Your Kid’s Not Going Pro

A Youth Sports Blog

Posts Tagged ‘leukemia

When a Little Leaguer has cancer

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This story out of Haverstraw, N.Y., about an 8-year-old Little Leaguer with leukemia brought back from strong memories for me, because two years ago I was managing a team of kids around that age in a similar, difficult situation. From the Journal News in White Plains, N.Y.:

Sean DePatto ran onto the Haverstraw Little League field Friday with the energy one might expect from an 8-year-old ballplayer.

But what impressed the parents, coaches and players before the Haverstraw Devil Rays took on the Haverstraw Phillies Friday night was that Sean ran out onto the field after rushing back from Manhattan, where he had just undergone six hours of chemotherapy. …

Like the manager of the Haverstraw Devil Rays, I knew before my 2008 season of managing the 8- and 9-year-old Cyclones softball team in Oak Lawn, Ill., that one of my returning players would be recovering from leukemia. That’s because the girl, Olivia, lived just down the block and was good friends with my daughter, Grace.

In midsummer 2007, soon after my then-8-year-old daughter’s first softball season, my first as an assistant coach, and after Grace and Olivia had both played in their league all-star game, Olivia was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia.  Her mother feared the worst when she noticed Olivia’s lethargy and an unusual amount of bruising on her legs. Olivia’s family was told that while the five-year survival rate was 80 percent, it would take two-and-a-half years of treatment, including intense chemotherapy, before she would be back to anything resembling normal.

When we told Grace about Olivia’s sickness, we didn’t use the c-word, cancer. With the prognosis for recovery good, we didn’t want to scare her that she would possibly be losing a friend. Later, Grace came home from a visit to Olivia’s house (often the visits were brief because of Olivia’s lack of energy, a combination of the leukemia and the therapy) and asked us if we knew Olivia had cancer.

As adults, you get worried about how your child is going to take bad news from you. It never occurs to you that their fellow child will deliver it, and do so in a way that’s a lot less scary than your tiptoeing around.

It got to the point that, at least as far as Grace and Olivia were concerned, her disease and treatment routine became a matter-of-fact kind of thing — to them, anyway. For us adults, Olivia’s ability to handle so much struggle with so much ease was much more amazing. Olivia’s hospital gave her an award for her courage in the face of leukemia and all it entails. Then again, Olivia had never shown herself to shirk away from trouble. Grace and Olivia first met at age 3, when as her parents walked her down the block after just moving in, Grace — who then as now towers over Olivia — put up her dukes and chirped, “You wanna play fight?” Olivia didn’t say yes — but she didn’t back away, either.

When her hospital gave Olivia the award, the press release that came with it said that because of exhaustion, she could have to curtail her favorite activities, such as dance and riding her scooter.

Softball wasn’t mentioned, but as the 2008 season approached, I, as manager that year, fully expected Olivia not to play, even though her parents had signed her up the previous October, quite an act of positive thinking only a few months after her diagnosis. Olivia’s mother told me she would miss pre-season practices because of an especially intense round of treatment, but that she would be available for games. I went overboard emphasizing that it was up to her and Olivia, and that I wanted her guidance on what Olivia could handle. She said she would give it to me, and that, by the way, she’d also like to be the snack parent again this year.

I also explained to the team and the league what was going on with Olivia. With the team, as my wife and I were with Grace when we first learned of Olivia’s diagnosis, I was more circumspect about the c-word. I explained that Olivia had been sick and was getting treatment, and that they shouldn’t be surprised about Olivia’s lack of hair. Instead of a visor, Olivia would wear a cap given to the managers and coaches that her mother cut up and sewed so it would fit her head. As an added touch, she colored the white lettering on the black cap green so it would match the color of the lettering of the black visors worn by her fellow Cyclones.

Unlike Sean DePatto’s teammates in Haverstraw, neither my girls (nor their coaches) shaved their heads in support. That’s a great idea, and I thought about whether to suggest it. However, I figured that might be a lot to ask to a group of girls, particularly on a team which had members going through their Catholic First Communion during the season. Plus, I got the sense that the last thing Olivia wanted was attention as the Sick Girl, and having a team full of bald heads would only make that more plain.

