NEW PALESTINE — For one night at New Palestine High School, the final score wasn’t kept on the scoreboard.
School colors were an afterthought, replaced by a unified orange and black, donned by players and coaches during warm ups and by cheerleaders and basketball fans throughout.
Before the last bucket swished through the net between the host Dragons and the Shelbyville boys basketball team Friday night, the real winner was determined with the first.
The final tally, announced over the gymnasium’s PA with more than a handful of minutes still left on the clock, drew a warm, rousing wave of applause.
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The Brody Stephens Fund: $8,000-plus. Leukemia: zero.
“This is just amazing,” remarked Jason Stephens, 44, father of Brody Stephens, 7, a Sugar Creek Elementary student contending with B-cell ALL leukemia. “Brody was listening on the radio from the hospital when his brothers were introduced with the team. I don’t have the words.”
The communities spoke loudly on Brody Stephens Night, an event conducted to raise money through a “Pennies for Points” donation campaign.
Packing the stands and pledging to the cause, both sides showered the Stephens with support by purchasing bracelets, themed basket raffle tickets and T-shirts with orange ribbons printed on them along with the hashtag #BrodyStrong.
On the backs of the New Palestine players’ shirts, the words “Team Brody” punctuated the evening’s purpose.
“It was important to show just how close-knit our community is. When one person is in pain, we all feel it, and we want to do everything we can to help out,” New Palestine senior basketball player Duke Blackwell said. “I couldn’t be more proud.”
Big things, small beginnings
Weeks before the game, New Palestine freshman Natalie Cramer felt compelled to share Brody’s story.A neighbor of Brody’s mother, Celia, 40, a 1992 Shelbyville graduate who moved to New Palestine nearly 10 years ago, Cramer wanted to find a way to help the grade schooler.Taken by his kindhearted nature from the moment she moved into the Stephens’ subdivision a few years ago, the Cramers immediately befriended Brody and his three brothers Eli, 13, Ian, 11, and Aidan, 9.
Already aware of Brody’s bout with AML Leukemia as a toddler, the news of his second fight with the disease prompted Cramer to tell a friend, who was part of Jeremy Large’s advanced business marketing class at New Palestine High School.
The initial concept involved drafting get well cards and posters to decorate his room at Riley Hospital for Children where he’s been more days than not since Christmas.
From there, the idea only grew.
“We brainstormed on how we could raise money for the family, and that’s when we decided to tie it to a basketball game,” said Large, who is an assistant coach on the New Palestine boys varsity team. “It took off from there. My students ran with it.”
Large’s class came up with the “Pennies for Points” campaign, spreading the word by hanging posters around school and promoting the fundraiser through social media.
A project-based course, the students committed their class time and met after school to pursue the endeavor.
Once the framework was set, additional components were added. Themed baskets were donated as prizes for ticket raffles, T-shirts were donated to sell during the game and the night itself became the ideal setting.
An avid hoops fans, Brody played for the New Palestine HEAT, a youth basketball program, before getting sick, and the family had a strong connection with the Shelbyville community.
Before relocating to New Palestine where Jason Stephens, a 1989 Waldron graduate, coaches his sons in youth sports, both parents grew up in Shelby County.
Through the years, however, the family embedded themselves in their new town.
“It’s amazing how many people you know but don’t know you know. It’s a large support system,” Stephens said. “We’ve got to know a lot of people here through sports.”
‘He’s a fighter’
Brody’s first battle with leukemia began when he was 18 months old.Diagnosed with AML leukemia, which is more prevalent in adults, the symptoms were spotted early by Celia, who works as a physician’s assistant in a pediatric unit.“Her knowledge saved his life,” Stephens said. “Most parents wouldn’t have known it was anything except maybe a rash, but it wasn’t. She caught it. We are lucky on a lot of fronts.”
Brody spent a little less than two years at Riley Hospital, and the cancer went into remission after the first round of chemotherapy.
Able to resume his childhood, Brody was active, especially on the basketball court with the New Palestine HEAT, wearing his orange jersey.
