Athletes have a widespread impact on those they encounter. The importance of sports goes beyond athletic ability.
Sports are more about the impact of athletes on one another, and individuals involved with the program. In 50 years when the Army uniforms are off, the memories from interactions with teammates is what will stick out in the athletes’ minds, not their success or statistics.
The Army West Point Athletic Department has had the opportunity to make a positive impact on many individuals throughout its history. But recent cooperation with the Friends of Jaclyn Foundation has enabled kids to cross the line from casual interactions with athletes to something more meaningful and special. Army and the foundation have brought six kids and their families into the athletic program, and that relationship has positively impacted both the child and athletes alike.
The Friends of Jaclyn Foundation began in 2005 when Jaclyn Murphy became connected to, and later adopted, as an honorary member of the Northwestern women's lacrosse team. She was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor as a nine year old, and was part of the team when Northwestern won the school's first NCAA Championship.
The foundation was born by her father, Dennis, after Jaclyn shared her dream to have all of the sick children adopted onto a team of their own. So, in 2005, the Murphy Family created the Friends of Jaclyn Foundation.
Jaclyn recently graduated from Marist College and shares her inspirational story to the West Point teams prior to each adoption.
Sean Callahan was Army’s first new teammate adopted through the Friends of Jaclyn Foundation in the fall of 2014. He was a young boy battling multiple pediatric brain tumors since he was two years old. Sean joined the Army football team and made a lasting impact on the Black Knights.
Although his condition worsened through his time with the Army football brotherhood, his spirit grew. The support for Sean was reflected in the 2015 Spring Game when he donned an Army football uniform and scored not one, but two touchdowns for the Black Knights, and a two-point conversion. The team lifted him on their shoulders and celebrated before Sean gave a touchdown dance. It was that moment which the team and his family will remember forever.
Without knowing it at the time, the Army football brotherhood banded around Sean during the final year of his life. In the direst times for the Callahan family, Sean found true friends who he reached out to day and night.
In a former interview with 2016 U.S. Military graduate Kelvin White, he explained the importance of bringing Sean into the brotherhood fully.
“He was like a little brother to me,” White said. “He was definitely a part of my family and I valued him as though he was my own blood and my own brother.”
The team’s impact on Sean was comparable only to the impact he had on his Army brothers and teammates. When the dreaded news came, the entirety of the football team attended the funeral. Individuals from the Army Athletic Department were his pallbearers, and former quarterback and tight end, Kelvin White, read the first passage at the 12 year old’s funeral.
Sean’s impact on the football team lives on, and so does the impact of the Friends of Jaclyn Foundation in all of Army Athletics.
Since 2014, the Black Knights have adopted five other children to their athletic teams through the organization. In January of 2015 Andrea Wojciechowski joined the women’s basketball team, in September of 2016 Mya Bonilla was adopted by women’s soccer and that spring Giovanni Toribio joined the men’s lacrosse family. More recently, Anthony Scancarello was added to Army hockey and Abigail Dougherty to the volleyball squad.
Their impact has been immeasurable to players, coaches and anyone who touches the programs.
“Gio is a team member and his inspiration is immensely meaningful to our team,” explained Joe Alberici, head men’s lacrosse coach at Army. “To see a young guy battle and persevere the way he did certainly brought perspective to our everyday ‘hardships’.”
Army hockey head coach Brian Riley spoke about their new teammate as well.
“Any time you can add somebody to your team to make you a better one, but more importantly make you better people, is very special,” Riley said. “We are so excited that Anthony and his family are now a part of our larger family here.”
Senior hockey captain Tyler Pham added his thoughts.
“We are looking forward to forging that relationship over time,” he said. “Anthony has been through a lot at a young age and having that fight in him to keep on going is something I feel like we try and strive for every day.”
It wasn’t just the athlete’s lives that were changing because of the adoption however.
“You have all chosen to defend this country and do something bigger than most people,” Gio’s mother, Luuren Toribio wrote in a note to the team last season. “You took my son into your arms and loved him from day one. The feeling of going to see you guys and watching Gio’s eyes light up each time we enter those gates is something I can’t thank you enough for. This past season was something so special to this family and we are so happy for that. I can still hear the cheers as Gio told you guys he was cancer free! Gio still has four more months of chemo and a long road ahead, but knowing he has a band of brothers behind him, makes it all okay to him.”
“Abby has a small group of friends,” Kerry Dougherty, mother of Abigail, said. “As a mother, it breaks my heart but it doesn't break my spirit. Meeting and becoming a part of the Friends of Jaclyn Family has been an uplifting inspiration to say the least. They have made us a part of something and have given us something to look forward to, and have flooded Abby and our family with Love and Hope.”
The Army teams have truly taken in their new comrades and incorporated the adopted teammates into as much as possible. Coincidence or not, the teams that have adopted through Friends of Jaclyn have seen success on and off the field and overall growth for their respective programs and exponential success.
The same season that women’s basketball signed Andrea, they won the Patriot League Championship. Clare Shea, who was Mya’s confidant on the women’s soccer team, was named to the All-Patriot League team her final two seasons while also garnering Academic All-Patriot League honors.
When men’s lacrosse added Gio, they won two thrilling games that went down to the wire against top-ranked opponents in Syracuse and Notre Dame. The volleyball team is undefeated when Abigail is in attendance this fall, and the hockey team boasts the best road record in college hockey since Anthony joined the program.
But as anyone who is surrounded by Friends of Jaclyn will tell you, adopting children battling cancer and various diseases is more about supporting one another and success in the hospital over any type of win on a field.