March 29, 2014
NOTRE DAME, Ind. - The Notre Dame women's lacrosse team has 33 student-athletes on its roster. While not included on that list, the name that inspires many of those 33 the most is their honorary teammate for the March 19 game against Marquette, number 25, six-year old "Batman" Bobby Russell.
Fittingly listed just ahead of his "girlfriend" No. 26 Katherine McManus, Bobby, six years old and in his third year battling cancer, became introduced to the team through the Fighting Irish Fight For Life program which, coordinated by the office of student welfare and development, pairs Fighting Irish teams with patients in pediatric hematology and oncology at South Bend Memorial Hospital.
The student-athletes' love and support may mean a tremendous amount to Bobby as he undergoes his chemotherapy and other treatments, but he actually means even more to them. Facing the academic rigors of Notre Dame, coupled with the time commitment of playing a varsity sport at the ACC level, is an arduous experience. McManus never needs to be reminded how lucky she is to be saddled with such relatively minor burdens.
"It puts everything in perspective for us as athletes," she said. "They're fighting for their lives. We're just fighting for some wins.
"No matter how tired I am, it's a breath of fresh air to be around him. He is unbelievable. You wouldn't even know he's sick. I remember the first day I went to his chemo session - he got a spinal tap. Most people should not ever have to go through that and he was five at the time. He came to our game that night. It was cold out and I remember just chasing after him on the field that night. I was like `are you kidding me with everything you went through today?' He was running around like nothing had ever happened. It was unbelievable. His fight, his will to win, was amazing. Nothing was going to faze him. It's so refreshing to be around such innocence and youth. I just love being around him. He changes me as a person. He makes me a better person. He makes me want to be better."
McManus has a background with pediatric cancer patients. Her mother, Ann Beach, used to work for the world-renowned Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. Along with being one of the world's elite childhood cancer research centers, Dana-Farber is the home of The Jimmy Fund which, through a personal bond forged between Ted Williams and the hospital's patients, has served since 1953 as the official charity of the Boston Red Sox in the longest-running relationship of its type in professional sports. The Jimmy Fund has long had a ubiquitous presence at Fenway Park which has helped it raise $750 million since its founding in 1948. So, interweaving pediatric cancer and sports was not a foreign concept to the Sharon, Mass. native and Thayer Academy graduate.
Bobby's father, Robert, appreciates how McManus and her teammates treat Bobby.
"When they come in and interact with Bobby, it's like he's just a regular kid and there's nothing special about him," he said. "There are (people) who show support but it's `oh, Bobby has cancer'. But, with the girls, it's like `let's have fun'. It puts a whole different perspective on things and gives a sense of normalcy to it."
And there is no shortage of fun when the women's lacrosse team is at the hospital with Bobby. They play Candyland and bingo. They arm wrestle, read books and play video games. It was at a pediatric Christmas party where Julia Giorgio gave Bobby a Batman face paint job, creating a fun lasting nickname. The team took Bobby with them to Notre Dame basketball and hockey games this winter. The Irish went to his birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese's. Somewhere along the way, it's no longer about community service work, helping out or giving back. At some point, Bobby became a part of the team's family.
Paraphrasing the old children's song, Bobby is a ray of sunshine that can make the Irish happy when skies are their typical wintry gray in South Bend.
"It's crazy how he can keep a smile and his bubbly personality through it all," McManus said. "I'm sure he has his hard days. I've seen him cry at chemo. Sometimes, when that medicine kicks in, it really kicks in. But, his family is amazing with him as are the nurses and the doctors he has. But he's not afraid to be himself around me. He's not afraid to be vulnerable. He's not afraid to be happy. I love how genuine his personality and his emotions are so it's easy to give those right back. If I'm ever having a tough day, I'm not when I'm with Bobby. I forget about all of it. It's just me and him hanging out."
"Katherine and I go for his treatments and they're tough but he's always strong," Giorgio said. "He's always smiling. No matter what kind of day I'm having, I look at him and know that if he can do that, I can do anything. He gives me so much strength and that belief in yourself and what you can do. What he's been through, and at his age, is an inspiration.
"He's such an amazing kid. His fight inspires me every day. To be able to make him smile means so much to me. He makes me so much stronger just by watching him do his thing and fight every day."
