Obituary: John Scott Challis / Teen delivered message of hope with cancer fight



Over the past few months, John Challis watched a Penguins playoff game with Mario Lemieux, was featured on ESPN television, addressed the Pirates before a game and spent an afternoon with Alex Rodriguez at the New York Yankee's penthouse in Manhattan.

Although he rubbed elbows with the rich and famous, John likely will be remembered for the many people he touched -- and for his inspiring actions and words.

John's two-year battle with liver and lung cancer ended yesterday afternoon, when he died at his home in Freedom, Beaver County. He was 18.

On a warm June afternoon, John did one of his final interviews. Lying on a couch in his living room, he spoke about his young life. He struggled to keep his eyes open, but talked about how, all of a sudden in the past few months, he had become something of a national celebrity.

Not long ago, John was simply a teenager battling a terminal illness. Then a base hit in a Freedom High School baseball game led to a May story in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, which led to national attention, on television and radio and in other newspapers.

The attention is what John wanted. He had decided that through his fight with cancer, he could spread a message and help others.

"Everybody is scared. It's not normal to not be scared," John said of his plight. "But I'm not scared as much now. I have letters and other things from people, telling me how I've helped so many people in numerous ways. That makes me feel good."

In the corner of the family living room were two boxes of letters and cards from well-wishers and people who wrote to let him know they were inspired by his story. His family also has two binders filled with hundreds of e-mails from people who said John had impacted their lives.

Near the couch in the Challis home, a folded American flag sat on a chair. A Navy pilot flew the flag over Iraq with John's name on it and sent it to the family.

"I just want to say thanks to the people for keeping me going," John said. "All them little cards and stuff I got, keeps me going day by day. To know I'm going downhill a little bit, it doesn't bother me because I've helped so many people. Since I've helped so many people, this is easier to handle."

Courage + believe = life.

Life ain't about how many breaths you take. It's what you do with those breaths.

What teenager comes up with such sayings? John Challis did, and they became his personal trademarks. A baseball glove company sent John a black glove with "Courage + believe = life" embossed in the leather along with John's name.

"We would get things almost every day from people all over the country," said Scott Challis, John's father.

When John attended a Yankees game in late June, he had a news conference, surrounded by more than 20 reporters and photographers.

"People would sometimes call, too, just wanting to talk to him," his father said. "Some wanted to come meet him. It was amazing. I guess he touched so many people."

John was never more than an average athlete, at best. Because of the cancer, he couldn't play sports as a junior or senior at Freedom, except for a few plays in the final football game of Freedom's 2007 season. Then in April came "the hit." John hadn't played baseball in a few years but he wanted to be on Freedom's team. He wanted a chance to hit one time, and Freedom coach Steve Wetzel granted the wish, pinch-hitting John in a game against Aliquippa.

In a storybook moment, John lined a run-scoring single to right field on the first pitch. Although he had trouble running, John made it to first base, yelling "I did it. I did it."

In May, John and Mr. Wetzel were guests on Dan Patrick's national radio show. ESPN sportscaster Scott Van Pelt devoted a segment of his national radio show to John's story.

How did a teenager with a heavy Pittsburgh accent from a small Western Pennsylvania town become a national story? How did he tug at so many people's emotions from so far away?

"There is just so much these days with the Internet, and Web sites, and blogs, but this was a story about a kid who was just so real that it grabs you," Mr. Van Pelt said. "Then, you had sports involved in it.

"I know Pittsburgh is probably all concerned about what the Steelers are going to be like this fall and how maybe the Penguins could've done things differently in the Stanley Cup, but this kid's story was just so different. It's a tremendous story. Actually, it's a bad story because it has a horrible ending.

"The story that [the Post-Gazette] did started the fire for this kid. If maybe I threw another log on to help get it going more, then great, because it deserved to be a bonfire."

John lived long enough to reach some personal goals. He graduated with his senior class. One of his last requests was to take a cruise with his father, his mother, Gina, and sister, Lexie, and they did that in June.

