Two of a Kind

updated 03/17/2008 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 03/17/2008 AT 01:00 AM EDT

On a snowy afternoon in Ben Avon, Pa., brothers Will and Max Graf play for opposing teams in a backyard football game. It's a ferocious battle. At one point Max gets the ball and Will knocks him face-first into another kid's knee, sending Max to the ground, blood streaming from his nose.

"Tell people I hit you so hard, your nose bled," Will crows.

Brothers scuffling over a pigskin in the snow—what's more typically American? But Will and Max Graf are hardly ordinary. The boys both have a genetic condition called achondroplasia dwarfism (see box); at 12, they stand about 3'7"—a few inches shorter than 5-year-old brother Charlie. Not biological siblings, they would have grown up a world apart if it weren't for Suzanne and John Graf, who, when Will was 2, adopted Max from Korea—saving him from a grim orphanage and giving Will someone to share his journey as a little person in a big world. "We thought it would be great for two brothers to have each other," says Suzanne, 43, "and, on a daily basis, understand."

Now the pair—who also have a sister, Laura, 13—ride bikes through their quiet town near Pittsburgh, play video games and wrestle. They bicker and sometimes come to blows. But, in the end, they always have each other's backs. "It helps," Max says. "If one of us gets put down, we have the other to talk to. We know what it's like to be in each other's shoes."

Those issues were nowhere on the Grafs' radar the day in 1995 when Suzanne, seven months pregnant with Will, fell while giving a bath to then-15-month-old Laura. Concerned, she had an ultrasound. The shocking results had nothing to do with her fall: The baby's head was far larger, and more developed, than his limbs. In all likelihood he would be a dwarf, their doctor told them, before handing the Grafs a brochure for the Little People of America organization. He also warned that the baby could be stillborn or mentally impaired. When later tests predicted normal intelligence and lifespan, the Grafs were grateful and relieved, albeit still daunted by the parenting task that lay ahead.

"We had a lot of concerns," admits John, 43, a 6'4" ex-litigator who runs a family-owned inn. "Would he be able to fend for himself? I was 31 and I'd never even talked to a little person."

After Will's birth and fragile first months—doctors inserted a shunt to drain fluid from the brain—the couple began focusing on giving their boy as normal a life as possible and learning everything about his condition. "It was nonstop research and talking to doctors," Suzanne says. "We became experts on dwarfism." One day, reading the Little People of America newsletter, Suzanne came upon photos of 10 or so children up for adoption. Suzanne took one look at a Korean boy named Young Bum Kim—up for adoption for a year with no takers and about to be placed permanently in a home for the disabled. "My heart just went out," she recalls. Talking it over, the Grafs realized that they were now uniquely qualified to help a child on the other side of the world, while helping their own son in the process. "We could give a home to somebody who needed one," John says, "and both boys could benefit." During the nine-month adoption process, they took lessons in Korean, learning, among other things, how to say, "I love you," and sing "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star." Max arrived in Pittsburgh in January 1998, just shy of his second birthday.

Before long, he and Will were inseparable, though a bit of an odd couple. Will likes pizza, Max sushi. Will wakes early; Max sleeps late. Will likes playing outside; Max is happier indoors with his Legos. Max loves SpongeBob; Will thinks it's for babies. Will plays guitar, Max drums. Each complains that the other snores.

"Max is so loquacious, Will is sort of this cool cat, not as forthcoming," says neighbor Beth Kusbit, whose son Cooper, 12, is one of their best friends. Kusbit often plays host to Will and Max, sometimes for sleepovers. The boys, she notes, are stubbornly independent. "We have high stools, and at breakfast my instinct is to pick them up. They don't want that. They find their own way." And she notes that Cooper has learned "that just because they're smaller doesn't mean they can't do the stuff he does."

The boys have required considerable medical care. Max had metal rods placed in his spine, fusing his vertebrae and requiring months in a body cast. He has spinal curvature and uneven hips, causing constant pain, and drags his left foot because the ankle doesn't flex. That gives him a tendency to stumble and fall—sometimes with an assist from Will.

"He trips me," Max says, pointing.

"All the time," Will confirms. "I'm just getting you exercise."

"Here's exercise for your reflexes," Max fires back, tossing a crumpled napkin. "I like annoying him—just like any brother. But I get beat up—Will's stronger. Big time."

Will, too, has had his problems—the drainage shunt implanted in the back of his head since infancy is a concern on his mom's mind every time he bats in Little League. "I'm deathly afraid of him getting hit in the head; it'd be surgery for sure," Suzanne says. "But he loves being part of a team."

That was the Grafs' chief goal—to see their sons achieve a sense of belonging. It didn't happen overnight. In elementary school they'd sometimes get teased by kids from lower grades. "The new kids in kindergarten would laugh at us," Max recalls. "It used to get me down. But watching Will keep his head high, it taught me, 'Forget what they say. Keep your head up and you'll succeed.'"

These days, in sixth grade at Avonworth Middle School, the boys draw few stares. "Their height is invisible," says computer teacher Mike Lincoln. Some allowances have been made, however. All of Will's and Max's classes (they share only one, science) are furnished with step stools. The boys have extra copies of their textbooks at home so they don't have to lug heavy backpacks. And they're allowed to walk the halls a minute before and after the bell. Passing between classes, Will and Max often have a phalanx of friends surround them so they don't get trampled. Should one of them fall, classmates drop to all fours and steady them as they get back on their feet. "Most of the time, I forget they're not the same size as me," says pal Shane Pentland, 12. "And, like, they're really nice about it. Like, if I were to say, 'You can't reach that,' they wouldn't get really mad at me. They're just really good friends."

In the backyard, though, it's every brother for himself. When she sees blood gush from Max's nose, Suzanne is not amused. She interrogates Will.

"Did you tackle him?"

"Yes."

"Was it part of the game?"

Will doesn't quite answer, and in a few minutes the bleeding stops.

"Do you love me?" Max asks his brother.

"No," Will snaps.

"Yes," Max insists, "you do."

Now Will responds in earnest: "Sure, I do."

From Our Partners