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UNF teams ‘adopt’ area kids with cancer

The men’s basketball and women’s softball team’s have more in common than one might think.

Both teams have “adopted” families who have a child with a brain tumor.

Through the national organization Friends of Jaclyn Foundation (FOJ), both Osprey teams were paired with two local families that were going up against the fight of their lives, battling against childhood brain cancer. For men’s basketball, it led to the Patrick family. For softball, the Parker family.

Megan Parker was almost 3 years old when she was diagnosed with brain cancer. In the time leading up to her diagnosis, her parents, Brandi and Jay, were trying to figure out what was wrong with their middle daughter. They saw her vomiting in the morning, running into things, acting very tired and eventually complaining of headaches. They were unprepared for the eventual diagnosis of a brain tumor, but faced it together as a family. Which was one reason they decided to take part in Friends of Jaclyn, because the whole family could participate, not just the sick child.

During the summer of 2010, UNF and the Parkers were matched together. Their relationship was solidified April 30, 2011 before a doubleheader against Stetson with an official adoption ceremony, making Megan and her two sisters, Jade and Bree, part of the Osprey softball family.

“It was awesome,” Jade said.

“It was nice because it was all of them,” Jay said. “The other kids got to get involved with it, too.”

“We wanted to make sure Jade and Bree weren’t being left out of it after the focus being so much on Megan’s treatment,” said softball head coach Marcie Hickey, who participated in the FOJ program herself as a college scholar-athlete.

Jade, Megan and Bree each threw out a first pitch during the Ospreys’ doubleheader. UNF went on to sweep the Hatters, winning 5-0 in the first game and then 6-1 in the second.

“It turned out to be a lot more than three pitches because Bree wanted to keep throwing and throwing,” Hickey said, the memory eliciting smiles and laughs from both Hickey and assistant coach Ashley Iveson.

Since then, an unbreakable bond has formed between the Parkers and the UNF softball program. The Ospreys attend various events for the Parkers, and the Ospreys seem to know when the Parkers are in the stands.

“When they come to our games, we play great. I don’t think that’s a coincidence,” Hickey said. “It never fails. When our girls have interaction with the Parkers on game days, they come out and play ridiculously well.”

UNF hosted its Friends of Jaclyn game with the Parkers in attendance Oct. 13 during a fall doubleheader with FSCJ. In between games, laughs and smiles spread across the Ospreys’ dugout. Jade chased after Hickey in a game of tag. Now, 5 years old and in kindergarten, Megan bounced from player to player. She eventually started throwing a tennis ball with Megan Mihalik, a sophomore from Jacksonville and member of the team, in a game that ultimately grew to a huge circle of fun in the outfield. Bree also wandered among the players but soon found herself in the arms of Iveson. Before the start of the second game, all three girls threw out first pitches. And Jade, Megan, Bree, Brandi and Jay gathered together with the team for a group photo.

Mihalik said, “They pretty much run the show when they get on the field. In the beginning, she wasn’t very mobile. She’s been cancer-free for over a year now, so to see her running around with Jade and Bree — it’s awesome. It brings us closer together as a team because we’re interacting with each other and Jade, Megan and Bree. They have 18 other sisters.”

The experience has been a bit different for the men’s basketball team.

Hanging above the door from the men’s basketball locker room is a WWF belt. There are no words above it. There are no words below it. None are needed. It hangs in memory of Nick Patrick, a 13-year-old whose life changed in an instant and forever changed the lives of those closest to him.

“The thing about brain cancer is that it creeps up on you fast,” said Tabitha Patrick, Nick’s mother.

Nick had a headache and flu-like symptoms and was given IV fluids at the hospital to treat food poisoning. But his mom knew something else was wrong.

“We left that hospital and went to Jacksonville,” Tabitha said. “We started noticing some other things while we were in the car. Three hours later, we found he had a massive brain tumor.”

Sports were never a big part in Nick’s life. He liked video games. So the on the surface, the Friends of Jaclyn — an organization centered around athletics — might not have seemed like a good option for the family. But what sold them was the support that Nick’s younger sister, Autumn, would receive as well.

“The basketball team was awesome,” Tabitha said. “They treated Autumn just like the way they treated Nick. That was so important, and that’s why we chose Friends of Jaclyn.”

