CINCINNATI The Cincinnati Bearcats are neck-and-neck with Ohio State in the polls, their quarterback is a Heisman Trophy contender and they have surged into the national title conversation. With the country’s hottest coach in Brian Kelly, a devastating offense that is ranked No. 3 nationally in scoring and a revamped defense that replaced 10 starters from last season’s Orange Bowl team, Cincinnati is enjoying a renaissance.
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But players, coaches and support staffers are quick to identify Mitch Stone, a 12-year-old cancer patient, as a key to this special season. He will not line up for the No. 8 Bearcats on Thursday when they play No. 21 South Florida in a showcase game for the Big East. But he has given them a sense of perspective.
“We can talk about our struggles every day, but just seeing him and his family going through such a serious moment makes us realize that we’re fortunate and blessed,” the junior running back John Goebel said. “We want to do whatever we can to uplift his spirits because he is definitely doing the same for us.”
Cincinnati became the first Football Bowl Subdivision team to “adopt” a child through Friends of Jaclyn, which matches pediatric brain tumor patients with sports teams, mostly from colleges. Friends of Jaclyn has matched 125 youngsters with teams, with 80 others in the works and more than 1,000 teams on a waiting list. The program grew out of the friendship forged in 2005 between the Northwestern women’s lacrosse team and Jaclyn Murphy, then 10, who was being treated for a malignant brain tumor.
In the Stone family’s relationship with Cincinnati football, it is hard to determine who has benefited more.
“The ideal thing is how they’re inspired by me and I’m inspired by them,” Mitch said last week while watching practice with his mother, Dee, and his twin, Nick.
When Mitch descended the steps of Nippert Stadium, the offensive linemen were engaged in drills. As soon as they saw him, they called out “Mitch!” and “What’s up, Mitch?” At the end of practice, the Bearcats gathered around Mitch so he could “break down” the team, meaning they jumped and chanted on his command.
“This taught me a quick lesson,” the senior tight end Kazeem Alli said. “The little things that I whine about day to day aren’t anything compared to what some people are going through.”
Dee Stone said her family which includes her husband, Anthony, and daughters Paisley, 15, and Piper, 13 did not know what to expect in July when they arrived at the Cincinnati football complex. She said she thought only a few players and coaches would be involved. Instead, the 105-member team, and all the coaches and support staffers, gave Mitch a standing ovation.
“I’ve always wanted a big brother, and now we have 105 of them,” Nick Stone said.
Mitch, frail and bald from treatments, won everyone over by beating his chest with his fist in a salute. Several players stood and talked about siblings and other relatives who had cancer.
“There was something special about that evening,” said Sarah Walsh, the executive director of Friends of Jaclyn. “There was such a strong sense of family and community, and they welcomed Mitch and his entire family with open arms.”
A few days later, Mitch had a bad reaction to a chemotherapy drug and was hospitalized in intensive care. Dee Stone, a Cincinnati graduate like her husband, called Ernest Jones, the team’s director for player services, who spread the word.
The Bearcats responded with a flood of calls and text messages. Ricardo Mathews, a 295-pound senior defensive lineman with flowing dreadlocks, left a voice-mail message for Mitch: “Lord, you work in miraculous ways. We would like to see our brother another day, Lord.”
When Dee Stone heard his prayer, she said, “That’s when I knew they were really there.”
The bond with Mitch grew stronger. The players sent so many text messages to his mother that they finally bought Mitch a cellphone, which they nicknamed the Bearcat Hotline.
Mathews and the senior receiver Mardy Gilyard also performed a hip-hop version of “Happy Birthday to You” to Mitch in a voice mail message and in person at practice. Their teammates provided the background beat.
Mitch sends Bible verses to the players, who write them on their arms with black markers or silver paint pens for games. The Bearcats also wear red-white-and-blue “Mitch’s Mission” wristbands.
When Kelly, whose wife, Paqui, has had two bouts with breast cancer, wants to make a point in practice or quietly chide a player, he said, he will hold up his wristband as a reminder that life on the field is not so bad. Quarterback Tony Pike has thrown 13 touchdown passes this season with Mitch’s band on his right wrist. Gilyard wears his even when he sleeps.
“When I score a touchdown, and I stick this hand in the air and Mitch sees that, he gets that much better,” said Gilyard, who has eight touchdowns this season. “He’s worrying less and less about being sick and more and more about recovering.”
Mitch has slowly grown stronger. He endured 31 high-dose radiation treatments and hospital stays as long as 24 days. On Thursday, he begins his fifth and final round of chemotherapy. The Stones, who do not have cable television at home, are excited to watch the Bearcats’ game with Mitch in the hospital. Dee Stone said, “They really make us feel like we’re part of the team.”
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