upgrades for life.

On Thursday, the extended clan will sit down for their first holiday meal as an octet. As always, the memories of Deacon and Maddox -- in many ways, the catalysts for all this -- will figure prominently. "Thanksgiving is always such an emotional time of year for us. We've been on both sides. We've experienced the extreme pain with the loss of the twins and the extreme joy," says Scott.

On a crisp, fall afternoon last Tuesday, Scott resembled a coach surveying the practice field as he took inventory of the six kids in the backyard. Eli needed a nap. Jackson was playing on the putting green, javelining sticks. Caroline was buried under a pile of leaves. Lola was thirsty. Kingston and R.J. were kicking a soccer ball into a plastic net.

Looking at this six-pack of kids -- different ages, genders, shades and dispositions -- Wells smiled and shook his head. "We try to keep it as normal as possible. It may not be everyone's normal. But we're going to make it our normal."

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