Pitt WR Quadree Henderson still wears No. 10 for his 'little brother'

Quadree Henderson returned the second-half kickoff of the season opener against Villanova for a touchdown, a feat "little brother" Chad Jones II foresaw. Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Chad Jones II had a piece of advice for everyone sitting in his section. While the rest of the Pittsburgh crowd ambled back to their seats for the second half of the season opener against Villanova, Jones encouraged his group to start recording.

"If they kick it to him," Jones said of Pitt returner Quadree Henderson, "he's going to take it the house."

Seconds later, Henderson was streaking down the sideline for a 96-yard touchdown.

It was more of a percentage play than premonition from Jones. Henderson closed 2015 with a return touchdown and now has three in his past eight games entering Week 9. That means there's close to a 50 percent chance that he will return a kick for a score in a game; he has established himself as the country's best kick returner and a top all-purpose threat. It was something Jones had watched his "big brother" do many times -- first in Henderson's No. 3 jersey and then in Jones' No. 10.

Virginia Tech will have to keep eyes on No. 10 at all times when it visits Pitt on Thursday (7 p.m. ET on ESPN and WatchESPN). Henderson leads the country in kickoff return touchdowns (two), return average (35.94 yards) and yards per rush (10.91). He's fourth among Power 5 players in all-purpose yards per game.

Jersey numbers are hallowed for some. The demand for certain digits is sometimes so high that vacations are gifted or money changes hands in deals. Continuity or superstition dictate some selections, while others drape themselves in the number of a prior great in hopes of one day being held in the same esteem.

For Henderson, his number was to honor a brother in a kinship that emphasizes bond over blood. Henderson, 20, isn't related to Jones, 15, but four years ago, he surprised the kid he calls his little brother by changing his number to 10. It was an effort to support Jones from a distance -- the only place cancer would allow.

"When I was diagnosed, he wore my number as a tribute to me," Jones said. "That was close to my heart and why we're bonded forever. It meant a lot. It was warming to show he cared. He knew No. 10 was important to me, and the fact he continues to wear it even after that year leaves me speechless."

The two met while playing in the same Wilmington, Delaware, youth football league, and Jones gravitated toward Henderson in the manner so many of the younger kids did. Henderson blended swag with smarts. He was usually the best player on the field and one of the strongest students in the classroom.

Jones is a quarterback (now the varsity starter at Alexis I. duPont High) and Henderson a receiver, so the two grew close while running routes with each other on Sundays. Jones guided passes, and Henderson passed on guidance.

"Our relationship is very strong, watching him grow up and teaching him right from wrong," Henderson said.

In August 2012, Jones' hip began to hurt. The pain would be so sudden and severe that he would double over. A battery of tests revealed Stage IV neuroblastoma, a pediatric cancer in which young nerve cells called neuroblasts divide and develop into tumors rather than mature. The cancer cells spread to Jones' skull, arms and legs.

"At the time, I was hearing about cancer and how friends' relatives passed away," Jones said, "and I was like, 'I hope I don't pass away.'"

The initial diagnosis from doctors gave Jones a 60 percent chance to survive.

"You're heartbroken. It takes your soul. You to start to think the worst," his father, Chad Jones, said. "Once you get over that, the whole mindset is you got to beat it. Keep fighting, and don't stop."

Chemotherapy and radiation treatments began taking their toll. A struggling immune system and stem cell procedure kept Chad II in the hospital for weeks at a time, and when home, he couldn't have visitors.

The elder Jones was a football coach in the community, and whenever Henderson saw him, he asked how Chad II was doing. He tried to keep in touch through messages, but it was difficult for then-15-year-old Henderson. Cancer had never affected him before.

"Watching him go through all that, go through treatments, it hurt to watch him be so strong one day and two weeks later start losing hair," Henderson said. "I hurt, and I knew I couldn't let him down. It was my responsibility to help pick him up."

Henderson and his mother, Jackie, called prayer lines to try to petition for a healthy recovery from afar, but he wanted to show Jones he was thinking about him.

One day, as Jones received treatment, he was asked if he had heard the news about Henderson. He shook his head. Henderson, he was told, had changed his jersey number to 10. The letters "CJ" were inscribed on his cleats and mouthpiece too.

"It was a lot for Quadree when he found out [about the cancer diagnosis]," Jackie said. "You would think they're real brothers. You'd believe they are."

Four years later, Jones' father still struggles to find the words when he reflects on Henderson's decision to change numbers.

"For kids, a number means a lot, and for him to change it for Chad and play those games with the purpose of Chad in mind, it's touching and lifted his spirits up," he said. "Then when we went up and saw him with the number and doing phenomenal things on the field, it fills you up inside."

About a year after Chad II's diagnosis, he was declared cancer-free. Now healthy, he makes it to Henderson's games as often as he can.

"When people ask about him, I say, 'Yeah, that's my brother,'" Chad II said. "He's my big brother."