A year and a half ago, Steven Brantley found himself at something of a crossroads. In his late 30s he’d finally given in to an idea that had been simmering in the back of his mind for years: going back to school to be a physical therapist.
But all wasn’t going according to plan. Loans and his wife’s job as a school teacher were keeping the family of four afloat while Brantley pursued his dreams in Wingate’s doctor of physical therapy program, but here he was, struggling, the rug in danger of being pulled out from under him.
He felt certain he knew the material, but he just wasn’t able to put it all together on his exams.
After one particularly dire result, Brantley was asked to go see his neurophysiology professor, Dr. Jill Nappi-Kaehler. In her office, she asked Brantley several questions that had appeared on the exam he’d turned in barely an hour earlier. He answered the majority of them correctly.
“You got most of the questions we just talked about correct, but you missed them on the exam,” Nappi-Kaehler said. “Something has got to change or you’re not going to get through this.”
Brantley’s professor suggested that he get checked for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Sure enough, Brantley was diagnosed with ADHD.
“I started taking medication for it,” says Brantley, now 40. “I started getting disability services here at the University for extended time and no-distraction settings for my exams. Overnight, my exam scores went up 30 points. Dr. Jill, she changed my life. She’s the reason I’m still here.”
He won’t be here for long. Having completed his coursework and clinicals, Brantley will join 41 other DPT students who will receive their diplomas on Saturday during Fall Commencement exercises, which begin at 10 a.m. in Cuddy Arena. All told, 150 graduate students and 117 undergrads will cross the Cuddy stage this weekend.
Back in the mid-2000s, Brantley would have laughed had anyone suggested that he spend three more years in college. During his undergrad days at UNC Charlotte, the mass communications/psychology double major was ready to get out of school and into the public’s ear. Having secured an internship with the syndicated Ace & TJ Show, Brantley decided that his future lay in morning drive-time radio.
As an intern, he made cold calls to stations in other markets trying to drum up interest in the show. He eventually graduated to assistant producer, prepping the show early in the morning, handling social media responsibilities and populating the show’s website with interesting content.
But it was as “White Shadow” that Brantley is best remembered. “I was the stunt guy,” he says. A tall, gregarious presence, Brantley would persuade people on the street to tell him their stories. He’d take his microphone to bars on Thursday nights and get inebriated patrons to open up. Sometimes he’d hang around the courthouse, exchanging cigarettes for a glimpse into people’s troubles. “It was radio gold,” he says.
Brantley’s most famous stunt as White Shadow came early in the 2009 Carolina Panthers season. “I’m a huge Panthers fan,” he says. “The stunt was I was going to stay on the roof until they won a game.” He lived on the roof of the Kiss 95.1 building for 22 days, until the Panthers beat Washington 20-17 in Week 4.
“OSHA required them to give me five-minute breaks every three hours,” Brantley says. “I would bank them, for showers and stuff in the studio.” Otherwise, he stuck it out on the roof.
The next year, Ace & TJ wanted a similar commitment. Brantley, having met his now wife, Amy, didn’t want to spend weeks on a roof. Instead, he offered up his livelihood. “I bet my job we don’t lose five games in a row,” he says. “And we did!”
A 23-6 loss to the Bears put Brantley out of a job (a promise is a promise). Although he had a blast working in radio — “Oh, gosh. I loved it,” he says. “Loved it!” — he realized that working late nights and early mornings couldn’t last forever. Brantley went to work making dentures and other dental fixtures at his father’s lab in Monroe, but over the years he kept thinking back to a long-lost desire to help ailing people get well.
In late 2018, he decided to apply to physical-therapy school.
Putting the puzzle together
Going back to school wasn’t easy. “We see a lot of students, especially in the first year, struggle to find their footing, to find this new academic identity of theirs,” Nappi-Kaehler says.
“A lot of it’s my fault, the first year especially,” Brantley says. “I came in here, being a little older, thinking, I’ve got this. I don’t have to study. Five or six weeks in, after I’d gotten knocked down a peg or two, I thought, I think I’ve bitten off more than I can chew.”
His struggles continued, but as the doubts started to creep in, his resolve stiffened.
“It’s something I really wanted and had worked really hard for, something my family had really sacrificed for,” says Brantley, who has two elementary-age children. “I wasn’t ready to quit.”
Nappi-Kaehler says that once Brantley started making use of the Academic Resource Center, his performance changed dramatically. “He’s about to graduate now, and he’s a completely different student from when he started,” she says. “There was never any doubt that he was capable. It was just sort of finding all of the puzzle pieces for his success.”
In fact, he’s gone above and beyond. At a national orthopedic conference in Las Vegas in the fall of 2021, Brantley was the lead presenter of a research poster, “Treatment of Unresolved Sever’s Disease Leading to Possible Achilles Tendinopathy in a 15-Year-Old Male: A Case Study.” No one else in his cohort presented their research nationally.
“That’s him grabbing the bull by the horns again,” Nappi-Kaehler says. “He has exceeded not only all expectations but all requirements of the gig.”
Once he discovered that ADHD had been holding him back, Brantley realized that not only could he cut it, but having a little life experience was valuable. Having been in the working world for nearly 15 years before taking the PT plunge, much of what Brantley had already learned about time management, professionalism and how to maintain work relationships translated nicely to a clinical setting – especially when it came time to ease patients’ worries.
“I think all patients come in with a little bit of fear,” he says. “I don’t want them leaving still scared. I want them leaving going, ‘I’m going to be alright.’”
On Saturday, Brantley, who already has a job lined up with Architech Sports in Fort Mill, South Carolina, will be leaving Wingate thinking he’s going to be alright, thanks in large part to Wingate mentors, such as Nappi-Kaehler and Dr. Karen Friel, director of the DPT program.
“UNC Charlotte was my undergrad, but moving forward, Wingate will always be my alma mater,” Brantley says. “This will be the school I will always try to give back to.
“People always make the comment, ‘Oh, this program is like a family.’ The DPT program is not like a family. It is a family. The professors go above and beyond to make sure everybody has what they need. And even the students, my classmates — they’re great. We’re so close, and it’s something I’ll always support and be a part of.”