BC shows how to stay positive

JB Harvey on the BC sideline with big sister Caroline and BC players Emmett Cleary and Jim Noel. Courtesy of the Harvey family

NEWTON, Mass. -- Football can be brutal.

It's an intensely physical game, one increasingly populated by bigger, faster and stronger players.

Succeeding at the highest levels of the game requires an incredible amount of skill and, perhaps, even stronger will. This sport will grind away at muscle, tendon and bone, shake confidence and test perseverance.

It can do all that for a winning team. For a losing team, the burden can feel even heavier.

Boston College is a losing team again this season. And as the losses have mounted, the Eagles have looked for perspective.

"There's so much in life beyond football, and we kind of get wrapped up in our own little bubble here," co-captain Emmett Cleary said. "But it really is about bigger things."

Brutal as it can be, football can also be beautiful.

For 2-8 BC, the beauty of the game this season is in brotherhood -- on and off the field.

"You have a rough practice and you're in the middle of something," Cleary said, "and you see JB over in the end zone rolling around and kicking the ball.

"You can't help but smile."

Little man on campus

The smallest member of the team stands about 42 inches tall and weighs about 42 pounds. He doesn't know what the team's record is, and it wouldn't make a difference if he did.

He is 5 years old and has Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a progressive and ultimately fatal muscle disorder. Unless there is a major medical breakthrough in the next few years, he might never make it to college. A wheelchair is likely in his future. He might never be able to play organized sports.

But because of a charity called Team IMPACT, this mop-headed, little blond boy is learning what it means to be part of a team. And not just any team, but a Division I college football team.

Meet JB Harvey, the newest member of the Boston College Eagles.

Light from the dark side

This Halloween, he dressed up as Darth Vader.

JB is a "Star Wars" fan, his mom, Elizabeth Harvey, said. "But he only likes the dark side, for some reason," she said.

Bryan Murray, a fifth-year senior defensive lineman, was one of six Eagles who drove out to Dover, Mass., to take their teammate trick-or-treating this year. He laughed when asked whether JB had an explanation for his affinity for the dark side.

"He didn't really have a reason," Murray said. "I know he likes superheroes and villains and stuff."

This off-field involvement is part of the Team Impact program. The idea is to pair kids dealing with life-threatening illnesses with athletic programs so they can experience being part of a team.

So JB goes to Chestnut Hill for practices, walk-throughs and games, and on Oct. 31 some of the players went to help him collect as much candy as possible. They pulled him down the street in a little red wagon because he sometimes has trouble getting around, and they helped him up the steps to the houses.

The Harveys -- Jeff and Elizabeth, daughter Caroline, 7, and JB -- moved to a ranch-style house in Dover about a year ago because JB had trouble going up and down the stairs in their old home.

"We're new to the neighborhood, and we don't know all the neighbors, so it was quite an impression with all the guys," Elizabeth said with a laugh.

There were six of them in all. There was the 6-foot-2, 299-pound Murray, along with Brian Miller (6-4, 232), Jim Noel (6-4, 200), Sean Duggan (6-4, 228), Sean Sylvia (6-foot, 210) and Dave Shinskie (6-4, 209).

Sylvia and Duggan wore Captain America masks. Shinskie and Murray came in their football gear.

All were there to bring a little light to JB's day, and in so doing, brighten their own.

"I look at him and I just appreciate my life so much more, the blessings that I've had," Murray said. "It's really tough to think about sometimes that he may not have the same experiences as I will -- be able to play organized sports, which has been a huge part of my life."

Dealing with reality

It's hardest for Elizabeth Harvey when she sees her son with a group of his peers.

One day, JB was playing with a couple of kids his age. The other boys were playing catch with lacrosse sticks, running around on the grass and tossing the ball back and forth. JB couldn't keep up.

"They were just running circles around him," Elizabeth said. "Absolute circles around him. I was just heartbroken."

With Elizabeth having played lacrosse at Holy Cross, it was a stark reminder.

Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD) occurs only in boys and affects roughly one in 3,500. It is caused by a defect in a gene on the X chromosome, which comes from the mother and renders the body unable to produce dystrophin, a protein that helps build muscle.

The Harveys learned that JB had DMD when he was about 18 months old after visiting multiple doctors once they realized he wasn't progressing as fast as he should have been.

"It was very hard for our family," Jeff Harvey said, standing on the sideline at Alumni Stadium with JB before the game against Maryland last month. "It's very hard on moms because it's usually an inherited genetic trait, which -- unfortunately, even though there's nothing you can do about it -- comes with a lot of guilt.

"But you can be upset about it or you can do something about it, and I think my wife and I said we want to do something about it."

The Harveys founded JB's Keys to DMD, a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit, to promote awareness of the disease and raise money to help fund research geared toward improving the lives of boys living with it.