Unlike Sean DePatto, Olivia by this point was well enough to go to school. But I think this statement by Sean’s mother, Kim, applies to Olivia as well, or any sick children who, if they don’t understand how serious their illness might be, understand the frustration of being told you can’t do your favorite things, and the determination to be able to do them again: “For him to be able to participate with the baseball team is giving him such a rush … It really makes a tremendous difference for him.”

I did not realize until the season was close to the end that Olivia sometimes would come straight to the game from, say, a spinal tap. All I knew was, Olivia, except for her jury-rigged cap, looked no different from the girl who played the previous year. Between her small stature and her quick bat, she was a tough out. And she again was one of our best pitchers. She could pitch two straight innings without getting frustrated or distracted, even if she got herself into a jam.

The only signs of Sick Girl were when the brother of an opposing team member tried to rip off her hat, and my constant asking of Olivia whether she was all right, which I asked so often she probably wondered whether something was wrong with me.

Otherwise, she ran with her teammates, played catch with her teammates, and sang the same interminable cheers that softball girls appear to know without anyone ever having taught them. I chose Olivia as one of our team’s all-star representatives because she was one of our best players. (In the picture to the upper right is Olivia, on the left, and Grace on the right.)

Sean DePatto’s coaches and teammates say that they are all better for having had Sean on the team, and I can say the same thing about myself and Olivia’s fellow Cyclones. I’m not sure how those girls will remember the experience. Maybe it’s because Grace and myself knew Olivia long before she got sick, or maybe it was her own determination to play well no matter what. But I don’t recall any overly emotional moments related to her being ill. All I remember is a kid who played hard on a team I had fun managing. I suspect in later years Grace will crystallize and share with my wife and I more of her own memories, and that they will probably have a lot more to do with the one-on-one time she spent with Olivia at her house during the worst of her therapy and illness, and not so much about the softball.

The next year, Grace and Olivia moved up an age group in their league, and they ended up on different teams. I switched to managing my son’s T-ball team, leaving Grace’s softball training in much more capable hands. Olivia ended her treatments for leukemia and is cancer-free. She also got back her head of hair. In 2010, she’s not playing softball, favoring instead theater and dance — as well as making videos with Grace, like the iCarly-inspired piece below.

[youtubevid id=”rujunJSHVQA”]

And, in case her old hospital would like to know, when Olivia comes over to see Grace, she’s riding her scooter.

Blind football players and the three steps of the differently abled athlete

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In the last month, I’ve found at least three stories about blind football players — Riley Schmitz, a 13-year-old in Adams, Minn.; Charlie Wilks, a 14-year-old in Emporia, Kans., and Rocco Romeo, a 7-year-old in Salinas, Calif.

[youtubevid id=”sGo5f_Az1rs”]

How ESPN discovered Charlie Wilks.

Having coached a team with an athlete who is facing a disability or disease (in my case, in coaching a softball team that included an 8-year-old girl with leukemia), there are three steps in the process of whether that kind of athlete reaches the ultimate victory — being a part of a team to the point that no one notes the disability or disease anymore.

Rocco Romeo is on step one: coaches explaining to other kids what is wrong, and making some special arrangements on his behalf. At step one, this athlete is, deservedly, an inspiration. From the Salinas Californian:

Before every play James [Rocco’s father] leads Rocco to the line of scrimmage and positions him so he’s looking straight ahead.”I want to make sure he knows who his guy is,” James said. “Then I pat him on the back, and say I’ll be back.” …

In a sport that has had its share of bickering parents, sometimes overzealous coaches and questionable behavior in general, Rocco Romeo seems to have brought out the best in everyone.

Prior to their game against Steinbeck, the Carmel Panthers got word of Rocco’s story, and that set in motion what was to become a moment few who were there will ever forget.

