Small Inspiration, Big Results
How a kid with a brain tumor sent the Bearcats bowling
Anne Stein, M.S.
Sports & Fitness Journalist/Author
“As a high school and college athlete, it’s all about you, getting good grades, studying for tests, being in the starting lineup. When you meet a child battling for her life who’s just excited to be there with the team, it makes everyone pause.”
At 12-0 and Sugar Bowl-bound, the University of Cincinnati football team has had a near-storybook season. But ask the players and coaches who most of the credit should go to and the answer might surprise fans: it’s Mitch Stone, a 12-year-old boy with a brain tumor who was “adopted” by the team at the beginning of the season.
When Mitch and his family first appeared at the Bearcats’ facilities, all 105 players plus coaches and staff greeted him with a standing ovation. Since then, the team has made a birthday rap for him, he has stood on the sidelines at every game he can attend, and the players keep in constant touch via texts and phone messages when Mitch is too sick to see them in person.
Mitch was adopted through Friends of Jaclyn, a foundation that has matched 170 children with brain tumors with primarily collegiate teams in 18 sports. There is a waiting list of 1,000 teams wanting to adopt, and several pro teams want to get involved as well.
The foundation’s namesake is Jaclyn Murphy, a young lacrosse player from New York who was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor in March 2004 when she was nine years old. Her coach had connections to Northwestern University’s women’s lacrosse team, which sent cards and supportive texts.
In March 2005, Jaclyn’s dad drove her to Baltimore, where the NU team was playing Johns Hopkins. The team listened to Jaclyn describe her journey and battle with cancer – the devastation of a diagnosis, the radiation and chemo, dealing with hair loss, and finally, how inspiring the team was to her.
The athletes were stunned. “We looked at her and said, You’re inspired by us? You’re inspiring!’” says Sarah Walsh, a player who became executive director of the foundation after graduation. “We decided we would play for her. From that point on, she became a little sister to the team. It really kicked into high gear after we met her, and later we learned it was the first time she’d ever talked about how hard cancer is to deal with.”
The team went on to a perfect season and a national championship. The athletes kept texting and messaging Jaclyn. One day, as Jaclyn laughed and texted back and forth with her “big sisters” during chemotherapy, another little girl asked, “Who are you talking to?” Jaclyn said, “I’m talking to my friends at Northwestern.” Afterward she told her dad, “We need to get her a team too” – and the foundation was born.
Athletes have sat with children and played charades at their hospital beds, made them the focal point during team celebrations, and flooded children with encouraging texts during treatments. Some teams adopt siblings too, because dealing with cancer is hard on brothers and sisters of cancer patients.
“These teams provide so much energy and a different perspective because they’re out of the cancer world, but they rally around the children and make them feel special,” explains Walsh. The Murphy family has said that the team saved Jaclyn’s life.
The athletes benefit tremendously as well. “The joy these children have for everyday life is so humbling and inspiring,” says Walsh. “That’s been the biggest thing for me – to see their appreciation for the little things. When you’re around a child battling cancer, every moment is precious.”
“As a high school and college athlete, it’s all about you, getting good grades, studying for tests, being in the starting lineup. When you meet a child battling for her life who’s just excited to be there with the team, it makes everyone pause. It makes you so much more grateful for your life, health, everything you have – the things you accept as normal.”
For more information, go to: www.friendsofjaclyn.org