A special teammate
UConn adds young leukemia patient as newest member
STORRS, Conn. -- Connecticut's newest recruit, Grayson Hand, put on his blue Huskies jersey recently and showcased his talent in a public workout at the Mark R. Shenkman Training Center.
He ran across the turf with great energy, but he won't be the fastest player on the team. He fielded and tossed a ball pretty well, too, but he won't be UConn's top fielder.
"He's not ready to play baseball yet," UConn coach Jim Penders said. "He's only 5 years old. But I've got a dugout full of guys who would love to play Legos instead of having to learn bunt defenses during practice. They'd be happy to accommodate him in that regard."
An organization called Team IMPACT, which pairs children dealing with serious illnesses and physical challenges with college athletic programs, was the middle man in the recruitment of Grayson and his family, of Sturbridge, Massachusetts.
Grayson was diagnosed June 18, 2013 with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, has been on chemotherapy since and will continue with those treatments until Oct. 16, 2016. He'll have his own locker at UConn and will be at J.O. Christian Field, often in the dugout or between the lines, for years to come.
For this player, there's no limit on his NCAA eligibility.
Grayson was joined at the ceremony April 20 by his father, Nate, his mother, Lauren, and his sister, Sophie, 7, who was made an honorary cheerleader. Grayson sat before cameras at a press conference, next to Penders and two players, Carson Cross and Blake Davey, and signed a contract that made official the coming together of UConn baseball and the Hands.
"I don't think there's a person on the planet who hasn't been affected by cancer in some way, shape or form," Penders said. "To personalize it, between a family and our family, is special, to feel that strength from them, and hopefully when they need some strength they can find it in our team. It could be a great quid pro quo relationship."
The baseball team is the second at UConn to adopt a child via Team IMPACT. The men's hockey team spent the season with Camden Soucy, 5, of Tolland. Camden, who is battling neuroblastoma, and his family attended many practices and almost every home game, with Camden fist-bumping players as they took the ice at the XL Center. He also had his own locker stall.
Camden attended the team's banquet April 17, when coach Mike Cavanaugh and several players acknowledged his presence and contributions.
"You've inspired us all," senior Trevor Gerling said.
Members of the hockey team spread word of their positive experience with Camden at a monthly student athlete advisory committee meeting. Cross was in attendance. He soon emailed Penders, saying he thought it would be great for the baseball program, and then took the lead with Davey.
"We got an understanding of how awesome it was, how much it helped [the hockey team], and how much it helped that family," Cross said. "We started looking into what we could do, did some research and made this happen. Being able to expand our family and help someone else is great."
Team IMPACT, based in Boston, was founded in 2011 and has grown rapidly. There are 600 teams and families paired, with most still on the East Coast but several now as far as California and Arizona.
"Our hope is to improve the quality of life for these kids," said Erin MacNeil, the organization's manager for the Northeast and South, and a 2011 UConn graduate. "A lot of them are in and out of the hospital and might have a hard time keeping friends. They sometimes look different and feel different than their friends. When we match teams up with their family, we hope to just expand a support network for these children. But what's interesting is that we've found these teams take more away from it than the families."
In Connecticut, 25 teams have been involved, including five at Hartford, five at Trinity and four at Wesleyan.
The Hartford baseball team has been paired with Thomas Hastings, who turns 9 in May. Thomas, who is from Windsor, has congenital muscular dystrophy and a severe case of scoliosis.
"He's been with us the last few seasons," coach Justin Blood said. "Thomas' family put together a video, chronicling the relationship. Until watching that video, I guess I hadn't realize just how many things we've been involved with together, him and us. That's the beauty. He comes to practices, to games, he's been on a road trip, he was at the America East Tournament. On the flip side, our guys are going to his house. He had a surgery ... and the [players] who didn't travel with the team went to his house and watched the game online. There are so many ways that we've intertwined our lives. He knows he's a member of our program and he has free reign around here."
Blood was previously the associate head coach under Penders at UConn, where Grayson is just getting started.
"About 80 percent of the time, he feels good," Nate Hand said. "But that 20 percent of the time, he really doesn't. Lately, as he gets older, he's realizing that his life differs from a lot of other people's. He'll say stuff like, 'Why am I always sick? Why don't I feel good?' So there's recognition now that things are different than they should be, and that's been challenging for us emotionally. When he was first diagnosed, it was just Lauren and I who felt that loss. But now he's starting to feel it, too, and that's tough to understand."
Grayson now has a couple dozen teammates to help him through the difficult times.
"Little boys like to be around big boys and big boys never want to lose their [sense of being] a little boy," Penders said. "That's a big part of baseball, too."
This article was written by Mike Anthony from The Hartford Courant and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.