“When I received the e-mail about Rocco I shared it with our head coach, Chris Henslee,” said Carmel Panther vice-president Sara Higman. “Chris talked to the boys about Rocco, who in turn talked to their families.”

One of the dads donated a white football, to be signed by all the players and presented to Rocco the day of the game.

Higman took it one step further.

She decided put the names of each player on the football in Braille. …

“I’m not sure who was more excited,” Higman said. “Rocco to receive the ball or our team to meet such an inspiring young man. It was quite a moving and emotional experience.”

In my case, the girl, Olivia, a friend of my daughter, Grace, had to miss the first few weeks of practice because of chemotherapy. I explained to her teammates, and her parents, what was going on, particularly pointing out that she would have no hair because of the medication. I gave her mother a coaches’ cap so she could make it into a cap for her daughter, rather than have her wear the usual visor. When she arrived at practice, she got a hero’s welcome. It was quite an emotional moment for everyone.

Riley Schmitz is on step two: worry. For the disabled or ill athlete in against nondisabled and well competition, coaches and parents begin to fret that maybe the child is pushing himself or herself too far, and is going to get seriously hurt. From the Rochester (Minn.) Post-Bulletin:

Whether Riley keep playing is an open question.

Because of his extremely limited field of vision, Riley’s running style is rather rigid and upright, and he jogs in short, choppy steps, rather than sprints.

“He has always ran that way,” said his father, Charlie. “The problem is he thinks he’s really fast.”

Riley also thinks he can keep playing football, but not everyone is so sure about that. His parents tried to talk him out of playing this season, but he wasn’t hearing it.

“When the time comes that he can’t play anymore, it’ll have to come from his coach, because he won’t listen to us,” Angie said with a laugh.

[Coach Bill] Feuchtenberger said he already talked with Riley, and explained that football gets more physical and dangerous at every level.

“I told him, just being honest and up-front, that at some point his safety becomes the primary issue and this is probably going to end,” he said. “I told him there are other things he can do to be involved, like being the team manager.”

Riley didn’t want to hear that Monday’s scoreless tie with Kingsland might’ve been his last game.

As far as he’s concerned, it was just the last game before next season.

After the initial excitement of Olivia’s return, I got practically paranoid about pushing her too far — as I should have. I knew that chemotherapy wore her out, and I wanted to make that as I put everyone through their paces, I wasn’t doing anything that was going to interfere with fighting her leukemia. Already, Olivia had the athletes’ credo of, and I’m not trying to be flip here, death before dishonor, so she would never tell me if she were tired. I would consult a lot with her mother, the other coaches, and sometimes with Grace, who knew her as a teammate as well, having played softball with her the previous year and playing on an all-star team together. I asked Olivia so many times if she was OK, she probably wondered if there was something wrong with me.

Charlie Wilks is on the third and ultimately final step (if step two didn’t cause an athlete to quit, or be forced to). That step is normalcy. As in, unless somebody told you, you wouldn’t there was anything unusual going on with that athlete.

Wilks, in the TV news clip I posted above, said he didn’t want to be an inspiration — he wanted to be a guy on the football field. But don’t get him wrong. In a piece that aired in November on ESPN’s E:60 TV newsmagazine, Wilks said it’s great that people consider him an inspiration. But Wilks, grandson of former Kansas City Chiefs offensive lineman Al Reynolds, said he wants to be considered a football player.

I want people to remember that disabilities aren’t things that get in your way. If you use them right, disabilities can be your greatest ability. It’s like if you imagine a disability as a crutch, don’t use the disability as a crutch, you should use the disability as a leg and start running.

In Olivia’s situation, eventually we all forgot, in the heat of the game, that she was in remission for leukemia. Sick or not, she was one of our team’s best pitchers. I didn’t know until after the season was over that there were days she would come straight from therapy to the game. In retrospect, for Olivia being out on the field was a sense of normalcy, a sense that she wasn’t just a sick kid. By season’s end, she had legitimately earned her way to another all-star berth — not because she was an inspiration. Though she was.

Written by rkcookjr

November 15, 2009 at 8:09 pm