When Chase Jones was diagnosed with a brain tumor his freshman year at the University of North Carolina, his teammates on the Tar Heels baseball team "completely wrapped their arms around me," he says.
They visited him, brought him letters and cards and sent him videotapes of all the fall baseball games, Jones recalls. Teammate Mike Cavasinni even loaned him a DVD player and movies to watch in the hospital.
"I still owe Cavi a couple DVDs," Jones said Friday with a smile.
So now, as the Tar Heels' bullpen catcher and community outreach liaison, he's making sure fellow survivors have a team of their own.
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Jones, 21, works with Friends of Jaclyn, a nonprofitorganization that matches children who have brain tumors with a local college or high school sports team.
The team "adopts" children and invites them to sit with the team during games and for other activities -- many of the same things Jones' teammates did for him.
Now, he has the opportunity to do just that for James Neubauer, 11, of Charlotte,who has optic glioma, a rare brain tumor that affects the optic nerves in his brain.
"I think at James' age, it just makes the difference that somebody is taking the time to spend time with him," says James' mom, Leiann Neubauer. "It makes him feel special. It makes him feel like somebody cares."
The Neubauers first met the UNC baseball team in Jones' hometown of Greensboro at a pediatric cancer benefit at the school where Jones' mother teaches, followed by an encounter during a weekend series the Tar Heels hosted in April.
The team became involved in Friends of Jaclyn after coach Mike Fox heard about the association from another coach at the university. When he approached Jones with the idea, Fox says, "he thought it was a great idea, because of his journey with the brain tumor."
"I got to go to a baseball game and play with them and sit with them, and I went out to eat with them," says James, who sat with Jones at dinner before the first game of the April series against Maryland.
What does he remember most?
"It was hot. Really hot. So I sat inside, under the shade. It wasn't as hot there."
Every once in a while, James and one of the players would go into the players' lounge to play pool or arcade games, he says.
Jones remembers that encounter, too -- and not for the heat. "This kid was the happiest I've ever seen any kid," he says. "He sat in the dugout, drank Gatorade the whole time, and he was just so happy about just hanging out with us."
In many ways, the support of Jones and the baseball team has been a way of escape for James, who was diagnosed with his tumor when he was 11 months old. He hasn't undergone any treatments since his family moved to Charlotte a year ago.
"This whole year has been a totally different life for him ... we moved here, got him in touch with the Tar Heels, and we said, 'You know what? Be a kid,' " Leiann Neubauer says.
Jones' cancer diagnosis came significantly later in his life, at age 18, but he too is still dealing with its aftermath.
He still has scans every three months -- though mom Judith thinks soon that will become every six months -- but they've all come back clean after four months of chemotherapy and four weeks of proton radiation in Houston shortly after his diagnosis.
"During the time that he was first diagnosed, of course you've got the initial shock and everyone's there for you," says his mother. "And then, as time goes on, everybody tries to go on to their normal lives, and Chase and I are stuck in this cancer world.
"And the cancer world is just oh-so-different from everybody else's world. And it's hard."
Because cancer was also found in Jones' spine, they'll never be completely sure he's cancer free.
"Of course, you always have that fear," says Judith, who lost her father to a brain tumor only two years before her son was diagnosed.
But both mother and son say they have complete faith that he is healthy -- and both called the experience a blessing, because of what he's done since.
Judith says Friends of Jaclyn founder Denis Murphy was so impressed with Jones, as a brain cancer survivor who also is a Division-I athlete, that he asked Jones to speak at the foundation's annual gala.
"It was in Washington, D.C., and I got to speak in front of literally hundreds and hundreds of people. I was incredibly nervous," Jones admits with a laugh. "But it was so cool, because I got to reach out even more and actually raise money for Friends of Jaclyn and raise money for pediatric cancer. And that's so cool, that I have an impact like that."
A talk from the heart
In the speech, Jones did what he does best: talked about his own experiences. He spoke about how his own team did for him the things he and the Tar Heels baseball team now do for James. And about how much that helped him get through the hardest time of his life.
"You have your parents, and you have your friends, you have your church, they do so much for you, but there's nothing like what your team does," Jones says.
And his mother, even after taking five months off work to be with Chase during his chemotherapy process, knows that perhaps better than anyone.
"He loved me being there. But an 18-year-old and his mother is just not the same as two or three ball players coming in and visiting with him in the hospital," she says.
"I don't think he could have gone through it without them. Yes, I was there. And yes, I would always be there for him, but without the support of those guys -- I don't know. I just don't know."
It happened early in Jones' freshman year, so not many of the players knew him very well. His role on the team hadn't been defined, and they hadn't had much time together on the field, coach Fox says.
"But I can remember going up to the hospital, and there'd be four or five of the guys there, almost every time I went up there," he says. "That just shows you the kind of kids I've had in this program the last two or three years."
It wasn't long after his return that Jones told coach Fox exactly what he'd like his role on the team to be.
When he approached Fox about expanding his role of student manager to bullpen catcher, "I thought he was crazy," Fox says with a laugh.
Jones told Fox he had never caught before but that he would learn.
Fox got him some catcher's gear.
"And he literally taught himself to catch," Fox says. "Now, I could ask 10,000 men on this campus to take that job, and I won't get one to tell me, yes. We just happened to get one in the program who wanted to do it, and the guys love him. He is an absolutely invaluable service."
James says "the first wall you see" upon walking into his room is covered in UNC gear, and his mother says he treasures the signed picture of himself with the team he keeps on his dresser. Plus, he has "some really cool stuff from the team, like a jersey, and Crocs, and a backpack, and a big blue UNC hat. I have a calendar with all the dates of the games, too."
Jones and his mother both keep in contact with the Neubauers as much as they can, keeping one another updated not only on scans and treatments but also just on general events in their lives.
Really, Jones only wants James to experience the kind of caring and support he did with his teammates, and that's what he'll continue to try to do.
"That's the difference between a team and anybody else, is that tight-knit group of guys, for me personally, and I think that's what Friends of Jaclyn gives to anybody in their association."