Teen is running out of innings, but the game still isn't over
Freedom's John Challis gets a hug from Beaver's Al Torrence after a game April 24.
Freedom's John Challis talks with head coach Steve Wetzel after a game April 24.
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The 18-year-old kid dying of cancer gets his wish, a chance to swing a bat maybe one last time in a real baseball game.
He hasn't played in a few years, but he's called on to pinch-hit. His eyes light up at the first pitch and he puts all of his 5-foot-5, 93-pound frame into one mighty swing, making contact and sending a line drive into right field for a single -- if he can reach first base. The cancer he's been battling for almost two years has spread to his pelvis, making running nearly impossible.
• Varsity Blogs: "Johnny C. affects many," May 9, 2008
• "Penguins honor Beaver County teenager with cancer," May 12, 2008
• PG video: "Challis attends Penguins playoff Game 2," May 12, 2008
The kid worries about falling as he hustles down the first-base line. When he gets to the base, he lets out with a yell. "I did it! I did it!"
Safe at first with a hit and an RBI, the kid is hugged by a crying first-base coach. The opposing pitcher takes off his glove, starts applauding and his teammates follow suit. The kid's teammates run onto the field to celebrate.
It sounds like the climax to a heart-tugger movie. But there was no producer or film crew at the game between Freedom and Aliquippa high schools two weeks ago. The scene was as real as the tumors in John Challis' liver and lungs.
John is a kid with cancer, a senior at Freedom in Beaver County who was told a few weeks ago by doctors that cancer was winning and it was close to the end. The disease that started in his liver was now taking over his lungs.
"They said it could be only two months," he said, fighting back tears.
He paused before his seemingly never-ending optimism came through again.
"I told my mom I still think I can get two more years."
But his story isn't about dying. It's about inspiring.
His story, words, actions, beliefs and courage have become known around Freedom and surrounding areas in Beaver County, bringing people together from other communities and other schools.
Three weeks ago, Freedom baseball coach Steve Wetzel organized "Walk For A Champion" on Freedom High's school grounds. The purpose of the walk-a-thon was to raise money for one of John's wishes -- a last vacation with his mom, dad and 14-year-old sister, Alexis.
More than 500 people took part, including baseball teams from eight Beaver County high schools and members of Center High School's football team. John also used to play football at Freedom.
Mr. Wetzel, who calls the teen his hero, hoped to raise $6,000. That total was easily surpassed "and people are still calling with donations," he said.
The family has booked a cruise for June.
A Beaver County church had planned a fundraiser, but John and his family asked the church instead to conduct the event and give the money to a fifth-grade boy in Beaver County who has a brain tumor.
"His family can use it more than we can," John said. "That's just common sense. Someone does something good for you, then you help someone else."
Actions and statements like those are what has inspired so many others. All of Aliquippa's baseball players wear John's jersey number "11" on their hats. At the walk-a-thon, Aliquippa star athlete Jonathan Baldwin, a Pitt football recruit, presented him with a ball signed by Pitt players.
After the walk, John addressed the crowd.
"He spoke from his heart," Mr. Wetzel, the coach, said. "He said, 'I've got two options. I know I'm going to die, so I can either sit at home and feel sorry, or I could spread my message to everybody to live life to the fullest and help those in need.' After hearing that, I don't know if there were many people not crying."
Last Thursday, Beaver pitcher Manny Cutlip tossed a three-hitter against Freedom as John watched in street clothes. After the game, every Beaver player came up to him and shook his hand. Some hugged him and some said they were praying for him. Manny Cutlip asked Mr. Wetzel if he could go to lunch some time with John. It happened the next day.
"I don't know what to say. I just wanted to get to know him better and see if I could learn anything from him to help me in my life," said the young pitcher, an imposing 6-foot-3, 225-pound standout athlete who will play football at IUP.
At lunch, he gave John a new football with a handwritten personal message on it. Part of the message read, "You have touched my heart and I will always look up to you as my role model."
Talk to John and you'll laugh at his sense of humor when he says things such as, "You can't let girls know that you know how to text message because they won't leave you alone."
But listen to his mature views on life and his philosophies ... and you might cry.
"I used to be afraid, but I'm not afraid of dying now, if that's what you want to know," he said. "Because life ain't about how many breaths you take. It's what you do with those breaths."
It's been almost two years since John found out about his cancer. He knows the date like a birthday. June 23, 2006.
He discovered only recently that doctors didn't expect him to last through that first summer. "To me, that's already an accomplishment," he said.
In the first few months after the cancer discovery, John's father, Scott, would get up in the middle of the night, peek into his son's bedroom and see him wide awake, staring at the ceiling.
"He would just be thinking," the elder Challis said. "He's always been one who had to try and find an answer for everything. He wants to figure things out."
Through his own thoughts and through his deep Catholic beliefs, John believes he has "figured it out." He answers questions with maturity, courage and dignity, traits that have become his trademarks.
John requested that his mother, Regina, not be interviewed for this story because it will be too hard for her. He talks to his father about what to do after he dies.
"I sit up with him at night until 1 or 2 in the morning," Scott Challis said. "He'll tell me, 'Dad, when I'm gone, you have to do this or that. You have to watch your weight.' He's worried about my weight. He tells me I have to take care of mom.