The Pirates brought him to a game later in June, gave him a uniform and let him address the team in the clubhouse. He told the players not to worry so much about their statistics and have fun. John told the Pirates to cherish the game -- and life.

Mr. Wetzel recalled John's words: "You never know what life might bring you. You might have a few sniffles and think it's not a big thing. Then you go to the doctor the next day and they tell you that you have a 10-pound tumor in your stomach."

"Some of the Pirates got emotional," Mr. Wetzel said.

First baseman Adam LaRoche stayed in touch with John after his visit.

"It makes you realize how short life is and how unfair it can be," Mr. LaRoche said yesterday from the clubhouse in St. Louis, before the Pirates played the Cardinals. "I think what's cool is that, even with what he had, he chose to make the best of it and touch a lot of lives that he wouldn't have if this hadn't happened to him. He got the bad end of the deal, but he touched a lot of people. For sure, he touched the 25 people in here."

John also spent some time with the Tampa Bay Rays when the team was in town to play the Pirates.

"Their manager, Joe Maddon, called and said he saw the story on John on ESPN and he was just in his hotel room in tears," Mr. Wetzel said. "He said he just wanted to meet John. Coach Maddon has really become touched by John and his message."

Mr. Wetzel and Mr. Maddon now talk a few times a week. Mr. Wetzel said Mr. Maddon now puts "C + B = L" on every lineup card that he hands to umpires before games.

John's favorite moment in the past few months was the trip to New York for a Yankees game.

"Just because it was with my dad," John said. "It was a good time because we both got to experience it, and it felt like something not just for me, but something he enjoyed as well."

The afternoon at Mr. Rodriguez's penthouse was memorable.

"No Madonna," John said with a laugh.

John was never shy about expressing his feelings on a subject and was always known to ask questions. His father laughs at a couple questions John asked as Mr. Rodriguez was showing them around his home.

"Now John had no idea about these Madonna and A-Rod rumors [about an affair], and John goes, 'So, where's your wife?' I couldn't believe it. But A-Rod just said she was in Florida at their other home with their kids.

"Then John asked him if his wife worked. John wasn't trying to be smart. He was just curious. He told John that she didn't work, but that she had a psychology degree."

John faced his death with courage, dignity, a never-quit attitude and an awareness that was hard to fathom.

John's mother told of a nurse who started coming to the family home in June. "The first time she was here, John said, 'I know why you're here. You're here to make me comfortable in my last weeks. But it could be more than a few weeks, right?' "

"The kid was just unbelievable," Mr. Wetzel said. "His attitude and messages I think changed how some people looked at their lives. He changed how I went about life.

"I feel like a piece of my heart is gone now. The thing I'll miss most is his smile. He had a smile that could light up a room."

John said his Catholic faith and belief in God got stronger through his illness.

One of the things that made John happy in recent months was the start of a foundation that will raise money to help other sick teenagers enjoy a sports experience. The foundation was the idea of John and Mr. Wetzel.

"If I can help someone else going through this, then that would make me feel good," John said.

The foundation has a Web site -- www.courageforlifefoundation.org -- where donations can be made.

When asked a few weeks ago how he would like to be remembered, John said, "I could see people having some beers and hopefully remembering how I always tried my best, no matter what I was doing. That's my message -- just for people to always do their best, no matter what they're doing or how stupid it might seem. And no matter what, there will always be a reward, no matter how small it is."

In addition to his parents, John is survived by his younger sister, Lexie.

Visitation will be tomorrow and Friday from 2 to 4 and 6 to 8 p.m. at Noll Funeral Home, 333 Third St., Beaver. A Mass will be celebrated at 11 a.m. Saturday in SS. Peter & Paul Church, Beaver. Burial will follow at Beaver Cemetery.

The family asks memorial contributions be made to John Challis Courage For Life Foundation, P.O. Box 123, Monaca, PA 15061.

Also, there will be a golf outing to benefit John's foundation Monday at Chartiers Country Club. For more information, go to www.courageforlifefoundation.org.


Mike White can be reached at mwhite@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1975. First Published August 20, 2008 4:00 AM


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