NEW ORLEANS -- When the Cincinnati Bearcats roar out of the Superdome tunnel for the Allstate Sugar Bowl on Friday night, they'll be led by a 12-year-old cancer survivor. It's debatable who's been leading whom all season.
Before the year began, the team "adopted" Mitch Stone through the Friends of Jacyln program, which matches children who have brain tumors with sports teams. Cincinnati was the first major college football team to take part in the program, and it became a good match since Mitch's parents are both Bearcats fans and alumni of the school.
Neither side, though, had any idea how well this would actually fare in practice. The adoption became more than just a charity event and blossomed into a real relationship. Cincinnati players wore wristbands honoring Mitch all season. In between his long hospital stays for treatment, he came out to practices and attended three games. He and players exchanged text messages, with the Bearcats referring to him as "Lil' Bro."
"I can't say enough about what a difference it made in Mitch's spirits and for our whole family," said his mother, Dee Stone.
And it works both ways. Mitch showed up to Cincinnati's practice in the Superdome in New Orleans on Wednesday and caused a stir.
"People talk about what we've meant to Mitch, but he's meant just as much to us," quarterback Tony Pike said. "It's just an inspiration to see him out there pounding his chest and talking to us after practice. It's amazing the fight he has, and we feed off that."
"God brought him into our lives to help us understand that life is short," defensive lineman Alex Daniels said. "He rallied around us, and we rallied around him to give us energy."
The mortality rate for children with brain tumors is cruelly high. But on Nov. 20, Mitch received a clean bill of health from his doctors. The cancer is gone for now.
What better way to celebrate than to run out on the field with 105 older brothers to start the Allstate Sugar Bowl? Mitch has been too busy hanging out in the team hotel game room with his twin brother, Nick, and the Bearcats players to think too much about it yet, his mom said.
"I don't know that it's sunk in with him," Dee Stone said. "But when we were at the Superdome, he kept saying, 'Mom, it's really big.'"
Mitch and the Bearcats have been mutually inspired, and perhaps they can inspire more teams to join forces with Friends of Jaclyn. Denis Murphy founded the program after the 2005 Northwestern women's lacrosse team helped his daughter, then 10, get through her malignant brain tumor. Murphy, who gave an impassioned speech to the Bearcats after practice on Wednesday, says several hundred kids with brain tumors are on a waiting list to be matched with teams.
"I know what a difference it made in our life," Dee Stone said. "Every kid in this situation should get the same chance."