User ID: Password:

May 10, 2010

ONE BIG HIT - The Friends of Jaclyn organization has helped create a strong relationship between the Virginia Tech baseball team and a small boy overcoming the effects of brain cancer

By: Jimmy Robertson

Some of the Virginia Tech baseball team gathers with Levi in the dugout before a game.

On April 12, the Virginia Tech baseball team nestled into the top 25 of Baseball America’s poll for the first time in 18 years following an impressive rebuking of Miami’s Hurricanes in two games of a three-game set in Blacksburg.

The two victories moved the constantly improving Hokies to 23-11 (now 32-14 after a three-game sweep of BC) and into the middle of the pack of the ACC, an accomplishment not seen by this program since the program moved into its new conference digs.

Tech’s baseball team can attribute its success this season to many things – experience, burly work with the bats, clean glove work in the field and drastically improved pitching.

But the Hokies admit they’ve had a little extra motivation pushing them along in their quest to make the ACC Tournament for the first time since 2005.

It’s not in the form of a 6-foot-5 hurler who can throw a small white ball at the speed of light (Jesse Hahn). It’s not in the form of a closer with the heart of a champion who is willing to take the ball no matter the score or inning (Ben Rowen). It’s not in the form of a first baseman/outfielder with an uncanny ability to spray line drives into open sections of green pasture (Austin Wates).

No, the hero is in the form of a loving little 10-year-old boy from one of the remotest parts of Virginia, a kid like, and yet unlike, most others. He loves baseball and he loves people, and he possesses a rather independent streak about him.

That independent streak helped him take on the fiercest opponent known to man, one much more wicked than anything Tech’s hitters will see in the batter’s box. Only this kid isn’t playing a game.

Cancer has tried to steal Levi Mayo’s life. But he is winning, figuratively pounding it with an aluminum bat, and the Hokies have learned this.

“He really has been an inspiration,” shortstop Tim Smalling said. “He’s battled sickness with such a positive attitude, and that’s inspired us. It’s easy for us because we’re out there competing and playing a baseball game. But he’s battling cancer.”

Mayo lives with his family in Craig County, a mountainous piece of real estate that snuggles the West Virginia border. National forests blanket most of the county, which serves as the home to just over 5,000 people. The county doesn’t have a stoplight, a McDonald’s or a Wal-Mart, and most who live there drive through the mountains to work in Roanoke.

They all know the story of little Levi, who was 4 years old when he got sick. In late August of 2004, he complained of headaches, vomited on occasion and slept more than normal. His mother, Melina Brown, took him to the doctor and stubbornly refused to leave until the physician ordered a CT scan – and then she refused to leave until she got the results.

Those results left her in tears, revealing a highly malignant brain tumor called medulloblastoma, and the doctor immediately sent Levi to the pediatric intensive care unit at Community Hospital in Roanoke, where, on Sept. 2, surgeons removed the tumor.

That turned out to be the easy part. He spent two weeks in intensive care, four weeks total in the hospital, and lost most daily functions, like talking, walking and swallowing. A month after the surgery, he started radiation and chemotherapy treatments to his brain and spine. The chemotherapy, a poisonous concoction of chemicals designed to kill cancer cells, nearly killed him. In May of 2005, he nearly died from septic shock. A trio of IV lines kept his blood pressure going and his heart beating.

Most thought the Big Man upstairs had come to the mound to take Levi out of the game. But the little fellow had other thoughts.

“He went three months without speaking a word,” Brown said. “We’d draw a happy face and that meant ‘yes’ and a sad face meant ‘no’ to get answers from him.

“He was in a wheelchair for the longest time. He had to learn how to crawl first and then learn how to walk. He went to kindergarten with a walker.”

He gradually got better. After the radiation treatments and 10 months of chemo, the cancer has dissipated. Through countless sessions of rehab, he learned to walk and talk again and do all those things that young boys do. He is an inspiration, even to Division I baseball players.

“You see what he’s been through,” Smalling said. “And you realize how good you have it.”