All this has led to an unusual characteristic. Young and old, many people dread going to a hospital for any reason, let alone something as gut-wrenching as a pediatric cancer unit. McManus and Giorgio are two of several Notre Dame women's lacrosse players and staff who can't get over there soon enough if it means seeing Bobby.
"It's the fun that we have together," Giorgio said. "I want to be there for him because I know that we make it easier for him to go through his treatments. We know that playing video games and bingo with him make the treatments better. He looks forward to it and that's why we look forward to it because any way that we can help him helps us."
"We have equal effect on each other and that's why it is so special," McManus said echoing those same sentiments. "I may make him smile but he gives it right back to me. I get excited to see him."
Sad but true, Bobby's father Robert has a theory on Bobby's perpetual glee while fighting a very aggressive non-Hodgkin's B-cell lymphoma. Simply put, his six-year old son who was diagnosed just before his third birthday, doesn't know any different.
"It literally has been half of his lifetime and you don't remember much from the earlier days so, as far as he knows, this is the norm for him," Robert said of Bobby. "He doesn't know any better. He doesn't know he's supposed to be sad and that's fine. We're not going to tell him.
"It blows my mind. You hear about all of the people who are on medications for cancer and it kicks their butt. They're down for the count for so long. With Bobby, he can go for treatment in the morning and by the evening you're pulling your hair out because of the energy that kid has. It's unreal. I don't know where he gets (that energy), but thank God he has it. He's a fighter. He's been pretty brave through all of this. It has amazed me all that he can go through and the energy and the spirit that he has. It's unreal."
The Fighting Irish brought that energy and spirit out to Arlotta Stadium on March 19 when they played host to Marquette. Bobby was given his own uniform and stick. He got so dance in the locker room with the team as they got loose before the game. Bobby sat in on the team's pregame pep talk and cheers. Bobby touched the "Play Like A Champion Today" sign. He was on the bench for warm ups. No. 25 Bobby Russell was introduced with the starting lineup and his name went up on the scoreboard. He and McManus participated in a ceremonial first draw before the game began, one which Notre Dame led from start to finish, beating the Golden Eagles, 12-5.
Giorgio, a senior and one of the team's four captains, gave ample credit for the win to the team member who may be the youngest and shortest on the squad, but means the most in many ways.
"That day against Marquette, we weren't winning just for the `W', we were winning for him," she said. "It made us all feel happy and special to be able to give this to him. It made our lacrosse game seem so much more. We felt proud to wear our uniforms. We always do, but it had extra meaning this time. We knew we were representing him when we were putting on that uniform. For all that he does for us, we were so happy to do something so special for him."
There is light at the end of Bobby's figurative tunnel. Recent tests have been good and this harrowing period, which has now enveloped half of his life, could be over with by May. The Fighting Irish Fight For Life program may well be matching another sick child with the women's lacrosse team next year, but that doesn't mean that the 20-year old McManus will have to breakup with her six-year old "boyfriend".
"Mr. Russell asked will we still be a part of his life if he's not sick and my answer was `yes'," McManus, a sophomore, said. "I didn't think twice about it. I hope that for the next two and a half years that I'm here, and even beyond that when I graduate, I'll stay in touch with Bobby. He's very special to me and I'm so fortunate to have him."
Robert and Bobby don't have to worry about his likely freedom from the horrors of cancer meaning the end of seeing McManus. She has enough trouble saying goodbye to him at the end of a day. A forever goodbye could be beyond her capabilities.
"Every time I say goodbye to him, it's so hard to have to leave him," she said. "I'll waste an hour before I actually have to go. He's just so special. Seeing him walk away is always the hardest thing. Having to leave him is pretty hard because I know how much joy and how much faith, hope and belief he gives me. I just love the feeling I get when I'm around him. It's a feeling we share."
The Irish shared their love with a child who has fought for his life for half of the time he has been on Earth. The child shared his boundless optimism and joy with the Irish. No lesson shared by some of the world's top professors to any of the 33 members of the Irish women's lacrosse team over 132 combined years at Notre Dame might be more valuable than what they have learned from six-year old Bobby Russell at South Bend Memorial Hospital.