Getting by with a little help from friends
On a Wednesday afternoon in late December, inside four walls in Chestnut Hill, Mass., Robo Arcand is the only human being in the world. It would be easy -- if a tad excruciating -- to travel back to that other time of aloneness.
It wasn't that many years ago, really, back in first grade, when he kept pulling the blankets over his eyes at Boston Children's Hospital. He was trying to block out the light, the fluorescent assault that seemed to drill its way into his frail body and his bald head. He wanted to get away from the company, however loving, of his mom and dad and older sister, and the endless parade of doctors and nurses. He wanted a reprieve from the medicine that seemed so much worse than the cancer. He wanted to get away from the aches, the queasiness, the vomiting, that endless churning in his gut. And, of course, he wanted to crowd out any idea that other kids his age back at Memorial Elementary School in Hopedale were out at recess, bouncing a basketball, tossing it up at the hoop, not a care in the world.
Fortunately, it's not like that now. A freshly minted 13, Robo is a burly kid with a bounce in his step. He's the one bouncing the basketball now. As his mom and a reporter walk into the gym, he dribbles to the right of the foul line and flips up a jump shot. There is the hint of a smile on his face as the ball caroms off the rim and the backboard, and then drops through. Soon, any moment now, his big brothers will arrive.
There will be Salah Abdo, the guard who was born in Somalia and moved to Massachusetts when he was six; Deirunas Visockas, the skinny swingman from Lithuania; and Patrick Heckmann, the top scorer, who grew up in Germany. Then there will be the 7-footer -- 7 feet! -- from nearby Bridgewater, Dennis Clifford, who, according to Robo, "really likes to kid around." And of course the history major, Peter Rehnquist, who has tallied just 12 points in two-plus years as a college basketball player, but who has scored major points with Robo and his family.
Robo belongs here. He is a Boston College Eagle. Well, not technically. Technically, he's a seventh-grader in Hopedale, still adjusting to the bizarre slice of the planet known as middle school. But at practice at least once a week, at every home game and some road ones, too, Robo is decked out in maroon and gold. He has an all-access pass to the games ("I get in before my parents"). He even has a locker at Conte Forum.
His head is now covered with thick, closely cropped brown hair -- covered except for just above the neck, where a "B" and a "C" are emblazoned, slightly off center.
"He's here all the time," says freshman guard Lonnie Jackson. "He's another player on the team."
That is all Robo Arcand has ever wanted.
Helping HandHe's got it thanks to Team IMPACT, a new nonprofit based in Quincy that matches kids with life-threatening diseases with college sports teams. In the face of potentially devastating loss, Team IMPACT seeks to be the ultimate win-win.
By getting teams "to open up their ranks to kids who have been through hell," executive director Dan Walsh hopes to uplift both sides. The organization focuses on the social isolation that typically accompanies life-threatening illness, kids who are, as Walsh says, "off the social grid." Months, and in some cases, years of treatment have ripped the kids apart from their peers. Even long after treatment ends, the sense of isolation often persists. Getting kids assimilated into the culture of a team in an ongoing relationship can foster a sense of belonging in a big way.
The team also benefits. The bubble of college athletics is punctured by a healthy dose of perspective.
Boston College coach Steve Donahue says that when you are a college athlete, it's easy to misread the term "adversity," likening it to a sprained ankle or the loss of a starting job. "You're going for free," says Donahue. "You get a great education. Everything is handed to you here. You forget sometimes that there are other things going on."
Quietly, Team IMPACT partnerships have been forming all over New England in recent months.
The Brown University hockey team has added Ethan, a 7-year-old from Berkley, Mass., who has spent much of the past year at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute enduring chemotherapy and steroid treatments for his leukemia. Around the edges, he has been heading to Providence, lacing up skates for the first time in his life. He's even had team captain Bobby Farnham over to his house, helping to build a mini-rink in the backyard.