“That kid walks into our dugout and you can just see it in his eyes. That kid has goodness in his eyes. He’s been through hell, but he’s got that look in his eye. It’s happiness and goodness. He’s not looking for anything else other than another day to love someone and for him or her to love him. When he walks into that dugout, that’s what I see. He’s a special kid. He’s a little angel.” – Virginia Tech baseball coach Pete Hughes on Levi Mayo

The Hokies and Levi became connected through a wonderful organization called the Friends of Jaclyn Foundation. For some background information, in 2004, a 9-year-old girl named Jaclyn Murphy underwent surgery for medulloblastoma at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. Coincidentally – or maybe not – that was same type of tumor Levi Mayo had and the same year he was diagnosed.

While undergoing treatments, Jaclyn Murphy and her father, Denis, used the inspiration of an action shot of a women’s lacrosse player in the hallway. Lacrosse was Jaclyn’s favorite sport, and each day, Denis told his daughter, “You’re gonna be that someday.”

Jaclyn’s youth lacrosse coach just happened to be friends with Kelly Amonte Hiller, the women’s lacrosse head coach at Northwestern – now the five-time national champions. Amonte Hiller and her team sent a care package and eventually adopted Jaclyn as a team member. The players constantly called her during her treatments, encouraging her and motivating her. They invited her to their national championship games, and after they won, they brought her out of the stands and let her hold the national championship trophy.

In the midst of all this, Jaclyn Murphy went back to the hospital for treatment. She happened to take a look at the photo of the women’s lacrosse player and something registered – the photo was actually of Amonte Hiller during her playing days at Maryland.

Also, while at the hospital, a young girl in the bed next to Jaclyn’s inquired about all the calls and text messages Jaclyn received. The girl left the room for a treatment, and Jaclyn excitedly told her father, “Dad, we gotta get her a team.”

That simple statement sparked an idea in Denis Murphy’s brain, and thus, Friends of Jaclyn was born.

Murphy formed the non-profit organization to help other young children undergoing the same plights as his daughter. Today, his organization connects children with pediatric brain tumors to college or high school athletics programs. Currently, 230 children have personal relationships with teams branching over 19 different sports – and 1,300 teams are waiting.

“Our mission is simply improving the quality of life for these kids,” Murphy said. “Our motto is ‘Live in the moment … Play in the moment.’ We certainly hope someone can find a cure, but we focus on what we can do today.”

Melina Brown did not know anything of this. But the parents of children with brain tumors are intertwined. They form support groups to pray for and counsel each other. Friendships get established; bonds are formed.

One of Brown’s friends in Richmond told her that her child had been adopted by the Washington & Lee men’s lacrosse team through the Friends of Jaclyn organization and loved it. That led to phone calls being made, including one to Tech baseball coach Pete Hughes in 2008.

Hughes received a call from Murphy, who had been told about Hughes’ community service work from his days as the head coach at Boston College. Hughes lost his mother to cancer and started a golf tournament in her honor, with all the proceeds going to The Jimmy Fund, an organization in Boston that supports cancer research and care at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

His mother’s tournament ultimately became his parents’ tournament, as Hughes lost his father to cancer just a few years ago. So the golf tournament now honors both his parents, while aiding cancer research.

“That disease,” Hughes said, “has been personal to me.”

Murphy found that out. He realized Hughes would be a good resource for his organization, but his first concern was Levi Mayo. He asked if Hughes and his team could help out.

“I said, ‘Bring him on. We’d love to have him be a part of our program. It would be great for our kids and for him,’” Hughes said.

“I tell people this all the time. Something like this not only gives kids a chance to be a part of a team, but they get to be the star,” Murphy said. “I know when Jaclyn was sick, she lost all of her friends because no one wants to be around you while you’re sick and trying to recover.

“But I had a parent tell me one time that this [being with a team] gave his daughter her childhood back because she was born with a brain tumor and all she knew were doctors and nurses. So that, to me, was very powerful. The players treat a child as normal, and you ask any brain tumor child what they want and normal is what they wish for.”

Levi Mayo enjoys watching the Virginia Tech baseball team, especially from his favorite spot in the Hokies’ dugout.

