The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

February 16, 2014

Boys of Summer: Two stories that deserve to be told

Dave Ruthenberg, Sports Editor
Enid News and Eagle

— There are two stories in this piece that show the human side of sports, especially college sports.

We typically are inundated with news that sometimes makes us forget the ultimate mission and purpose of collegiate athletics, and that is to hopefully make better people out of the students from when they arrived. Yes, that’s even more important than wins and losses.

The plan was to write just one story, about a little boy signed to a letter of intent at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tenn., but wanting to put a local angle to the story, a call was made to Northern Oklahoma College athletic director Jeremy Hise to get his thoughts and whether he would consider something similar at NOC.

Hise liked the idea of the program, noting the role of NOC is developing young adults and it would serve as a great learning experience.

Hise then advised they already had a similar story, and proceeded to explain how the team has adopted a 5-year-old with cancer as its team captain.

He directed me to NOC Tonkawa head baseball coach Terry Ballard, who filled in the details.

Thus began a two-week journey that had me in contact with the remarkable moms of two equally remarkable kids — one in Tennessee, and one here in Oklahoma — two great schools and a wonderful organization that helps sick children.

Their stories, their struggles, fears, triumphs and the immensely positive impact their association with a couple of welcoming college teams wove two touching tales and hopefully we were able to do them justice by presenting them here today.

‘Team Maverick’ has been a special journey

It all started with a Facebook post for Northern Oklahoma College Tonkawa head baseball coach Terry Ballard that led to an emotional journey with the Mavericks entering the life of 5-year-old cancer patient Maverick Nixon.

Or, maybe, more accurately, he entered their lives.

Ballard, now in his 17th year as head coach, saw a Facebook post from a friend of his, Connie Hallam, a nurse at OU Children’s Hospital in Oklahoma City. She posted a note and a photo that asked for prayers for Maverick.

“I thought, ‘Are you kidding me?’” Ballard said. “His name is Maverick, and we’re the Mavericks.” Ballard felt it was too strong of a coincidence, almost as if something divine was at play.

The next day he got the names of Maverick’s parents, mom Jayme Nixon and dad Josh Nixon — who is the assistant principal at Hilldale High School in Muskogee — and asked if he could do anything for Maverick.

He also found out about something called neuroblastoma, a disease as scary as its name implies.

“It’s a bone marrow disease only kids can get,” Ballard said. “I didn’t know much about it. Children’s cancer is children’s cancer, I mean, you know it’s bad.”

It was bad.

Maverick’s mom, Jayme, taught middle school English until Maverick — the oldest of two boys — became ill, requiring attention. She shares much of the frightening diagnosis and the grueling medical path the youngster has had to endure via the NOC Tonkawa website (noc.edu/baseball), where there is a section titled “Maverick ... our captain.” She also has created a Team Maverick Facebook page.

12-12-12

Jayme recalls the date vividly — Dec. 12, 2012 — when they found that what was initially thought to be a relatively small matter causing a swollen cheek for her son, but turned out instead to be cancer.

There were fears it was leukemia, or maybe it would turn out to be something as mundane as mono, but they found it was something quite insidious.

It turned into a journey no child, nor parent, would ever expect to endure.

Maverick has undergone numerous medical procedures from the initial biopsy to the implantation of an infusa-a-port. Chemotherapy was started right after Christmas 2012, and several rounds of it cost him his hair, and of course, the resulting side effects sometimes seemed worse than the illness itself.

He had a tumor, located above the adrenal gland, removed. He had stem cell transplants at OU Children’s Hospital and several rounds of immunotherapy.

Maverick had to have his stem cells harvested twice, his mom explained in a recent email. Each harvesting took several hours. He had to have external catheters inserted into his shoulder that were attached to a machine that “sucked out his blood, shot it through a centrifuge that separated it into different components and reinserted what wasn’t needed,” as Jayme described it.

‘He’s our captain’

It was during this time in the hospital in OKC, the NOC Tonkawa team first visited Maverick after playing a game in the area.

“Each of the boys (on the team) brought candy and toys, and a few of them gave our Maverick something of sentimental value to them,” Jayme said. “One gave him some rosary beads that his grandmother had given him. The guys were so good to Maverick.”

“It was a growing point for our guys,” Ballard said. “He’s our captain. We have a picture of him we took with us on our bus for every trip.”

