COLUMBUS, Ohio – Sometimes it just doesn’t matter: the late-inning error in a tie game; throwing a waist-high fastball over the middle that gets drilled; grounding into a bases-loaded double play.
Sometimes the things that happen in the sport of baseball, or the tough situations that are encountered in any sport, just don’t matter in the big picture of life because sometimes life brings its own curves and change-ups that can be a heck of a lot more trying than a line drive out or a fumbled snap.
And sometimes, life will flat-out pummel. Will O’Brien, from Pataskala, Ohio, and his family – Mom Nancy; Dad Bill; and younger brother Isaac – have dealt with real life things that will crush – even scoff at – the worse situations that sports can bring. Since he was 10-months-old and first diagnosed with cancerous brain tumors, Will has fought a sometimes hourly, but always daily, weekly, monthly and yearly battle just to stay alive. And so far…he’s winning.
An 18-year-old senior at Watkins Memorial High School, Will is nearing his high school graduation date this spring. His parents are still seeking school district approval of a social graduation for Will because he will have completed his academic requirements for graduation, but he intends to continue in public school for a few more years for the maturation and the job skill training. If anyone deserves the honor of walking alongside his classmates, it is this young man. He has proven – by being alive today, by his academic work and through time spent in the Boy Scouts, with Upward Bound sports, Achievers baseball, Special Olympics, four-years in the marching band and as a member of the National Honor Society – that he belongs on that stage in a cap and gown.
Regardless, Nancy and Bill are planning a huge blowout party on June 5 to celebrate Will’s life and his completion of traditional school.
It will be a day that will probably be remembered more than any of those days the O’Brien family has faced to date. Like the days – months-worth of days – Will was hospitalized during any one of the five surgeries on his brain or the three relapses. The days filled with chemotherapy treatments. The days filled with radiation treatments. The days spent receiving bone marrow treatments. Or the days after he suffered a massive stroke two years ago that left him with limited use of his right side.
Or, the memorable day in April when Will became a part of the Ohio State baseball team. A lifelong sports fan from a family of huge Buckeye fans, Will is in the process of being “adopted” by the Buckeye baseball team as part of the Friends of Jaclyn Foundation (FOJ), a non-profit organization that improves the quality of life for children with pediatric brain tumors and their families. FOJ matched Will with Ohio State and its baseball program, one of over 1,000 schools (major colleges, small colleges and high schools) in the program waiting to be matched with a child seeking additional love, support and friendship. (The Ohio State softball team is a part of this program, too. It has adopted the sister of a child with brain tumors as part of the FOJ’s Safe on the Sidelines Program for siblings.)
“We could not believe it when we were told Will was being matched with Ohio State,” Nancy O’Brien said before the Buckeyes’ game against Akron April 21. “We were thinking we’d get matched with a Division III school and we are just thrilled to be matched with the Buckeye baseball team. Will is a huge Ohio State fan and he’d wear Ohio State clothes every day to school if we’d let him.”
Will and his family were on the field before the game meeting the Ohio State coaches and players. They spent some time in the team’s locker room talking with co-captains Zach Hurley, Cory Kovanda and others, and Will had his picture taken with the entire team and another with the team’s starting pitchers.
The “adoption” is still in its early stages, but the process will include Will becoming an extension of the team through text messages, emails, phone calls and facebook and twitter postings. The benefit to all is a personal, loving support network that creates a unique bond.
The Buckeyes, the defending Big Ten champion and a team full of classy and caring individuals, were only too happy to meet Will and make him a part of the team.
“You could see on Will’s face that he was really having a good time,” senior pitcher Eric Best, from Lewis Center, Ohio, said. “It was nice we were able to meet him and his family and you could tell we helped make it a great day for him. I hope we get to do it again.”
No telling what Will and his parents and 14-year-old brother Isaac will be feeling if the school district approves his social graduation and Will walks across that stage. It will be a special moment, a proud moment and perhaps even an unbelievable moment for the family, and for Will’s classmates.
“I want to graduate with my team,” Will says of his senior class at Watkins Memorial that has accepted, loved and nurtured him through all of his physical challenges and all of the years.
“They were there when he returned to kindergarten after treatment, with chalk drawings and clapping to welcome him back,” Nancy recalled. “They were there giving Will a standing ovation when he received straight A’s as a freshman. They were there on Senior Night at the last football game when one of the players carried Will onto the muddy field to be part of the friendship circle.”
They will be there for Will on graduation day, as well. And just maybe, underneath his cap and gown, it wouldn’t be surprising at all if the newest member of the Buckeye family is wearing his newest piece of Ohio State clothing: an official Ohio State baseball jersey, autographed by the team.
The teams from Watkins Memorial and Ohio State can only hope. Congratulations, Will. Keep fighting. And keep winning.