Funeral for teen whose bravery touched so many
Pallbearers carry the casket of John Challis and his Freedom football helmet yesterday into SS. Peter and Paul Roman Catholic Church in Beaver for his funeral.
Gina Challis embraces her daughter, Lexie, alongside her husband, Scott, after the funeral service for their son, John, at SS. Peter and Paul Roman Catholic Church.
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John Challis was buried yesterday in his Freedom High School No. 11 football jersey and red-and-white letter jacket.
Sports greats Mario Lemieux and Alex Rodriguez sent flowers. Bishop David Zubik showed up, unannounced, at a viewing and prayer service.
ESPN sportscaster Tom Rinaldi and one of the station's producers, Danny Arruda, came to the funeral, but not for interviews or a story. "Just because we wanted to be here," Mr. Rinaldi said.
Pirates President Frank Coonelly also was there.
They came to say goodbye to an 18-year-old from Beaver County who was an average athlete, at best, but whose inspiring attitude while battling cancer somehow mushroomed into a national story. John died of liver and lung cancer Tuesday at his home in Freedom.
But it wasn't the presence of dignitaries and celebrities at the viewing and funeral that showed how many people his story had touched.
It was the Freedom High classmate who carried John's football helmet with him to receive communion at the funeral at SS. Peter and Paul Roman Catholic Church in Beaver. It was the 100-odd members of the War Dogs Motorcycle Club in Pittsburgh who stood at attention next to their motorcycles as the funeral procession arrived at Beaver Cemetery. It was the big, burly football players who cried like babies at the viewing. It was the people at the viewing who had never met John or his family.
There were also outward signs that showed John's effect. A financial services business near the church had a "C + B = L" sign on the front. It stood for "Courage + Believe = Life," which became John's trademark. A few miles from the church, closer to John's home, a big electronic sign outside a Baden bowling alley read "Courage + Believe = Life. In remembrance of John Challis. No. 11."
About 1,500 people came to John's viewing at Noll Funeral Home in Beaver Thursday and Friday. Fifteen minutes into a Thursday night viewing, more than 100 peoples stood in a line that stretched through the home, down the steps and onto a sidewalk.
At the viewing, cards were available that had John's picture and these words: "Life ain't about how many breaths you take, it's what you do with those breaths." That was a comment John made in a May Post-Gazette story.
Hundreds attended the funeral. The four corners of the casket were decorated in a baseball motif. Baseball was one of the sports John played as a youngster and a remarkable hit he made in an April game became a gigantic part of his story.
He hadn't played baseball for years, but knowing he was dying, he wanted one last chance to bat in a game. Freedom coach Steve Wetzel, who became a close friend, granted the wish and used John as a pinch-hitter in a game against Aliquippa. Wearing a flak jacket to protect his stomach, John, incredibly, lined the first pitch to right field for a run-scoring single. The Aliquippa players, knowing John's plight, put down their gloves and gave him an ovation.
At yesterday's funeral, it was another ovation that brought many to tears.
John's parents had asked Joe Signore, a close friend of the family, to eulogize their son, but during his speech, Mr. Signore revealed that John also had asked him, before his parents did.
But John had made Mr. Signore promise he would do one thing at the funeral. Mr. Signore asked John's younger sister, Lexie, and his mother and father to leave their first-row pew and come to the front of the church.
"Lexie, Gina, Scott. John made me promise to do this," he said. "He told me that you had gotten so many people to applaud him. Now it's your turn."
At once, everyone rose and gave the Challises a standing ovation. The applause was loud. So was the crying throughout the church. Lexie cried profusely. Tears filled my eyes, too.
In almost 30 years of covering high school sports for the Post-Gazette, I have had scores of parents call in wanting coverage for their child or team or to complain about a lack of coverage. But on a night in late June, I got a parent call like no other.
"Mike, neither the doctors or me think John will make it more than another week," Scott Challis said. "We want you to be the one to write John's obituary. Will you?"
John Challis affected many from different walks of life, including me. I had never met John before I wrote a story about him for the first Sunday in May. I have interviewed thousands of high school athletes, but I have never cried interviewing one -- like I did that day with John. Our photographer, Matt Freed, also cried while making a video of the interview for the Internet. John cried, too, when he asked me if I had any kids and I told him I had three sons.
John had received publicity before, but after my article, his story took off. By the end of the week, he was on national radio shows. Before long, Mr. Rinaldi and ESPN were at Freedom and did a seven-minute piece on John for SportsCenter.
As reporters, we're not supposed to become close to subjects we write about. But John Challis' aura and message captivated many, including me. Never before had I received feedback on a story as I did on this one. Hundreds and hundreds of e-mails. People I didn't even know would stop me and compliment me.
But, honestly, I didn't feel right. All I did was tell John's story, and isn't that what we're supposed to do as writers? I got plaudits. What did John get? He still was dying.
John liked the publicity. Not because he wanted the attention, but because he truly believed he could spread a message about living life to the fullest and thinking positively. He thanked me countless times for getting his message out. John and I talked often after the first story in our paper. Not for stories, but just to talk. We went to lunch. I gave him and his parents binders of the e-mails sent to me. John's mom would read them to him when she rubbed his back at night.
When his father asked me to write his obituary, I asked if I could talk to John one last time, just for a few minutes. When I came to the family home in late June, John was about 85 pounds, lying on a couch in the living room. His family left us alone. John had a tremendous sense of humor, and I told him, "John, when you start feeling better, you need to hit the weights because that body isn't going to do much for the girls."
He could barely hold his eyes open, but he let out a good laugh. I told him I wanted to interview him about his trip to New York and his afternoon spent with Alex Rodriguez. But he knew why I was there. It was to say goodbye.
We talked for about 10 minutes and I told him he should get some sleep. I told him he was a hero. We hugged and I kissed him on the head. Then he told me, "Mr. White, I don't know if I can ever repay you for what you have done for me and getting my message out."
John Challis was dying, and yet talking about repaying me.
I left the room and cried. John's father grabbed me and took me to the back of the garage. "Pull up a chair," he said. "This is where I go a lot of times at night to think."
John's father and I sat in that garage for more than an hour, talking about John. Little did we know that John would live for almost two more months, beating the odds again.
To this day, I still can't figure out how John's story became so big, but maybe I'm not supposed to figure it out. It's just the Challis effect.
In May, I ran into Mike Mastroianni, a basketball coach I've known for 25 years. He told me, "You have done two great articles in your career. The first one was when you made me coach of the year," he said with a laugh. Then he turned serious. "The other was John Challis."
When I told him how it was so hard to figure how John's story took off, he stopped me. Sometimes a coach can say it best. "You want to know why his story took off? Because that kid is a messenger. He's a messenger who should never be forgotten."
First Published August 24, 2008 12:00 am