Locker FInds A Buddy In Bubby Boy
March 10, 2007
By Greg Johns
He's yet to complete a pass in a game for the University of Washington. Yet to hear the roar of the college crowd directed his way. Yet to run for glory or even hand off to a teammate in front of the Montlake masses.
But Jake Locker scored something better than a touchdown Tuesday. He connected with a kid battling for his life, a bubbly Bellingham 6-year-old who just wanted to play catch with his hero at Husky Stadium.
For an hour and a half, the UW's quarterback of the future frolicked with a youngster whose own fate isn't nearly as promising. Doctors discovered a tumor four weeks ago inside Kyle Roger's head, the type of tumor that weaves ugly tentacles through a brain that deserves far better.
The disease is inoperable. Roger, a kindergarten student at Happy Valley Elementary, now undergoes radiation treatment at the University of Washington Medical Center five days a week. His mom says 50 percent of children with such brain-stem tumors survive a year. Five percent last five years.
The long odds and swift nature of the disease are enough to knock any parent flat. But Christin Roger had other ideas. So it was that Kyle and brother Nicolas, 7, spent a sunny afternoon soaking up a day by the lake with Jake, the quarterback they followed during his prep days at Ferndale High.
At times, it was hard telling who was the bigger kid. Huskies fans have yet to see Locker on the field, but if the redshirt freshman's performance Tuesday was a clue, this guy is good as gold.
After receiving a phone call last week from a friend of Kyle's mother asking for a little favor, Locker met with the family and took them through a day at the stadium. They came out the tunnel, woofing just like Huskies players. They ran races, played catch, talked about video games, exchanged good-natured barbs. They huddled, cuddled and generally hung out like lifelong friends. Which by afternoon's end, appeared to be just the case.
'I have no doubt he's going to fight this as hard as he can,' Locker said after inviting his new buddy to hang out in his dorm some day down the road. 'It's stories like this that help people believe, that give everybody else hope.
'This is a kid dealing with a life-threatening illness, yet he's not letting it bring him down. I think it's a good example for everybody. When you think things may be bad, there could be a lot worse happening to you.'
Kyle Roger has no quit in his body, that much was clear Tuesday. After undergoing radiation treatment just hours earlier, he led Locker on a tireless pace once they hit the Husky Stadium turf.
After asking to race the length of the field, the youngster took a U-turn at the far goal post and sprinted the entire 120 yards back the other way as well, finally collapsing in a pile under the goal post.
'Feel my chest,' he said to a sweating Locker.
'Wow,' the quarterback said. 'You've got a big heart.'
That one brought tears to the eyes of grandma Linda Willhite, one of four family members in attendance. This was tough stuff when you thought about the overriding circumstance. Somehow this vibrant youngster, the same kid who won a ski race in his class last weekend and was now bouncing all over Husky Stadium, is relying on doctors who have few answers.
The best bet, according to his mom, is shrinking the tumor to a workable size that allows his eyes to function normally and buys time for a cure that hasn't yet been found.
'There isn't anything that can make it go away completely except a miracle and prayer,' Christin Roger said.
'It's hard,' acknowledged Locker, 'to even think about stuff like that when you're out here playing around with him.'
Yet Locker forged easily ahead at every turn, bringing himself down to eye level with his eager companion.
'The funny part is,' said the former high school All-American, 'this is as fun for me as it is for him. A lot of people don't think of it that way sometimes. I love it. Getting a call from his mom, wondering if I'd be willing to do this? Heck, I wish I could find these kids and call them and ask if they'd want to come hang out.
'This is something that benefits me in more ways than he will ever know. It's something that is very special for me.'
That feeling was clearly mutual. Christin Roger and her sister, Melissa Willhite, grew up on Mercer Island in a Huskies family. Both went on to graduate from Washington. When Christin's two boys were born, Melissa was in the delivery room singing 'Bow Down to Washington.'
'It's never too early,' she said.
Now Kyle found himself riding the shoulders of Locker down the Huskies tunnel, the young quarterback instructing his understudy to put on a serious 'game face.'
'He's such a happy guy, it's hard for him,' Locker said. 'Come on Kyle, the other team isn't going to be scared if you're laughing.'
Which produced, of course, another peal of laughter from the youngster.
'I like to think I'm still a 5-year-old trapped in an 18-year-old body,' Locker said, 'so that helps me out sometimes.'
Moments later, the two brothers challenged Locker to a 'real game' of tackle on the turf, leading to a few weaving runs and diving stops. Turns out, the 6-foot-3, 215-pound quarterback isn't as elusive as you'd think.
'Yup, I tackled him easy,' Kyle noted later with a giggle. 'I just grabbed his pants and he flew on the ground.'
There's something infectious about the youngster, an outgoing boldness bolstered by an eye patch designed to offset the imbalance created by the tumor pressing on his optical nerve. His mom says he skips into the treatment room for his daily radiation therapy, willing to do whatever required to deal with his 'brain bump,' as he calls it.
'He knows how sick he is,' said Christin Roger, 'but he can skip into the hospital every day because he really believes he can get better.'
Eventually the games ended and young Kyle pointed out where he and his family sit during Huskies season, up above tunnel 47 on the north side of the field.
'I'll tell you what,' Locker said. 'You call me before our first home game and remind me. If I get a chance to play and score, I'll point up to you. You remember to call me and say, 'Hey Jake, I'm in tunnel 47. Show me some love after you score. OK?' '
So there it is. A promise to keep for Jake Locker. And memories to last a lifetime for the little guy with the big heart.
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