Friday, May 20, 2011

Stories of Hope: Tony's Story

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine as children do. It's not just in some of us; it is in everyone. And as we let our own lights shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others."

Just the other day I had the privilege of sitting down with my coworker, Laurie, to hear the story of her nephew Tony.

Tony is an inspiration to many who are close to him, those who have known where he has come from and the story he continues to tell with his life. It is a story of hope and perseverance. The kind of story this world needs to tell more often. In the short time I was able to sit down with Laurie, Tony's story inspired me to write. To share this with you.

As I pour over the messy scribbled notes taken from our brief conversation, I become painfully conscious that no amount of words in a simple blog post can fully give this story its due, but I will try my best.

I hope that you read, and find yourself as inspired as I have been by this incredible individual.

This is Tony's story...

Tony loved baseball. From an early age on he was born with the heart of a player.

Everybody dreams of doing something big, being everything they can be. Tony was no different; a young boy, who was ready to tackle the world and ready to take anything life could possibly throw his way. A warrior. Most young boys are, but then, most young boys don't have to face the trials that lie ahead for this particular warrior.

At age six, roughly, Tony was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma.


What, initially began as a trip to the doctor to examine breathing problems that Tony was having unearthed so much more. The doctors discovered a large tumor that was pressing on Tony's lungs which, in turn, was making it difficult for him to breathe.

Tony had to undergo an operation shortly thereafter, a procedure that was similar to that of open heart surgery, in the interest of removing the cancerous tumor. The operation was effective but the cancer lingered. The tumor was gone, but the affliction remained.

For the following six months Tony was subjected to chemotherapy to treat the remaining cancerous cells. As one can imagine, the process of chemical treatment is difficult to bear when being in the prime of life, but it is even more difficult to stomach when the one being treated is so young. So full of life.

Tony lost all his hair, but he wouldn't allow the chemicals and treatments to slow him down. He continued to pursue little league sports out of sheer love for the game.

It wasn't an easy road, to be sure. Laurie reminisced about one year, during a family reunion, Tony was playing baseball with other family members and had to continually run into the bushes to throw up because of the effects of the chemo. His spirit was not dampened, though, because he jumped right back into the game after each bout of vomiting.

His spirit was infectious, and he was well liked among his peers. During his little league years Tony's teammates all shaved their heads in solidarity for their teammate. A small gesture of support for the larger battle he was fighting.

It wasn't until age seventeen, nearly a decade later, that Tony was officially declared cancer free.

His senior year of high school he tried out for football and wrestling. Despite the protests of peers telling him he was too small, and that he wouldn't do well in athletics, he pursued it anyway. Soon the negative voices began to fade as Tony found himself a rising star on the football team, as a kick returner. He became a hometown hero that season, known for his speed and agility. It almost seemed like a true life David and Goliath story...but Tony had bigger ambitions.

Football and wrestling never replaced his first love, baseball.

After high school he landed a baseball scholarship to the University of North Carolina-Asheville, then transferred to the University of Cincinnati. At both schools he continued to impress many with his natural talent; he broke many school baseball records during this time. His speed presented a unique ability that many of his baseball peers didn't have, and that was that he could beat a bunt to first base. This is no small feat, and it did not go unnoticed either.

His senior year at Cincinnati he was drafted to the Minor Leagues by the Chicago Cubs franchise. He was one step closer to his dream.

Of course, making it into the minor leagues does not by any means guarantee a place in the majors. There are thousands of young athletes who are drafted in the minors who never even make it into the third level of the minors, Triple A.

Tony, however, was not daunted in the least, but rather rolled up his sleeves and got right to work. This mentality proved to be a good one to take, because during his Summer A season, while sliding to safety, his hand was shattered by another athlete's cleats. This resulted in an inability to play. He was put into rehab, but it wasn't long before he was out and, you guessed it, playing again!

After a short stint playing in Peoria, he was asked to play in the 'Advanced A' division in Daytona. Not long after that move he was recruited to 'Double A' which required yet another move, this time to Knoxville.

Throughout this time, Tony continued to work and play hard. Minor league players make very little for their pay, so off the field Tony was required to work multiple jobs to eat and pay the bills. He often lived with host families. None of this slowed him down though. He continued, not only to work dilligently off the field, but to refine his skills on the field as well.

He boasted a fantastic batting average, proof that the shattered hand was not able to slow him down. Not one bit.

In early 2011 things changed in a big way. Tony was currently
playing in Triple A division, the doorstep to the Major League. Now twenty four, all the work he had been putting in for the last three years paid off. He got his shot. Tony was signed onto the Chicago Cubs roster after roughly a month and a half of playing in Triple A.

Tony has been doing well on all the games in which he has played with the Cubs thus far, but his story is so much more than just capturing a dream. His story is one of perseverance, a story that refuses to accept the status quo.

From a young age he has been told he can't, and that it is ok to be resigned to mediocrity; from a young age his story has proven just the opposite.

I asked Laurie what Tony's driving force was, was it a need to prove the naysayers wrong?

To defy the odds?

She said that his drive didn't stem from anything like that but rather love. A pure, unadulterated love of the game. Passion. A passion that his loving and supportive family nurtured. Laurie said that two of the most influential people in Tony's life are his parents.

If I were able to, I'd thank them in person for encouraging and equipping this living 'David' to face the giants of life, and come forth victorious. It hasn't been an easy road for Tony, but because of his hard work, dedication and passion, he is finally being rewarded.

Perhaps the most special part of this story are the words that, in essence, are Tony's mantra...

He once said; "Going through cancer changes perspective. So now, instead of saying 'I can't', I say 'Why can't I?'

This world needs more Tony's.


THAT girl who said...

This is a powerful story. Thank you for sharing it.

Josh said...

You are very welcome! I think the thing that struck me most was realizing that when individuals are born or develop some sort of condition, whether cancer or other things, society often tells them what they can't do because of their condition... The irony is that, these individuals who are 'disadvantaged' inspire those who aren't to live fuller lives, because the stories they tell are about what the can do! Not what they can't. :)