JB has a routine -- including taking six pills a day, stretching every day and doing physical therapy a couple of times a week -- to deal with the disease, a process that he accepts mostly cheerfully.

While he knows his muscles don't work the same way as other people's, he doesn't really understand his situation. And he certainly doesn't have any idea of the prognosis.

"Watching him, knowing what I know, is sad," Elizabeth Harvey said. "We tell him he can do whatever he wants and hopefully there will be some treatment or some cure that will allow him to be what he wants. If you do think about the future, it's not easy. I at least try to live day to day, and JB's day-to-day life is pretty great."

The Eagles are doing what they can to keep it that way.

The BC women's hockey and men's basketball teams also have participated in Team Impact. So when Mike Siravo, the defensive backs coach and recruiting coordinator, was approached about the football team's interest in joining the program, he knew what it could mean.

"We all need a reminder to appreciate what we have," he said.

Mr. Popular

As the saying goes, there's no one on a football team as popular as the backup quarterback.

Is it any surprise, then, that the newest member of the Eagles has taken a shining to Shinskie?

The feeling is mutual.

"Dave and him are like best friends," starting QB Chase Rettig said.

Shinskie, 28, played minor league baseball before deciding to return to school and play for BC and plans to become a teacher and a coach after graduating. He has gone out of his way to make JB -- who was painfully shy at first, especially around the bigger guys on the team -- feel welcome at BC.

When JB came to campus for a pizza party to celebrate his birthday in September, the signal-caller spent a good portion of it playfully tossing the little guy around on a couch in the Yawkey Center lounge.

"He was laughing and carrying on like I'd never seen him before," Shinskie said. "He had me sweating throwing him around. Just to get a workout like that -- I'd get a workout like that every day."

Making the most of it

At first, Elizabeth Harvey wasn't sure they should be there. BC was practicing on a Wednesday afternoon after another tough loss.

"I was like, 'Is it OK that we're here? I know that people must be stressed out or whatever,'" she said.

The truth is, instead of a distraction for the team, JB has become a source of motivation.

"It's been really special to have him around," Rettig said. "When you see him come out to practice and there during the games, it's just inspiring to us. It just gets guys excited to see him out there, running around."

Though outwardly he appears to be a typical, happy 5-year-old, the Eagles know JB's life will get harder as he gets older. Since DMD is a progressive disease, he likely will lose the ability to walk before he turns 10. And in his teenage years, he will likely begin to suffer cardiac and pulmonary complications.

"It's hard to think that he might never walk past the age of 8 and be in a wheelchair at the age of 8," Shinskie said. "I'm 28 years old, and he might not live to see age 28. So it's hard to think about that.

"That's why I would do anything for him, to brighten up his day, and I would do anything for his family if they asked me. I'd give him the shirt off my back to make him happy and see him be positive every day."

The Eagles have tried to make JB feel like a member of the team. They've decked him out in a personalized BC jersey with "Harvey" and the number 12 on the back, set up a stall for him in the locker room -- complete with nameplate and kid-sized gear -- and welcomed him with high fives and fist bumps when they see him on campus.

JB sends the players messages on Facebook, with help from his mom, and they always respond.

He and his sister Caroline stood shoulder-to-(small-)shoulder with the Eagles on the sideline for the national anthem before the game against Notre Dame, then joined the captains at midfield for the coin toss. As referee John McDaid went through the pregame preparations, there was JB, right beside Eagles defensive back Jim Noel and just a few feet from Notre Dame linebacker and Heisman Trophy candidate Manti Te'o.

And while JB will never know what it's like to be Rettig -- to be under center, staring down a middle linebacker like Te'o -- or to be Noel, backpedaling in coverage, thanks to BC he'll know what it means to be part of a team.

He believes he is an Eagle, and he looks forward to his trips to Chestnut Hill and to watching the team on TV when it's away from home.

"He likes everything about it," Jeff Harvey said. "When the weekend comes, he goes, 'Who's on tomorrow, the Eagles or the Patriots?' I say, 'Well, the Eagles are on today, but tomorrow it's the Patriots.' He really loves all sports, but football's his favorite."

There have been other benefits of his pre- and post-practice sessions of catch with Rettig and Shinskie.

"His arm has gotten a lot better by practicing," Elizabeth Harvey said with a laugh. "I like that he's starting to feel like he's part of the team. That's such an important life lesson, to have to be there for people and support other people."

Though the season has been filled with setbacks on the field, the Eagles have been there for their newest, youngest, smallest teammate. And they say that support won't end when this season does.

After all, brotherhood doesn't have an end date.

Jack McCluskey is an editor for ESPN.com and a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter @jack_mccluskey.