First varsity hit holds special meaning for high school athlete with cancer

FREEDOM, Pa. -- The biggest baseball game of the year is on a worn-out lot in the back of a middle school. Win this game, and Freedom High School goes to the playoffs. Young men walk through the hallways with serious stares, and not just because it's red-and-white day at the high school. John Challis wants to go to the playoffs before he dies.

He is waiting for an assembly, two hours before the game Wednesday, when his high school principal walks in. He wants to make sure Challis knows what to expect. A local TV station is here to present him with the athlete of the week award, a metal monstrosity that looks almost as big as Challis. First, they will show a video, then three people will speak and then the softball team has a present for him.

We don't want to embarrass you, Johnny, the principal says.

Challis grimaces.

"Just don't make me sound like stinkin' David or Goliath," he says.

Goliath, he is not. Not even before the cancer. He was the smallest guy in his JV football league, a tenacious 108-pound slotback-corner who loved to fly around and hit people. He had given up baseball by the time he was 13, because he was constantly beaned.

David? Maybe. He is pale and weak and weighs a shade more than 90 pounds. He is on medicine that saps his strength and makes him vomit. But Freedom High needs him, and that's why he's here for this assembly, his assembly, even though he's too sick to go to school.

"Doc says it could be two months, could be two years," Challis says.

"It's harder for them than it is for me. I mean, my mom's gonna lose her son. What am I going to lose? I'm losing my family, but we're all going to die someday. It's harder on her than it is going to be for anybody. If I'm afraid of anything, that's what I'm afraid of."

He was going to be a chef. He was going to hunt elk and go away to college and lift weights until he was as big and strong as Freedom's baseball coach.

Now Challis is standing at the tuxedo shop with that coach, Steve Wetzel, praying his prom suit isn't too big. He takes off his shirt, and his 18-year-old body is pale and skeletal.

It makes Wetzel want to "hold him and cry." But the tux fits, and Challis grins as he looks in the mirror.

"Coach," he says, "I look studly."

They became friends before the summer of Challis' junior year, the big, gregarious baseball coach and the scrappy, 5-foot-6 football player. Challis had hit the weight room hard that spring, but he couldn't understand why he wasn't getting any bigger. He had lost his appetite, and this was strange because he loved food. Crohn's disease, one doctor thought. When Challis went to a specialist on June 23, 2006, the prognosis was far more grim: liver cancer.

The doctors didn't tell him then -- not Wetzel, and neither his dad, Scott, nor his mom, Gina -- that he wasn't supposed to live more than four or five months. Some nights, the 3.7 student would lie in bed late, lights off, trying to figure out why.

"You go to sleep saying the same prayers, and then you wake up not knowing if it's going to be a good day or a bad day," says his 14-year-old sister, Lexie. "If it's a bad day for him, it's almost a bad day for us."

The past two years have been a slow, blinding mix of good days, bad days, chemotherapy and desperate treatments. Challis casually describes a recent medical attempt that injected his tumor with millions of radioactive glass beads.

If it weren't for the people and the good days, maybe this would be harder for Challis. He was raised in a close-knit borough nestled in trees and hills and the calm of the Ohio River. Just after his diagnosis, he was at the grocery store when a stranger spotted him from across the parking lot.

"John!" the man said. "Don't give up!"

True story, Wetzel says. Last month, Freedom held a walk-a-thon for Challis because he wants to take one last trip this summer with his family. Wetzel hoped for 100 people. Six hundred showed up … in a downpour. And when Challis stepped up to the microphone, the rain subsided and the sun poked through the clouds.

The cancer now is conquering his lungs, and Challis goes back and forth between telling his mom he has two good years and planning out his lasts. His last football hit was carefully arranged in the season finale against Hickory in 2007. Challis suited up, entered the game for a kickoff and lined up for two plays at receiver.

He tried to level a block -- running is hard for Challis -- and fell. He got back up and pushed another defender.

"That's what I needed," he says. "I wanted to hit one last person."

All winter, he worked in the cages with the baseball team. He wanted to confront his fear of the ball and get his first varsity hit. He stood in the batter's box against Aliquippa on April 11, third inning, and lined a fastball between first and second base. He struggled to the bag, then yelled, "I did it!"

Challis had a base hit.

The game stopped, his teammates rushed the field and Aliquippa's pitcher clapped.

"Everybody was in shock when he hit the ball," says Shawn Lehocky, a strapping right fielder who wears a red wristband with Challis' No. 11 to school.

"It was a legit hit," Freedom left fielder Michael Tibolet says. "It's something I'll never forget."

Challis wasn't afraid of the ball anymore. How could he be? He wanted more at-bats, wanted to take on the league's top fireballer, but his energy limited him. He had one final at-bat in a game at PNC Park a few weeks later and struck out looking. Wetzel says it was a questionable call.

But all around Beaver County, athletes have banded together for Challis. Players from 11 teams showed up for the walk-a-thon. Aliquippa's players have Challis' No. 11 scrawled on their baseball caps.

As Challis waits for the assembly to begin, a young man stands outside the door with Aliquippa shirts. It's Jonathan Baldwin, the blue-chip tight end from Aliquippa who will play for Pitt in the fall.

"He's a friend of mine," Baldwin says. "It's no problem [to] come up."

Baldwin towers over Challis, who thanks him for coming. Then Challis walks into the auditorium, where a projection screen shows old pictures. On the screen, he's smiling and wearing a football uniform. He's young and chubby.

It is the seventh inning in the playoff-hinging game against New Brighton, and Freedom is down 7-1 with three outs until elimination. A senior barks at the team to get their heads up.

"Johnny wouldn't give up," he says. "Let's get this done, fellas."

Freedom scores four runs and has the bases loaded. The game ends with a lineout. Underclassmen are crying, boys are hugging and Challis asks Wetzel if he can speak.

He thanks the team for treating him like a brother. Yeah, they lost, he says. But they have their friendship and a spring worth of memories. The team perks up.

Challis says he doesn't wonder why he got cancer anymore. He knows.

"I believe this, that God got me sick because he knew I was strong enough to handle the situation," he says. "He's using me as an example of his good works. What I mean by that is that people are seeing me as an inspiration."

Wednesday night, hours after the game, Wetzel calls Challis. They talk every night before bed. Challis says he wishes his baseball career weren't over and that now, he'll never go to a playoff game.

Wetzel reminds him about his tickets to a Yankees game, their lunch dates, and the trips he has to take and the people he has to see.

"You're right, Coach," Challis says. "We do have a lot to do this summer."

Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at merrill2323@hotmail.com.