Ailing Steelers fan gets wish

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In reality, 15-year-old Zach Hatfield had two wishes.

The first was granted. He stood up in front of the podium at Radio City Music Hall Thursday night and announced:

"With the 18th pick in the 2010 NFL draft, the Pittsburgh Steelers select Maurkice Pouncey, center, Florida."

The second wish, the one that came to him more spur of the moment -- well, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell was not going for it.

"We were backstage at the draft, it was after the Steelers had taken Maurkice Pouncey," Hatfield said. "And I mentioned to the commissioner, I asked him, 'So, do you think maybe you could unsuspend Ben Roethlisberger?' The commissioner just kind of smiled and said, 'I don't think we can do that.' "

But what the NFL did for Hatfield -- facilitated through the Make-A-Wish Foundation -- is something he never will forget.

Hatfield is a native of Kentucky's far southeastern reaches, a little town of about 3,500 called Belfry, about 60 miles south of Huntington, W.Va.

Nonetheless, his rooting allegiances are firmly planted in Pittsburgh.

"I am a huge Steelers fan, I've always been," Hatfield said. "I like everything about them. I like their history, I like the way they play, I like the personality of the guys on their team. I am someone who just really likes the Steelers."

Hatfield also is someone who is also very ill.

Someone who never envisioned he would have a heart attack at 15 or find himself laying in the back of a medical helicopter.

And, for sure, he never thought he would have to fight for his life against leukemia before he was old enough to secure a driver's license.

"It has all been tough," Hatfield said. "But I've always kept positive."

The unselfish deeds others have done help Hatfield get through.

Last weekend, Make-A-Wish and the NFL teamed to fly Hatfield and his family -- his grandmother, Rachel, and father, Todd, (Hatfield's mother is not in his life) -- from Cincinnati where he is in the final stages of treatment for leukemia to New York City for the draft, because Hatfield had a very original request.

"I wanted to announce that first-round pick for the Steelers," he said. "I know a lot of kids want to meet a player, or go to a game, but announcing the first pick was something that I never heard of someone doing. I just figured I would do something different, something no one else had done."

The NFL and Make-A-Wish made sure it did not stop there. He went to Brooks Brothers in Manhattan and was outfitted with a posh suit -- naturally it was black, with a gold tie.

Hatfield also got to meet some of the next crop of potential superstars, spending time backstage at Radio City with first-round picks Sam Bradford, Ndamukong Suh, Trent Williams, Eric Berry and Dan Williams.

"I think it gives them a sense of hope," Hatfield's social worker, Casie Sanborn, said of kids who go through the Make-A-Wish program. "In the middle of things, what Make-A-Wish does, gives a lot of kids a sense of hope."

Hatfield admitted to feeling a little nervous in the few moments leading up to walking across that stage, stepping up to the microphone and announcing that Pouncey was the newest Steeler.

"A little bit backstage and before," he said. "But, when I was standing there [in front of the podium], I wasn't nervous. I mean, I've been through a lot already in my life."

It all started innocuously enough in August, when he was sitting at home watching television and had a strange feeling in his torso.

"It was a weird pain, and I knew something was wrong," Hatfield said. "I was actually having a heart attack."

From there, he was taken to Appalachian Regional Medical Center near his home, where doctors quickly realized the problem was too complex for their facility to handle and transported Hatfield to a medical center in Charleston, W.Va.

It was there, after being stabilized from the heart attack, that doctors delivered crushing news to Hatfield and his family.

"They said I had acute promyelocytic leukemia," he said. "And I needed to go to Cincinnati for treatment right away, in a helicopter."

Hatfield was airlifted to Cincinnati Children's Hospital by himself to begin treatment for the rare form of cancer of the blood and bone marrow; his family scurried to drive and get there as soon as possible.

"I really wasn't scared," he said. "I just kept saying that it all happens for a reason, everything does. That's what I have said through all of this."

He still said it in November when, during treatment in Cincinnati, Hatfield and his family got word their home in Belfry had caught fire.

The cause was electrical; the damage was significant.

For now, the family is living in an extended stay hotel in northern Kentucky, near Cincinnati, while Zach finishes his treatments. When he is done, they will move into a different home they have secured in Belfry.

"A lot of our stuff in our old house was gone, it was destroyed," he said. "But we were safe, that's all that mattered."

The family was safe -- but Zach still was in the throes of battling leukemia.

First came the intravenous chemotherapy, which made him incessantly sick and caused debilitating migraines. He also lost 50 pounds before the last treatment was administered April 9.

Now, he has oral chemotherapy, a pill he must take for the next two years.

Thursday is a benchmark for Hatfield. He has a bone-marrow treatment scheduled, and, if all goes well, his family can pack up Monday and head home to southeastern Kentucky.

Regular doctor visits will follow, but he hopes the worst is behind him and he can get on with the routine of being a normal teenager.

But, with that shatterproof optimism, Hatfield does not necessarily look at everything he has had to endure since August that way.

"I got to go to the draft and do this," Hatfield said.

"It was, probably, the best day of my life so far. I think about, if I hadn't been sick, I wouldn't have been given this opportunity, I wouldn't have been able to go to the draft. So, like I said, everything happens for a reason."

Colin Dunlap can be reached at or 412-263-1459.


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