Friends of Jaclyn conducted its adoption process, and on May 17, 2008, Hughes and his Hokies met Levi Mayo for the first time. Brown brought her youngest son to Blacksburg for Tech’s season finale against Duke and took him onto the field before the game.

The impact was stunning.

“We were going through all the pains of growing a program,” Hughes said. “We were losing. You look at him, and immediately, all those thoughts disappeared. I saw a kid who had trouble walking and who had trouble getting his speech back. But he never lost that look in his eye.

“That kid walks into our dugout and you can just see it in his eyes. That kid has goodness in his eyes. He’s been through hell, but he’s got that look in his eye. It’s happiness and goodness. He’s not looking for anything else other than another day to love someone and for him or her to love him. When he walks into that dugout, that’s what I see. He’s a special kid. He’s a little angel.”

That marked the beginning of a special relationship that has lasted for two years and certainly will go extra innings.

Tech’s players have embraced Levi as a teammate. He comes up for games with his family once or twice a year, but the players constantly keep in touch more through Facebook, posting messages on the “I’m a friend of Levi Mayo” Facebook group set up by his mother. They also post on his CaringBridge site (, a free Web site designed to connect family and friends during a serious health event.

“We post on there all the time, just to let him know that we’re thinking about him,” Smalling said. “Anything to brighten his day, and when you do that, it makes you feel better as a person.”

“College kids need to be reminded of how good they have it every day because they’re at the age in their lives where they’re so selfish – and I’m not pointing fingers because I was the same guy,” Hughes said. “The quicker you come out of that mindset and become exposed to these types of things, then the quicker you’re going to be a better person. It gets you out of that selfish mindset. You become a true Hokie and not just ‘I’m a baseball player at Virginia Tech.’”

Levi’s battle certainly touches the heart of Hughes, himself a father of five. He has twice visited Levi at his school, the Blue Ridge Autism and Achievement Center in Roanoke. The damage created by the tumor and surgery forces Levi to receive his education in a more structured environment than that provided by a public school.

“That place gives me a constant reminder of how important some people’s jobs are who don’t get in the newspapers,” Hughes said.

He and assistant coach Dave Turgeon went once just to cheer up Levi during a difficult stretch. Then Hughes and his wife went down on Levi’s birthday to present him with two Virginia Tech baseball uniform tops.

Hughes begrudgingly granted this interview request and only did so for the purpose of promoting the Friends of Jaclyn organization. He’s more interested in helping this organization, helping Levi and teaching his players some life lessons than seeking any publicity for his good deeds.

“I don’t do things like this to bring attention to our program. I just hate the photo op showing the community service side of things,” he said. “You take the photo and then you’re done. I hate it. That’s not concrete. That’s not real.

“I want our guys to know that’s who you should be and you do it because it makes you feel good and the person involved feel good – and you’re not doing it for any other reason.”

Their impact on Levi Mayo has been profound. He loves the players and he loves Hughes, and they’ve given him a confidence that perhaps no other group could provide.

The future appears to be bright for this little guy, which is stunning to say considering the darkness that shrouded his life just a few short years ago and the wake that cancer left – in the form of daily human growth hormone shots, thyroid medicine, braces for his ankles, the shunt embedded in his head, cataracts in his eyes and partial hearing loss.

But in March, when report cards came out, Levi made the A/B Honor Roll for the first time. His speech continues to improve and he walks a little more purposely these days, often shunning those braces.

“It’s a win-win for everyone,” Murphy said. “It’s a win for the kid, the athletes and the parents. You get to go to a game and for three hours, your child doesn’t realize he or she had a brain tumor. You can’t put a price tag on what Pete has done.”

“This makes him feel important,” Brown said of hanging out with Tech’s baseball team before a game with BC. “This shows him that other grown-ups care about what happens to him.

“He doesn’t let everything that’s happened to him stop or slow him down. I’ve never heard him say, ‘I can’t’ or ‘This isn’t fair.’ I’m not one-tenth as strong as he is. But he’s always hugging people. He loves everyone.”

Suffice it to say, he loves life these days. It’s a healthy testament to where he’s been and where he’s going.

And hopefully, the Friends of Jaclyn and the Virginia Tech baseball team have played at least a small role in that.