In the fall, the Tufts women's soccer team was joined by Joli, an 8-year-old from Brockton, who lost her right eye to retinoblastoma. It was a season of friendship bracelets, going to the movies with college kids, and showing up on the sidelines whenever the Lady Jumbos were in action. When the season ended with a playoff loss to Wesleyan on penalty kicks in a game Tufts had dominated, the somber atmosphere melted under the spell of Joli, who approached each player and said, "Thank you for letting me be a part of your team this year."
The DiagnosisFirst grade is a time of sweetness. Kids get on the school bus often for the first time. They try to master that vexing task of tying their own shoes. They play kickball and sip from juice boxes and cover their skinned knees with Band-Aids decorated with Curious George.
But what about those bruises on Robo's legs? Anne and Roland Arcand wanted to believe they were just normal badges for a 7-year-old. You fall in the sand box. You crash at the end of a sled run. That's what happens. But why were there so many, and why did they keep coming back?
On Feb. 1, 2006, Anne called the pediatrician, Stephanie Bodor, to make an appointment. That same day, she got a call from the nurse at Memorial School, who said it might be a good idea to pick up Robo early. He had just thrown up.
They got to Bodor's office in Hopkinton around 1 p.m. The doctor decided to draw blood right away. Back in Hopedale that afternoon, the Arcands waited and waited. They got calls from friends and family members, everyone sounding a positive note: "I'm sure everything will be all right."
The phone rang again around 7 p.m. It was Bodor. "It looks," she said, "leukemic."
Such an odd and awful adjective.
"You need to get your things packed."
The Arcands drove in to Children's Hospital. More blood tests followed. Unreal hospital time ... the evening slowly, glacially spilling into the wee hours ... Anne and Roland Arcand and their eldest daughter Caitlin -- just in fourth grade -- sitting around trying to comfort each other. Anne recalls a squadron of specialists and therapists and psychologists dropping off business cards. At some point, there was the helpless feeling of "watching him be wheeled off and put under."
Bone marrow biopsies. A 1 a.m. confirmation that it was, in fact, leukemia. Blood transfusions.
Even when the sun rose, total darkness.
Sports as TherapyTruth was, the Arcands were, by some definitions, quite lucky. Robo had acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), the most common pediatric form of the disease, with an 85 percent survival rate. It could have been worse.
Of course, it didn't feel lucky at the time. Not with the intensive chemotherapy, the hair loss, the sapping of energy. Not with all the infections that led to a state of quarantine, while healthier kids whizzed down the corridor on little bicycles. Not with the galling effects of the steroids: the puffing up, the mood swings. "You just couldn't make him happy," Anne recalls. "He wanted to be in the dark. All the lights bothered his eyes. He didn't want to see anybody. He didn't even want to see me."
Robo endured treatment for more than two years. During that time, his great salve was sports. He became a huge fan of Boston teams and found himself buoyed by all their success. Within eight months, the Red Sox won the 2007 World Series, the Patriots went undefeated all the way to the Super Bowl, and the Celtics hoisted their 17th trophy. Robo began reading the sports page and memorizing statistics. His dad, Roland, works in the sports apparel business and also covers sports for a weekly newspaper, so he was happy to support this passion. In time, they became big fans of the Boston College Eagles. Robo particularly looked up to Mark Herzlich, the star BC linebacker who came back from bone cancer.
"He's now in the NFL," Robo says, beaming. "He has a steel pole [titanium rod] in his leg, and he's still a linebacker for the Giants."
Robo (Roland Arcand III legally, which Caitlin immediately shortened to "Robot," then "Robo") has been cancer-free for more than three years now. That is encouraging news, though it doesn't place him out of the woods entirely -- five years is the typical benchmark to be declared a "cancer survivor." In many respects, he lives the typical life of a small-town seventh-grader, adjusting to a bigger school with bigger kids. It hasn't been easy to crack the codes for social acceptance. Even after years of physical therapy, his stamina is not great and his leg strength is subpar. He is, in many contexts, quite shy. And he often fights a fatalistic identification with all manner of catastrophe. "His immediate thought," says Anne Arcand, "is, 'That's going to happen to me, because something bad already happened to me.'"
