A group of kids made the Mercer softball diamond shine brighter than usual on Sunday.
Since Mercer athletes are on hiatus for final exams, the day belonged to the children and families at Jay's Hope's monthly social event. The game originated as a fundraiser for Luke Russo, a ten year-old with non-hodgkin lymphoma. His uncle, AJ Russo, organized the event with a group of friends. It then turned into a day at the ball park for everyone.
"It was amazing," AJ Russo said. "You have people out there that are going through chemo treatments just yesterday like it's nothing. I knew that if they could do it, my big old tail could do it."
Luke logged two hits in two at-bats, and was able to cross home with his father, Michael Attaway.
"Just giving him motivation," Attaway said. "I was there to slow it down if he needed to slow it down."
The 1.000 batter broke down his first hit in the dugout between innings.
"I didn't know what might happen in my back. It might hurt me, so I just did half a swing."
Luke's pain comes from a disease that no ten year-old kid should ever have to cope with, much less endure while swinging a baseball bat. A diagnosis of non-hodgkin lymphoma came in February, when a large mass was discovered around Luke's heart and arteries. The tumor also constricted itself around his trachea.
Steroid treatments reduced the tumor's size, but prescriptions have unkind side effects. Luke has limited sensation in his hands and feet, affecting his ability to grip a bat or run the bases. On top of that, his body is ultra-sensitive to infection. While running from first to second, Luke fell and skinned his knee.
After a dust-off an observation from Michael, the two safely made it to second. All the minor issues require big-time monitoring.
"I check his temperature all the time," said Luke's mother, Nicole Russo. "Even a fever can be life-threatening."
Those are the unnatural and unfair quirks of childhood cancer. Other than the specialized room at home, a pharmacy-like atmosphere, and required mask when visitors come over, life hasn't changed around the house.
"He still has to take out the trash. He still gets scolded for talking back," said Michael.
There was one minor disappointment on the baseball field today. Luke has played infield since he was six. Today's lineup had him in the outfield, mostly observing the action.
"I hated that part. I didn't get to make any plays," said Luke.
Everything else, though, was picture-perfect.
"i'm just glad I got to play."
Luke and his family are one group of several who had an unforgettable day at Sikes Field. Mercer baseball and softball players offered encouragement to fielders and batters beneath a nearly cloudless cerulean sky.
While grateful for the experience, Nicole acknowledges the bittersweet reality of the entire day.
"You're still reminded of all the reasons why you're brought together. I would rather have met them other ways."
Today's event had pain. It also had the joy of a group that could forget the hurt, if only for the amount of time it takes for a kid to run out a base hit.
"Everybody showed incredible amounts of love out here, man," said Michael. "It's a really good feeling."
For more information Jay's Hope, visit the organization's website at www.jayshope.org