The matching of men’s basketball and the Patricks was quick and cemented with an Xbox and a WWF belt. Before meeting the Patricks, while playing Xbox, the Ospreys would pass around a WWF belt for whomever won. During one of the first meetings, Nick saw the Ospreys’ Xbox. Nick, Autumn and the Ospreys played for the WWF belt. Nick came out the victor, and he was awarded the belt by the Ospreys with no hesitation. He took it home with him.

“I really didn’t expect that — it took me off-guard,” Tabitha said. “It made me rethink life in general. I was truly amazed. I’m still thankful.”

Men’s basketball head coach Matt Driscoll got another belt for the team. Both belts have become symbols in their own. For the Ospreys, it’s one of strength, courage, willpower and positivity. For Tabitha, it is one of the bond that occurred between Nick, Autumn and the Ospreys. It’s a reminder to her of the support her family has received and the group of tall cheerleaders rooting for them.

“Nick loved that belt,” she said. “Nick shared that belt with Autumn. He played this one Xbox game and taught Autumn how to play. They would play that game together and whoever won would get the belt. Just getting that belt brought a lot of happy memories — both inside the house and outside the home. That’s my most cherished memory.”

For the entire year they spent with Nick, the team took their belt with them to every game, Driscoll said. Now, that belt hangs above their door.

“You see it every time you enter and every time you leave,” he said. “No words under it, no name. No anything. It’s a reminder of Nick that will live on with us for a long time.”

“The first thing I remember about Nick was his smile,” said Travis Wallace, a forward from Marietta, Ga. “When you see someone with those circumstances in his life come into this gym and smile just to see us play basketball and go through our workouts — Nick wanted to be a part of us so much — it made all of us realize that we are something to somebody else. The fact that he would come to practice, and, especially on the days we had to fight through the grind, to see him walk through the door would help us. It made us think that we were going to get through this practice. If can get through that, we can get through this as a team.”

Nick waged his battle against cancer for another 11 months from the time the Patricks were matched with the Ospreys. He had some good days and some bad days. He endured multiple scans and surgeries and eventually received the news that he was terminal. But there was nothing that could keep Nick from thinking about the positive.

“I remember like it was yesterday. They were rolling Nick into brain surgery,” Driscoll said. “You would have thought he was going to a picnic. He was tired and it was tough physically, but he would never let you down. With those brain surgeries, there’s a lot that can go wrong. And here’s this kid going in like it’s another day at the park, just talking and joking around.”

After a brave fight, Nick died Aug. 28, 2011. Now, 14 months later, it is still tough for Tabitha and Autumn and the rest of Nick’s family. But they take strength from the support and encouragement they receive from the Ospreys. It’s proof of the ever-lasting bond that was created through Friends of Jaclyn.

“We still text,” Tabitha said. “We couldn’t get out there much because Nick was so sick. But that didn’t stop them from coming to the hospital. It didn’t stop them from blowing the bus horn each time they passed our exit off I-95 and sending us a text message about it.”

A collage makes up part of a wall in Driscoll’s office. It includes photos and other mementos throughout the years. But right at the center is the program from Nick’s funeral.

“It was a neat funeral. Or fun-eral as they said it,” Driscoll said. “It was fun. It was very, very sad, but there was a lot of laughing. Nick was a unique kid, almost surreal.”

Participating in Friends of Jaclyn has helped put life into perspective for both softball and men’s basketball. Both coaches said they believe the experience was powerful for the student athletes.

“It turned out that the kids have actually had more of an impact on our team than we’ve had on the kids,” Hickey said. “You can see by the way our girls react that they understand that there is so much more. You see this family who is going through so much more than what you can imagine. It puts everything into perspective for all of us.”

The athletes themselves echo the sentiment.

Mihalik said participating in Friends of Jaclyn has had a tremendous impact on her life. “For me, it’s a motivational thing,” she said. “I have my struggles. For her to be so positive about life, it makes me realize any struggle that I have, someone has it so much harder than me. It keeps me going.”

“The main thing is just to see somebody fight. There are days when I wake up and complain how I don’t want to do this or do that. But if you think about it and after meeting somebody like Nick and seeing what he went through, what are you complaining about? You just keep on fighting. There’s not one day in life you can take for granted. You can’t do that. I appreciate Nick to this day. When I do see him again, I’ll tell him thank you,” Wallace said with the briefest of pauses, “Thank you for giving me that type of personality to have. He was a great kid.”