Through it all, the family has stayed connected with what Anne calls the "cancer community." That has included involvement with the Jimmy Fund and frequent family attendance at Camp Sunshine (where Anne and Caitlin serve as volunteers). It was there, on the shores of Sebago Lake, that the Arcands learned last summer about Team IMPACT.
The Power of TeamworkThe team behind Team IMPACT is a bunch of 40-something entrepreneur jocks. Four of the seven board members went to school together at Tufts in the mid-'80s, including Walsh, the executive director, and his best friend, Dan Kraft, a one-time lacrosse goalie who is the son of Patriots owner Robert Kraft and serves as the president-international of the Kraft Group, an organization that cuts checks to Tom Brady. Most board members had the experience of playing varsity sports in college (including Mark Plansky, who won a national championship with the Villanova basketball team in 1985), and one still makes that a major point of focus (Kris Herman, head softball coach at Williams). They share a sense of the power, the potential impact, of a team.
There is also the common bond of civic engagement. "The real story is that we've all been involved in some form or fashion with organizations like Make a Wish, Big Brothers/Big Sisters, the Jimmy Fund," Walsh says.
Quietly, over the course of the past year, the board members laid the groundwork for Team IMPACT. They visited colleges around New England. They sold the idea to athletic directors, sports information directors and coaches. They connected with every large medical facility in New England, talking up the pediatric nurses, the social workers, those in charge of palliative care. They reached out to Ronald McDonald Houses. They connected with well-established camps like the Hole in the Wall Gang and Camp Sunshine. They began to identify kids who could benefit, teams that were willing to participate, and a sense of how to match them up.
These days, Walsh says, the organization is pairing about 10-12 kids with a team every month, and none of them pay a penny for the experience. Ultimately, he wants to expand the concept to kids who have been isolated by other kinds of trauma, to other parts of the country, to a wider definition of "team." There is no reason, he says, why that can't include the symphony. Any group with a sense of collective purpose could inspire a child.
Robo Joins BCRobo formally became a member of the Boston College basketball team on Sunday, Oct. 16 -- his "draft day." It was a golden afternoon. There were fist-bump introductions and lots of encouragement to keep his elbow straight, shoot at the top of his jump, impart some backspin, follow through. Then it was down to the coolest man-cave imaginable, the locker room, where Donahue outfitted him with BC gear. Robo surprised the team with gifts of his own. From a green folder, he plucked out scouting reports on BC opponents, depth charts and statistics. He handed each player a homemade shield. Then he sat back with the guys on a leather couch and munched on take-out pizza.
His parents practically had to pry him away.
Since then, he has become a regular presence at practice and games. On the late-December Wednesday afternoon, he happily harvested rebounds during shooting drills and sent bounce passes back to the top of the key. He put up a phantom hand or two on defense. During a scrimmage, he took shots on a side basket, then showed off one of his Christmas presents, new Dr. Dre headphones, to team trainer Beth Gillis ("Oh, nice!" she said, trying them on). At the end of practice, he joined the up-reached fists at center court as Donahue spoke about the next night's game against Harvard, imploring his players to treat every second of every possession as something precious, to give the game their full focus. "Concentrate 35 seconds," he pleaded, "both sides of the ball."
