#TGW: A Friend Indeed
Golf team's adoption through Friends of Jaclyn a life lesson in courage, perspective
By Jon Cooper
The Good Word
Georgia Tech Golf was not pleased with its second-place finish in last week's Puerto Rico Classic. As the nation's fifth-ranked team and one with national championship aspirations, that's understandable. They also understood the result wasn't a matter of life and death.
This team knows the difference.
There's a greater sense of perspective and purpose to the 2015 Yellow Jackets and they owe it to the newest and youngest member of their team.
His name is Armani Carter.
Armani can't make a putt, can't offer any kind of advice on the break of a green or choice of club. He's a recently-turned one-year-old, who was diagnosed with hydrocephalus at three months and later was found to have an inoperable tumor on his brain stem. For Armani, being able to open his hand, attempt to roll over, to simply live through each day is a battle. But the courage he has shown over the last nine months and continues to show every day in this heavily weighted battle against him has inspired the team, which adopted him and his family -- mother, Kimberly, 27, and older brothers Jaden, 7, and Jamon, 5 -- on Feb. 2, through a program called Friends of Jaclyn.
"Someone so small that has so much strength and perseverance, he's dealt with more than many of us have in our whole lives," said senior Anders Albertson. "It's really inspiring and moving to see someone like that. We think we have challenges in college, and everyone does, but this little boy is fighting for his life and going through all this medical hardship, it's incredible what he's had to go through and what the whole family has been through emotionally. He gives people more perspective than anything we could ever experience. He's teaching us so much. We're just honored to spend time with him and his family and helping out any way we can."
The Golf team and Carter family was brought together by The Friends of Jaclyn Foundation. Friends of Jaclyn was founded in 2005, by the family of Jaclyn Murphy. A year earlier, she, was diagnosed with medulloblastoma, a malignant brain tumor. She was nine and given a 30 percent chance of survival. Jaclyn was adopted by the Northwestern Women's Lacrosse team, which went on to win the National Championship that season, their first of seven straight titles.
Inspired by the mutual positive effect that Jaclyn and the Wildcats experienced during that season, the Murphy family to begin the foundation with the goal of improving the quality of lives of kids suffering from pediatric brain tumors and their families by pairing up with college and high school sports teams. Jaclyn, now 19, has been cancer-free for close to a decade and is attending Marist College, while Friends of Jaclyn currently includes close to 500 different high school and college teams, covering the gamut of sports, with a waiting list approaching 1,200 teams waiting to adopt. Georgia Tech is the first ACC Golf team to become a Friend of Jaclyn (FOJ) and are the second Georgia Tech team to do so, as the Men's Tennis Team signed up in 2010, making then seven-year-old Nolan Blake a part of the Georgia Tech family.
Assistant golf coach Brennan Webb played a key role in the adoption of Armani by Yellow Jacket golf. Webb heard about the program while at the University of South Florida, where the women's basketball team became an FOJ.
After speaking with Tech tennis head coach Kenny Thorne and discussing the matter with golf head coach Bruce Heppler, Webb felt that the team and the foundation would be a perfect match and called a team meeting to recommend it to the team.
"They are such good kids. They are such good representatives of Georgia Tech and themselves and the golf program. I knew that they were going to buy into it but they bought into it even more than I anticipated," Webb said. "It's not a surprise if you know our guys but it was a surprise in the fact that they're all 18-, 19-, 20-year-old kids.
"It takes a special kid to come here and succeed," Webb added. "To throw this on top of that, it wasn't a surprise but it is a surprise. They surprise me every day. They've definitely gotten something from it and I feel like Kim has gotten a lot from it and her family, too. It's been great."
"It's obviously a very emotional experience but the consensus was we wanted to do this as a team," Albertson said. "The adoption was obviously incredible. The story just kept going on and on about how hard. I thought it was going to be over and then new things hit where they had to go in again, more tests, more scans, just the hardship that that family has endured is incredible. I know it touched everyone in the room. I was honored to go up and speak a few words on behalf of the team. It's been an unbelievable experience so far and I know going forward it's going to be great as well."
The team has already invited Armani and his family to a couple of Georgia Tech basketball games and attended a one-year birthday party for Armani the weekend prior to leaving for Puerto Rico. Albertson said the team plans to have the family out to the practice range once the weather gets nicer. They're also keeping in touch on a daily basis via social media.
"We have something called `Groupme,' which is a group-message software," Albertson said. "Kimberly, can send us pictures and updates nearly every day, as far as what's going on with them and how Armani's doing. We can all comment and keep up to date with what he's got going on on a daily basis. That's been huge for us just to maintain contact on a daily and consistent basis."
Being a friendly voice and sometimes just a sympathetic ear has helped Kimberly get through the difficult ordeal with Armani, while also raising her two boys, who have been forced to grow up facing a kind of brutal reality that is unfair for anyone, let alone children their age. Coincidentally, it actually was through a late-night Internet search for some kind of support system that Kimberly found Friends of Jaclyn. She has learned she's not alone in her battle and has hope for a brighter future in the fight against hydrocephalus.
"I just want awareness," she said during the adoption ceremony. "There is no cure for hydrocephalus but maybe we can start researching more."
The Yellow Jackets have embraced their new family and are giving their all to them. It's provided a unique sense of perspective, from the players all the way through to the staff.
"Having a three-year-old and a five-year-old, both healthy, and living normal lives you think about what Kim's going through, raising those boys by herself, and then, obviously, with Armani's sickness making it that much harder," said Webb. "Just being there when she was telling her story, I thought, `I'll be sure to give my kids an extra-tight hug tonight.' Every day I feel blessed but when you see something like that it makes it that much more."
At the adoption ceremony, Thorne gave the golf team some words of encouragement.
"The adoption of Nolan Blake was an incredibly huge honor," he said, but added, "Get ready. It was a tough thing. The toughest thing I've ever had to do."
It got even tougher when Blake passed away. Thorne talked about his speaking at Nolan's funeral.
Of course, such a fate could befall Armani, but that's not something the golf team chooses to think about. Instead, they're celebrating each new day that Armani's gives them and living according to the motto of Friends of Jaclyn, "Live in the moment. Play in the moment." . "I think what [Coach Thorne] had an opportunity to speak to our guys about and talk about was what [Friends of Jaclyn] meant to him and what it meant to their team. It was a real eye-opener for all of us," Webb said. "He's a huge fan of the program. Obviously, they ended with the worst possible result but he still thought it was something that was beneficial and emotional at the same time. He helped me a lot when he told the story of the tennis team adopting their guy. It was something that we were aware of. We know this may not have a happy ending but while we're all here we can make a difference."
Albertson hopes to make a difference and talk about his team's new family during the year.
"This experience for us and for the Carter family really goes beyond golf. This is life," he said. "This young boy has taught us so much in just a short amount of time what's really important and when we think we have a hard day. What's really important is friends and family and living life. I hope that every team is aware of it and when we travel and play in a tournament, in a four-and-a-half hour, five-hour round of golf you talk about a wide range of topics and I'm sure I'll have a chance to bring it up with my fellow playing competitors. Hopefully the word will spread that way."
For more information on Friends of Jaclyn, visit http://friendsofjaclyn.org.