80 children meet the football pros at training camp

Ravens players visit with young cancer patients

August 11, 1999|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

Brawny football players interrupted their training at Western Maryland College yesterday to give pep talks to young cancer patients.

The Baltimore Ravens signed autographs, posed for photographs and fielded the impish queries of their fans from Camp Sunrise in Glyndon. The weeklong camp offers children with cancer a respite from the rigors of treatment.

"When do you play Miami?" was a question to linebacker Peter Boulware, honorary chairman of the camp.

"The Dolphins are not on the schedule, but we might play them in the Super Bowl," Boulware said. His answer generated thunderous applause.

About 80 children went to the Ravens' training camp in Westminster to visit with sports heroes and savor a day of play.

"I want to meet all the players," said Steven Mullins, 13, of Essex. "I have never seen them. We don't have a TV; it's too expensive."

The next time Maggie Seitz, 9, watches Ravens football with her big brother at home in Timonium, she will be able to boast. "Now I can say I know some of the players," said Maggie, whose camp T-shirt was covered with players' signatures.

The children clamored for the players' attention, signatures, programs and pictures. "These guys have busy lives," said Rachel Tillett, 14, of Gettysburg, Pa. "It is neat to see them come out and talk to us."

Place-kicker Matt Stover offered pointers on football that he hoped would translate to the children's experiences.

"If you fall down, you have to get back up and keep going," Stover said. "You have to persevere and learn from whatever situation you're in."

Stover smiled for a photo beside a giggling and smitten Lindsey Stamps, 15, of Columbia.

"I am going to keep this close all the time," she said, clutching her autograph and camera.

The encounters were "a blessing," Stover said.

"We are so blessed to be healthy and to be able to play football," he said. "These kids teach you about life. It humbles you. To do anything for them is a privilege."

Jason Pazornick, 13, of Columbia challenged running back Priest Holmes to a game of fantasy football. With another grueling practice on his schedule, the player had to decline the teen-ager's offer. Holmes delayed his departure, saying he considered his encounter with the children an awesome responsibility.

"The one thing that I say might encourage them while they are going through what they have to go through," Holmes said. "They are all precious. We have to help them."

Sam Miller, executive assistant to team owner Art Modell and the next president of the regional chapter of the American Cancer Society, said the visit was a chance "to give back to the community that is so supportive of our team."

"These kids have such trials and tribulations, that if we can make them happy for a day, it is worth it," Miller said.

In the Pepsi Fan Zone, the children did a little passing and punting.

"Football is not a hard game; it's fun," said Kelly Kolson, 10, of Bel Air. "I think girls should be able to play, too."

The campers, all wearing bright teal T-shirts with Camp Sunrise logos, ran through a cushioned obstacle course, counted their yardage and racked up points.

No one was safe from the pranks of 7-year-old Justin Knight. He dropped ice cubes down several backs and tossed a few cups of cold water at the unwary.

The day gave all "a chance to forget about the tough parts of being a cancer patient and be with other kids going through the same things," said Steve Jones, spokesman for the regional chapter of the American Cancer Society, which sponsors the camp.

"Thirty years ago, you heard cancer and you thought death," Jones said. "Now you think survivor. These kids are all survivors."

Counselor Scott "The Commish" Hetherington challenged several campers to a run through the obstacle course. He usually lost, but he said his opponents all had youth on their side.

"Camp helps them feel healthy again," said Hetherington. "They spend 51 weeks a year dealing with a serious disease. This is one week where they can feel healthy again, meet challenges and build up self-esteem."

The camp spawns a camaraderie and an understanding the children do not often find in their schools and neighborhoods.

Rachel, a first-year camper, said she planned to write everyone to make sure they all returned next year.

"These are all kids going through the same thing I am," she said. "We all understand each other. It is easy to make friends here."

Jen Ward, a recent graduate of Westminster High School, has been going to the camp for eight years.

"I was 10, bald and still having chemotherapy," she said. "I really needed a boost. This is a place where nobody makes fun of you for not having hair."

Now she is a junior counselor, preparing for college and a career in early childhood education.

"The kids come here sick, really wanting somebody to help them," she said. "We just let them have fun without saying they have cancer and everybody knowing. I haven't found one camper who doesn't love it here. Everybody comforts each other."

Justin Wean, 11, emerged the victor in a race against Malcolm Davis, 18, and at least twice his size.

Davis was a camper last year, suffering with cancer and weighing "a puny 175 pounds," he said. This year he returned as a counselor, weighing 268 and effortlessly carrying Justin on his back.

"Sometimes you feel like you are going through this all by yourself, but here at camp, you meet lots of others with the same problems," he said.

Jason said he hoped some football scouts were around.

"I made 50 percent of my field goals and 25 percent of the passes," he said.

He didn't leave with a contract, but did have a complimentary beach towel that he had several players autograph.

"I am going to keep this the rest of my life," Jason said. "It will never be washed."

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