"When the doctors told him a few weeks ago about how the cancer was winning, he had a lot of questions about what it was going to be like and about being comfortable. Later on, he broke down with me and you know what he did? He apologized. He was upset because he felt like he was letting everyone down who had been praying for him."
Scott Challis has found talking about his son makes the situation easier to deal with. But many people like to talk about John. Shawn Lehocky is a senior and one of Freedom's top athletes. For every football and baseball game, he wears a red wrist band with John's No. 11 on it.
"It seems like everyone in this community knows who he is now and he really has brought so many people together," Shawn said. "He's always on my mind. To see him and what he's going through, I don't know if I could act like that. He said some pretty strong words at that walk-a-thon that you don't hear 17- or 18-year-olds say every day."
John fought back tears a few times during last week's interview.
"Sometimes I cry, but people cry for all different kinds of reasons," he said. "Sometimes I just want to know why, but I think I figured that out. God wanted me to get sick because he knew I was strong enough to handle it. I'm spreading His word and my message. By doing that, I'm doing what God put me here to do.
"It took me about a half year to figure all that out. Now, when I'm able to truly believe it, it makes it easier on me. And when you know other people support what you're thinking, it makes it easier."
When asked where he gained his wisdom, he answered, "Through cancer."
"They say it takes a special person to realize this kind of stuff," he said. "I don't know if I'm special, but it wasn't hard for me. It's just my mind-set. A situation is what you make of it. Not what it makes of you."
He regularly wears his Freedom baseball hat. Under the bill of the cap is his name, plus this line: "COURAGE + BELIEVE = LIFE."
"I guess I can see why people see me as an inspiration," he said. "But why do people think it's so hard to see things the way I do? All I'm doing is making the best of a situation."
John then raises his voice.
"Why can't people just see the best in things? It gets you so much further in life. It's always negative this and negative that. That's all you see and hear."
John tries to keep complaining to a minimum, but he acknowledges his moments of crying.
"If I'm mad at anything in this, it's that I'm not going to be able to have a son, I'm not going to be able to get married and have my own house," he said, fighting back tears again. "Those are the things I'm mad about. But not dying."
John loves sports. He is an avid hunter -- "got three buck and two doe in the last year," he said.
He played baseball through Pony League and always loved football, despite his small stature. As a sophomore, he started on Freedom's junior varsity team as a slotback and cornerback.
"I was 108 pounds. I had to be the smallest player in the WPIAL," he said with a laugh.
The cancer forced him to stop playing football as a junior.
"But I will never forget," his father said, "when he first got sick he told me, 'Dad, I have to dress for a football game one more time.' "
He got his wish in the final game of his senior season, against Hickory. Coaches let him kick off once. He was supposed to kick and immediately run off the field to avoid danger. Instead, he stayed on the field and got a little excited when the kick returner started heading his way before being tackled.
Later in the game, the coaches put him in for two plays at receiver. Mr. Wetzel and others who saw the game proudly tell how, on one play, John tried to block a defender, fell down, but got up and pushed another defender.
Mr. Wetzel said seeing John play in that last football game, doesn't compare to seeing his hit against Aliquippa in that April 14 baseball game. John vividly remembers the details leading up to the hit. When he walked into the batter's box, he saw Aliquippa's catcher wearing a protective mask with the initials "J.C." and the number "11."
"I just looked at him and said, 'Nice mask.' "
He then noticed an Aliquippa coach saying something to the pitcher.
"I'm thinking, 'If they're going to walk me or throw easy to me, I don't want it handed to me,' " he said. "But sure enough, he threw me a fastball. That's what made it so good. ... There were only about 20 people there watching, but everyone was cheering."
Mr. Wetzel said: "We made it to the state [PIAA] playoffs two years ago and I thought that was the best feeling. I got to play in WPIAL championships at Blackhawk as a player. But that day, that hit, that moment ... That was the best feeling I've ever had in sports."
Six days later, Freedom played a game at PNC Park. John attended the game, but had an IV line in his arm for a treatment he was getting. He took out the IV line and asked Mr. Wetzel if he could pinch-hit again.
"Unbelievable. He told me the doctor said he could take it out for up to seven hours," Mr. Wetzel said. "He told me he just wanted to be a normal kid one more time."
So Mr. Wetzel let him pinch-hit. This time he struck out.
They have a unique coach-player relationship. Mr. Wetzel invited John to be part of the team a year ago and John calls the coach one of his best friends. They talk every day, at least on a cell phone, and go to lunch together once a week.
"The kid has changed my life," Mr. Wetzel said. "I cry for him just about every day. I'm 32 and I'm getting married in September. You know what he told me the other day? He told me to save him a seat in the front row of the church, because even if he's not there, he'll be there in spirit.
"He just keeps doing things and saying things that are just unbelievable. I know our team will never forget this season because of Johnny."
The two want to start a foundation in John's name for young cancer patients.
"Even if [the foundation] is something that can help only one kid or one family, to see people in a different way like I have, it will be worth it," John said. "Maybe it will help younger people who haven't gotten to see the finer things in life that I got to see."
John plans to attend Freedom's prom May 9 and plans to graduate in June. As John ended this interview, he said he wondered how his story will come out in the newspaper.
"When you write this, don't overthink things," he said. "I've learned that. There are a lot of unanswered questions in this world and the reason they're unanswered is because if you think about them too much, you're always going to come up with different answers. So don't confuse yourself and think about this too much."
First Published May 4, 2008 12:00 am