“He played again this year, but it was midway through his session (this winter) when we found out again,” Stephens said.
The bruising started up again, and Brody became unusually fatigued.
“It was during a basketball game, and about three minutes into it, Brody came over and said, ‘Dad, I want to sit down.’ That’s not what he does, so I kind of knew something was wrong,” Stephens remarked while wrestling with his emotions. “He wasn’t feeling good.”
Brody was officially diagnosed with B-cell ALL leukemia the week after Christmas.
The protocol called for chemotherapy, but before he could start treatment, his body went into septic shock this past January.
“He had emergency surgery,” Stephens said. “They removed half of his large intestine. He was on a ventilator for 11 days to keep him alive.
“He’s gone through more things than I can even imagine. And he’s only 7.”
After recovering from surgery, the chemotherapy started. For 28 days, 24 hours a day, Brody endures a “continuous drip” and has physical therapy to keep his strength up.
In five weeks, if the leukemia goes into remission, the next step is another bone marrow biopsy followed by a bone marrow transplant.
“We were one month away from what Riley Hospital calls cured. After five years of remission, Riley Hospital considers cured. We were four years, 11 months,” Stephens said. “It’s not fair, but I can tell you this, if there’s a little guy that’s going to beat this, it’s him. He has it in him.”
A friend to all
As the youngest brother of four, Brody stands out through his kindness, and especially his smile, said Cramer.“He’s so strong,” she said. “He’s everyone’s friend.”One friend in particularly has kept close tabs on his progress.
“He’s formed a very tight bond with Jack Doyle from the Indianapolis Colts,” Stephens said. “Jack comes up and does physical therapy with him. He doesn’t do it for the Colts or anyone else. He does it because he and Brody have a friendship.”
Stephens and his sons met Doyle last year while on spring break in Panama City in Florida. There on vacation, Doyle struck up a conversation with the kids and remains “buddies” with them.
“It was funny. He spent more time with them playing on the beach than with his own friends,” Stephens laughed. “When he found out about Brody, he was there. He was there, along with his wife, when he had surgery. They come over and visit him quite a bit.”
More than one Brody
During the game on Friday night, New Palestine senior Hanna Rush didn’t see a single point scored.Instead, she was busy building a lead in the fight against blood cancer by working the Be The Match registry table in the hallways.“One thing that’s near and dear to my heart is Be The Match because my cousin was diagnosed with leukemia when she was 14 months old, and she went through the exact same thing as Brody,” said Rush, who is in Large’s class.
“Her last option was a bone marrow transplant, and she received that and is now a cancer-free healthy 9-year-old.”
Working with Angela Touseull, a community engagement representative for Be The Match, Rush and others collected tissue samples using swaps as potential donors lined up throughout the night.
“We can cure up to 70 different diseases with a transplant, and there are 12 million people on the registry. We’re looking for one person in the world that can match that patient and save their life,” Touseull said. “You have a 30 percent chance of matching a sibling. If that isn’t possible, that’s when doctors check our registry, which is why this is so important.”
Nearly 14,000 patients per year need a donor outside their family to find a cure. Donors have a 1 in 540 chance of matching a person in need.
Though some weren’t able to participate on site, Touseull and Be The Match setup a Facebook page (join.bethematch.org/Brody) for those interested in receiving a donation kit in the mail.
“We want people to be the match because there are thousands of Brodys,” Stephens said. “Celia and I feel in our heart that it’s important people be the match whether for Brody or someone else because some place in this country the same thing is happening to another kid, looking for a way to save their life.”
The support goes on
Once the final horn sounded, the game concluded but not the rally for Brody.The raffle winners graciously requested to redonate their gifts back. Before leaving the school, several people recorded video messages to Brody, which Large’s students will compile, edit and send to the hospital.“Coach Large and his business class played a huge part in this,” Stephens said. “A lot of this was done by he and Julie Cramer and her daughter, Natalie, and a lot of other people. They did it out of the kindness of their hearts.”
“I don’t know if we can ever repay them, it means so much.”