Even from home in Hopedale, Robo has maintained close contact with the team. He is Facebook friends with lots of current and former Eagles (and even was featured for a time in the profile photo of Reggie Jackson, now a rookie guard with the Oklahoma City Thunder), and he has lots of e-mail contact with players. Some of it goes deep. When walk-on guard Peter Rehnquist learned that Robo was having trouble sleeping because of concerns about the Mayan calendar, he wrote:
"Hey Robo -- I'm glad to hear that you are still doing well, and I can see that you have been working on your basketball game. I know you must have a lot going on in your life and I just wanted to let you know you are one of the strongest people I have ever met. ... I also wanted to talk to you about 2012. I know when I first heard that the world might end I was scared too, but after looking into it I realized everything was getting blown out of proportion. While the Mayan long count calendar does end on December 21, 2012 it does not signify that the world is going to end. No place in Mayan culture is there any reference to an apocalyptic event occurring at the end of the calendar, and most of the people saying it are trying to make money off it (the movie 2012 made over 700 million dollars!). If you look online there are doomsday theories almost every year and none of them have come true. ... I hope this helps you out. Just remember that a real historian always tries to find facts to back up claims like this. ... See you next time you come to practice!"
Positive Connection of Children and College SportsVulnerable kids visiting college campuses to connect with their sports heroes -- we can't help but look at the idea through a more cynical eye after the scandals at Penn State and Syracuse. That is a pity, according to Steve Donahue.
"I would hate for people not to do these types of programs and not help kids out because of those scars," says Donahue. "Unfortunately, it's a piece of our society. It just happens to be in athletics right now. It's not the majority. It's a slight minority. We'd be foolish not to do these types of things -- because kids gravitate toward us."
Donahue's crew is dealing with plenty of loss this season, but fortunately it's just the athletic kind. With an almost completely new roster of nine freshmen and three transfers ("the youngest team in ACC history," Robo proclaims), the Eagles have taken their hits in the nonconference season, going 5-9 against a relatively soft schedule despite playing only two true road games. Many of the losses have been galling: a 36-point blowout to UMass at home, a home-court loss in double overtime to a Rhode Island team that currently stands at 3-12. And now it really gets rough: BC starts league play this weekend at No. 4 North Carolina. It is entirely possible that when all is said and done, the 2011-12 season will be the worst in Boston College history.
But it hasn't been without merit.
On Thursday, Dec. 29, Robo flashed his all-access pass and charged into Conte Forum ahead of his parents and his sister, everyone decked out in maroon and gold. He made the rounds in the locker room, then bopped around the court during warm-ups. The stands, for the first time this season, filled to capacity.
A few minutes before tipoff, Robo retreated, somewhat reluctantly, to the great seats his family has two rows behind the BC bench. The players burst through a maroon BC banner held at half court by two petite cheerleaders and surged into layup lines, while the band played, flags waved, and the mascot, Baldwin the Eagle, started prancing.
Just 4:42 into the game, Lonnie Jackson scored off a beautiful feed from Patrick Heckmann, giving BC a 12-3 lead and forcing the coach of then-24th-ranked Harvard, Tommy Amaker, to call a timeout. While the players chest-bumped and high-fived in front of the bench, Robo stood in the crowd, a fist held to the sky.
At halftime Harvard led 40-33, but Robo was encouraged. Snacking on celery, he said he was confident the team would turn it around. "We're going to pull off the upset," he proclaimed, tugging on the gold rally beads he had recently donned. He paid no attention to the half-court entertainment, a scrimmage between kids about his age, a travel team called the Wakefield Warriors. Instead, he chatted with athletic trainer Beth Gillis, who hung up her black canvas medical bag down on the end of the bench next to the rack of Powerade.
The comeback never materialized. An experienced Harvard team took BC apart after intermission, rolling to a 67-46 win.
Undaunted, Robo walked out onto the court with Gillis, standing behind the players and joining them in singing the school's alma mater. Then he headed down to the locker room for some postgame pasta. His family waited patiently for another 40 minutes, not wanting to take him away from a place where he belongs.
Marty Dobrow is a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com. A professor of communications at Springfield College, he is the author of "Knocking on Heaven's Door: Six Minor Leaguers in Search of the Baseball Dream" (2010, University of Massachusetts Press).