STORRS, Conn. — It began for UConn pitcher Ryan Radue as a small role in a team effort to help a sick child.
Now a cancer survivor himself, the graduate student says it’s the boy from Sturbridge, Massachusetts, who has showed him how to approach that battle.
The Huskies held a signing ceremony in April 2015, welcoming 5-year-old leukemia patient Grayson Hand to the club as part of program called Project Impact, which links teams and seriously ill children.
Grayson received an honorary letter of intent, a jersey and a hat. He got to hang out with the players and be introduced at the annual alumni game with the rest of the team. Radue, from Appleton, Wisconsin, said he thought it was cool the Huskies helped put a smile on a child’s face. But Grayson, Radue said, is almost always smiling.
About five months later, Radue received his own cancer diagnosis.
The knee pain he had been feeling was a tumor. There was another in his neck.
He would need chemotherapy and radiation. He would miss the entire fall of 2015 and the 2016 season.
Ryan said there were moments of anger, exhaustion and feeling for sorry for himself. But then he would think of Grayson.
“It kind of forced me to look in the mirror and say ‘You don’t have it great right now, but here’s a little guy who has it much worse and he is finding joy in all these little things,'” Radue said. “So, you should too.”
Ryan said he no longer sweats the small things in life and takes more joy in everyday accomplishments. He earned his bachelor’s degree early and is now working on his master’s degree in business. He also decided to get more involved with the Hand family.
Grayson, now 6, lives about a 40-minute drive from the Storrs campus. He and his family make several trips a year to visit with Ryan and the rest of the team.
He’ll watch a few innings, then get bored, Radue said. So Ryan and some of his teammates take him into the practice facility, where they play catch, or serve as his targets in a game of dodgeball. They go out for sandwiches. They have fun.
At Halloween, Ryan and some teammates went to Grayson’s house to take him and sister Sophie out trick-or-treating. They had pizza, sang karaoke, and listened to Grayson tell scary stories about zombies.
But they share more than just a friendship, said Nathan Hand, Grayson’s father. They became role models for each other.
“For Grayson, there is a sort of big brother aspect, but also there’s somebody bigger and older who went through it and is doing OK,” he said. “I don’t think that is lost on Grayson. To see somebody get stronger and with the accomplishments that Ryan has done even through chemo. You know, just staying in school. He didn’t take time off, he graduated with honors. I think it’s something that Grayson can look up to a little bit.”
Radue has also helped the parents understand what Grayson has been going through, Hand said. When Grayson complained about the weird feelings in his hands and feet and went through violent mood swings, Radue was able to explain that he had the same issues. What Grayson was feeling was neuropathy, which like the mood swings, were just effects of the medication that were both taking, Radue said.
“After talking to Ryan, some things that we were seeing and hearing from Grayson made a lot more sense,” Hand said.
Nathan Hand said his family has had a lot of support. But it’s been nice to talk to someone who understands the nuances and frustrations.
The pair is now getting stronger together. Grayson’s blood levels are good. He came off chemotherapy in October. Radue was also recently given a clean bill of health.
He began pitching again this fall.
His strength is coming back and he’s gained about 15 pounds, along with a fastball he hopes will be back in the low 90 mph range by the time the Huskies open the season next month in Florida. He’s looking forward to having Grayson come to Storrs this spring and watch him pitch.
So are his teammates and coach Jim Penders.
“I just hope I don’t become a blubbering mess on the bench when I see him out there facing a different uniform for the first time in a long time, knowing what he had to endure,” Penders said. “He’s a guy I will be talking about until I get done coaching as an example of courage, how to work, how to endure.”
By PAT EATON-ROBB, AP Sports Writer
Photo Courtesy Hand family via AP