There have been get-togethers with Maverick by the Mavericks on the road, including a trip last year when the Mavs played at Carl Albert in Poteau, near Maverick’s home in Stigler. The team gave him a red (team color) remote control car they signed. The Carl Albert team signed a ball and presented it to him.

But the biggest moment in his recovery was saved for last season’s final game in Tonkawa against rival NOC Enid.

‘There wasn’t a dry eye’

“We held “Maverick Day” on sophomore day,” Ballard said. Sophomore day is the equivalent of senior day for junior colleges.

“We spray painted an ‘M’ on the field,” Ballard said. “We gave him a team shirt with No. 1 — nobody else wears No. 1.”

NOC Enid head baseball coach Raydon Leaton and the Jets’ baseball team signed a ball and presented it to Maverick.

“People from Enid came up and expressed their support and offered contributions, which we are accepting to offset the medical costs,” Ballard said.

Then the big moment arrived.

Maverick, with assistance, strode out to the pitcher’s mound, and with dad at his side, stared in to the catcher, and in one throw, for one glorious moment, all the pain and all the ordeals were forgotten as he delivered the opening pitch on “Maverick Day.”

“It was one of the most moving days I have experienced,” Ballard said. “There wasn’t a dry eye.”

Jayme said the family was “overwhelmed with the entire program’s generosity.”

Maverick even got to run the bases with the team afterward.

Sooner Nation

From Tonkawa to Enid to Norman, Maverick has made an impact.

He even caught the attention of the folks at the University of Oklahoma and met head football coach Bob Stoops during OU’s April spring practice.

“They gave us the grand tour, and let us mosey about taking pictures,” Jamey said. “Coach Stoops even called over his guys to take a pic with Mav.”

The OU basketball team, led by head coach Lon Kruger, accompanied by players Ryan Spangler, Tyler Neal and D.J. Bennett, also paid him a visit while he was in the hospital.

Cancer-free ... ‘A Godsend’

At his last periodic checkup, Maverick was cancer free. He’s also had his lines taken out, and his hair is growing back.

“He’s beyond tough, he’s a pillar,” Ballard said. “He’s a great inspiration for our team. He calls the team ‘my boys,’ as in, ‘they’re my boys.’”

“The Tonkawa Mavericks have continued to love and treat us as family,” Jayme said. “They keep everyone updated on our Maverick’s status on the website ... and still send us videos wishing Mav good luck before an inpatient treatment and sometimes just to give encouragement.” 

“He’s part of the family,” Ballard said. “With a name like Maverick, what could go wrong? It’s been wonderful, a Godsend.

“It is amazing what people will do to put a smile on a sick kid’s face,” Jayme said.

Judging by the reaction of those he has come in contact with, it’s equally amazing how many smiles a sick boy can put on the faces of those he has touched.

(Those interested in helping to defray the medical costs for Maverick Nixon can contact NOC Tonkawa through its website. All contributions go directly toward medical expenses.)

Brooks Russell not a typical ‘5-star’ recruit

Nearly two weeks removed from the hoopla of signing day, it’s hard to imagine any athlete’s commitment bringing more smiles, and tears of joy, than the signing of Brooks Russell.

His story is unusual, but resonates from Tennessee to Oklahoma, and points in between and afar.

Most signing day stories of course focused on football, but it was a collegiate baseball team in Nashville, Tenn., that scored that day’s most prized recruit on Feb. 5.

It was a ceremony attended by four local television stations, Lipscomb coaches, players, cheerleaders and of course the proud parents.

And when the “five-star recruit,” as he was called by Lipscomb head baseball coach Jeff Forehand was introduced, the recruit seemed overwhelmed. And why not? After all, he is only 5 years old.

Oh, and one more thing you need to know: He has a brain tumor.



‘Mom, I’m famous!’



With microphones, photographers and cameras rolling, Brooks inked his name on a national letter of intent with the NCAA Division 1 school, which competes in the Atlantic Sun Conference.

“He was shy with the cameras and microphones,” said Brooks’ mom, Kari Russell.

“Once they left, he took a tour of the locker room, gave high-fives, then he came back in and said, “Mom, I’m famous!”

Lipscomb put the signing event video on its website (lipscombsports.com), and according to Jamie Gilliam, the school’s director of athletic communications, it shattered the school’s web traffic record, more than tripling it.

“The signing event was incredible,” Gilliam said.



