Howell Brown’s smile spread slowly as he stood in the doorway of the North Carolina Central University student union and listened to the school’s football team cheer his name.
Howell, 10, is recovering from a brain tumor and had arrived expecting to spend a low-key afternoon with the team. It quickly become clear, though, that the Eagles had something bigger in mind.
While the players roared, Howell shook hands with head coach Jerry Mack, and was ushered to a chair by a stage with a backdrop emblazoned with the team’s logo. He glanced wide-eyed at his mother, unsure of what would come next.
That’s when Mack leaned into a microphone and officially welcomed Howell as the newest member of the team.
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Howell climbed the steps to the stage to more applause and without hesitation signed his first name in small neat script on the certificate declaring him an Eagle.
Howell will spend the year with the team at social events, practices and games through a program run by Boston-based Team IMPACT, a nonprofit that pairs children who have serious illnesses with collegiate teams.
“It’s pretty exciting,” Howell said of the twist to his day as he fielded questions from the press with the ease of a star recruit. He likes car racing and baseball and wouldn’t mind stepping in as quarterback.
Howell said he’s ready to cheer the Eagles on, win or lose, but he’s not afraid to dispense a dose of tough love to the coaching staff.
“If they don’t win, I’m going to have to get mad at him,” he said with a grin and a jerk of his thumb toward Mack.
‘Friends can help’
Howell likes that he will be spending time with the team because it’s one more chance to make friends. He used to be shy, he said, but months of talking to nurses about how he was feeling and what he was experiencing left him comfortable with new people.
“I know friends can help,” he said. Howell was diagnosed with stage IV pineoblastoma in the fall of 2012 and has undergone surgery, radiation, chemotherapy and an infusion with his own stem cells to aid his recovery. He finished treatment in September and shows no signs of a tumor.
Howell’s mother, Sue Brown, said the treatment has made him more mature, but left his sunny disposition undiminished.
“He is the gift of joy, I’ll tell you,” she said. “He has the the best attitude.”
After the press conference, Howell played foosball and table tennis with the players, then traded in his sneakers for a pair of bowling shoes and an open lane, where he lamented the players’ gutter balls and praised their best turns.
Mack said Howell brings as much to the players as they give to them. Working with Team IMPACT is one more way to show his team what it means to give back to the community.
“It puts this game in perspective,” he said.
Howell, who knows the name of every medication he’s been given, wants to be an oncologist when he is an adult, so he also can help other children.
But first, there’s fourth grade, at Forest View Elementary School in Durham. And every three months for the next two years, he will have an hours-long MRI to check whether his tumor might have returned. He’ll also continue the rehabilitation therapy that’s helped him move from wheelchair to walker to cane to walking short distances unassisted.
Little about his path is easy, but Howell said the only thing he and other children like him can do is keep going.
“Don’t give up. Just keep fighting through it even if you don’t feel like doing it...” he said. “You’re going to go over the waves and the waves, and you’re going to eventually hit the smooth part.”