If cancer could be tackled, Chad Carr would have made the hit. He was only 5, too young for pads or a helmet. And even bloated from the steroids the doctors prescribed, he was pretty small.
But he was huge in heart and even bigger in stature. If prayers and well-wishes could bring cancer to its knees, the disease would be flattened already. Chad Carr would have assured it.
Instead, because the battle against the king of all maladies is still being waged, one yard at a time, Chad took the kickoff last fall with a diagnosis no parent ever wants to hear. Brain tumor.
The final whistle blew Monday, more than a year later, with a message from his mother, Tammi, through the social media connections that had kept the world informed of her son’s journey:
“At 1:21 p.m. today, exactly 15 months since his DIPG diagnosis, Chad gained his angel wings. He left the earth peacefully and is now running and jumping in heaven.”
The running and jumping is part of being a child.
The path he had to travel was not.
Fighting the fight
DIPG stands for Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma. “Diffuse” and “Intrinsic” are words you may know. “Glioma” means a tumor. “Pontine” tells you where that tumor is.
The brain stem, to be more exact, the pons portion. This makes it incredibly dangerous and difficult to reach. The tumor envelops the healthy brain matter until removing one impossible without removing the other. In addition, DIPG attacks primarily children, and as the tumor grows it affects their vision, their walking, their swallowing and the muscles on the side of the face. It is very fast moving, and is resistant to virtually all forms of chemotherapy.
To date, there is nothing that halts its deadly outcome.
If it sounds like I know something about this malady, I do. A child that I am taking care of — a 5-year-old girl — has the same diagnosis as Chad Carr. Tammi and I have compared notes throughout the process. Our respective children went to the same doctors. Saw the same oncologists. In some cases, they underwent the same surgical procedures — including a promising but early study out of Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York.
In all our discussions, Tammi and I skirted around the dire prognosis that every family member hears about DIPG: that there is no hope, that it’s just a matter of time, and a short time at that.
Instead, we spoke about maybe this drug or that one, what they might be doing in a study here or a study overseas. “Let me know if you hear something new,” we would say before hanging up.
It’s what you do. You try to be brave. Still, when Tammi Carr first heard about my little girl’s diagnosis, she cried over the phone. There is something that hits you when your own child is suffering that makes the suffering of every child in the world seem personal.
A worldwide impact
In this way, Chad Carr had an affect he never even realized. He made us all more sensitive to one another. As the son of Jason Carr, the former Michigan quarterback, and the grandson of former coach Lloyd Carr and former player Tom Curtis (two Michigan legends), Chad bonded the unlikeliest supporters.
From his first appearance on a football field in September 2014, before the Michigan-Minnesota game — where 100,000 mostly strangers cheered for him as he pulled his father’s hat over his eyes — to last weekend’s Ohio State-Michigan State game, where the Wolverines’ two archrivals wore helmet decals that read “ChadTough,” he united people in ways nothing else could.
Players visited and gave him game balls and jerseys. The Michigan and Ohio State basketball teams decorated his house for Christmas. It wasn’t just athletes. Prayer groups gathered in states around the country. Stories were written. TV pieces were done. A foundation was started. If you are inclined to help defeat this terrible disease, the ChadTough Foundation is an excellent place to donate.
And a wonderful legacy to this brave child with the shaggy blonde bangs whose face became a regular image to folks around here over the last year.
It may be too late for his small body, but that’s just timing and biology. His soul will have a profound effect. Chad Carr was a beautiful boy when he walked this planet and he will remain a boy now forever, in spirit, in memory, in tear-stained photographs. We won’t get to see how closely he’ll resemble his well-known relatives, or how far he will one day throw all those signed footballs. That requires more years. He only got five.
But in that time, he lived several lives, that of a child, that of a patient, that of a test case for future patients and that of a rallying source of hope and prayer and people from all walks of the sports world coming together.
That’s a pretty big feat for such a little kid.
He may not have brought down cancer himself, but he’ll be part of the gang tackle that eventually does. And when that day comes, the leaping on earth will almost match Chad’s leaping in heaven. Until then the imagined sound of his happy little feet will do.
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at mitchalbom.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/mitch-albom. If you’d like to make a donation to the ChadTough Foundation, visit chadtough.org/donate. Albom will sign copies of his new book, “The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto,” at 12:30 p.m. Friday at Books-A-Million at Southfield Road and 13 Mile in Beverly Hills, at 9:30 a.m. Saturday at Barnes & Noble in Huron Village in Ann Arbor and at noon Dec. 3 at Chapters in Windsor’s Devonshire Mall.