‘Daddy, they took my legs’



The event came after a long, arduous road of treatment for Brooks, including chemotherapy and surgery that left him temporarily paralyzed. He was diagnosed the day after his fourth birthday with pilocytic astrocytoma (brain tumor) in his spinal cord that was about eight inches long.

It was a scary time. “You read about other kids with cancer, it’s never your kid,” Kari said. She said receiving the news was surreal. “You are so overwhelmed, you can’t even cry.”

Brooks began chemo in 2012 and finished it in 2013.

He was confined to a wheelchair for six weeks following surgery that removed part of the tumor.

Mom recalls after he awoke from his surgery, Brooks looked up to his dad, and said, “Daddy, they took my legs off.”

“Can you imagine being a 4-year-old, going to sleep for surgery and waking up paralyzed,” Kari said.

They didn’t take his legs off, but he had no feeling at all in his legs.

“We were freaking out. They were pinching his legs and he couldn’t feel them,” Kari said. “We were told that was normal.”

Extensive physical therapy, and his own determination, had Brooks walking again. Kari said it took him two weeks to re-learn how to walk. She said he has no feeling in his thighs and wears braces to help stabilize him when he walks.

He will never have the same function as he did pre-surgery, as nerves were cut to remove the tumor. But, the prognosis is very promising. He has finished the chemo treatments and will require an MRI every three months to monitor the tumor. If it stays dormant, nothing further will need to be done. However, if it grows again, more chemo will be needed.



‘Man, I killed it!’



The day of Brooks’ signing will have a lasting impact on those who attended, from the team to the parents and, of course, to Brooks, who is going to be homeschooled during his recovery by mom, who also will be busy, along with dad, attending to Brooks’ two younger sisters, ages 2 and 3, in their suburban Nasvhille home.

“It was on God’s timing,” Kari said, regarding how much stronger Brooks was after his chemo, and the fact he would not have been able to endure as well as he was able to after his chemo therapy was concluded.

And how strong is Brooks these days? Well, the 5-year-old, who has been a sports fan since mom can remember, went to the indoor batting cage at Lipscomb following his signing, made contact on every swing and even developed a little bit of swagger.

“We walked out of there and he said, ‘Man, I killed it,’” Kari recalled.



Friends of Jaclyn



Brooks’ signing ceremony was the culmination of an “adoption” process put in motion by a group called Friends of Jaclyn, which was formed to match children with brain tumors to college sports teams for “adoptions.”

“We heard about them when he was in the chemo clinic,” Kari said. “I knew immediately we had to sign Brooks up for this opportunity since he loves everything sports.” It was a process that took a year to complete, but “was worth the wait.”

The organization is named for Jaclyn Murphy, then a 9-year-old who was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor in 2004. She connected with the Northwestern University women’s lacrosse team and became an honorary member. The team went on to win seven consecutive NCAA Division I national titles.

Jaclyn now is cancer free and is a sophomore at Marist College in New York.

According to the group’s website,

friendsofjaclyn.org, her parents started Friends of Jaclyn in 2005 when she shared with her father that she wanted other children with pediatric brain tumors to have the experience of being an honorary team member.

Michelle Deieso, the organization’s executive director, said Brooks Russell’s pairing with Lipscomb was the 465th adoption for the organization.

Their reach has been nationwide and likely will include the state of Oklahoma soon, as they are working on an adoption with Cameron University in Lawton for another child, Jocelyn, to become an honorary member of the Aggies’ women’s basketball team.



Making progress



Brooks is making progress, but maybe not as fast as he would like, his mom said. “He isn’t able to out-run his sisters, and that frustrates him,” Kari said.

Prior to his surgeries, he tried playing soccer, but that was difficult, even standing in goal as the goaltender was a burden for the young, future collegiate signee.

“He could only speed walk,” Kari said.

Now, the kid who, according to mom, “loved sports ever since he could crawl,” is getting his step back.

He may not set any track records, but that bounce in his step, and in his personality, is unmistakable. It has lifted not just his spirits, but the spirits of those who have come in contact with him. It’s not likely he knows his presence has made a difference in so many lives.

“All of this has been an incredible honor,” Kari said. “Being paired with Lipscomb is a huge blessing.

“He has grown by leaps and bounds since the beginning of this journey. We are very proud of him.”

Ruthenberg is sports editor at the News & Eagle. Contact him at daver@enidnews.com.