MEDFORD — Seven-year-old cancer survivor Jacob Beranger has found the best medicine in the world.
The love of his teammates, family, and fans.
Beranger was officially “drafted” by the Tufts lacrosse team, thanks to Team IMPACT, which connects children facing life-threatening and chronic illnesses with collegiate sports teams.
He is listed on the roster as No. 01, 3 feet 10 inches and 55 pounds. But the smallest Jumbo also has the biggest heart.
No scoresheet could reflect what this energetic lad brings to the Tufts team, which will play Salisbury for the NCAA Division 3 national championship in Baltimore Sunday. The team hopes Beranger will be there to inspire them to kick butt. Just like he did to cancer.
Charlie Rubin, a junior midfielder from Radnor, Pa., says Beranger helps them win.
“He’s our good-luck charm,” said Rubin. “We love hanging out together. We go see movies, we go bowling, he comes and does homework with us and plays video games. We love him.”
The fairy tale began last November when the shy Beranger was scooped up at Goodyear Elementary in Woburn by Tufts players in a white stretch Humvee limousine. The school did its best to make the “draft” seem just like the NFL’s extravaganza at Radio City Music Hall. There were balloons, TV cameras, and an appearance by the Tufts mascot, Jumbo. At the press conference, Beranger was presented with a helmet and a uniform and signed a bunch of photographs for his fans. His smile lit up the room.
Six months later, the team is playing for a national title, and Beranger is the spiritual leader.
“He loves this,” said his mother, Joanne Beranger. “Every day he asks is he going to hang out with them.”
Based in Quincy, Team IMPACT — which stands for Inspire, Motivate, and Play Against Challenges Together — currently has 470 kids across the country linked with 240 colleges and universities. The participants do everything team members do without actually playing in a game.
Beranger definitely has an edge to him. According to his mother, he has been prodded and poked by doctors for half of his young life. He doesn’t like strangers or the media, putting on what his teammates call his “KG face” (for Kevin Garnett) when a reporter tries to ask him questions.
Mess with him and you’re likely to get squirted with water or kicked in the shins.
But he is the definition of a survivor.
Fighting through a coma
On his third birthday, Beranger was diagnosed with high-risk neuroblastoma tumors in his chest and abdomen. He underwent six months of chemotherapy before receiving a bone-marrow transplant. More high-dose chemo followed, but there were horrible complications.
“He had internal bleeding, he had all of his organs shut down,” said his mother, recalling the two months her son spent in a coma. “He swelled up like a big balloon, he had a lot of fluid [in his lungs].”
A priest wanted to give Jacob the last rites. His mother said no.
“I just wasn’t ready,” she said. “I said, ‘You can come in and say a prayer and that’s good, but none of the last rites because he isn’t going anywhere.’
“I just wasn’t giving up. I knew Jacob was still there and he was going to fight. Even though he was in a coma, he could hear me. I would talk to him every night and he could just hear me and you could see his facial expressions and little nods and he was answering.
“I said, ‘Stay strong,’ because he loves superheroes, he loves Spider-Man. That’s what he was, a fighter, and he was going to pull through it.
“He did it. It took him a while, but he pulled out of it.”
Jacob wore a black bandana that read, “Cancer Fears Me.” After leaving the hospital, he had to learn to walk again. Doctors sent him home with a walker, but after one day, he tossed it and was moving on his own.
His cancer is currently in remission, but he faces myriad other issues, including high blood pressure, hearing loss, and concerns about his immune system, his mother said.
‘Great two-way street’
In the NCAA quarterfinal game against Cortland State last Wednesday, Beranger was late arriving from elementary school. Tufts had fallen behind by two goals. Coincidence or not, by the time Beranger made it to the sidelines, the Jumbos had taken the lead and they never looked back.
They won, 15-5, and then beat RIT, 21-11, in Sunday’s Final Four game in Rochester.
When he is on the sidelines, Beranger is protected by freshman midfielder Mike Mattson.
“I just make sure Jacob is having a fun time during the games,” said Mattson, who acts like a big brother. “It’s a pleasure doing it. He’s very much a part of our team, part of our family. He’s a great kid.”
But Mattson can’t totally relax.
“The entire bench celebrates after goals, and it gets really rowdy, everyone bumps into each other and is really excited,” he said. “And we’re right in the middle of that sometimes, so I try to make sure he doesn’t get hit.
“One time when they were celebrating, I hit him with my elbow by accident. And I spun around, I said, ‘Oh man, Jacob, are you OK? Did I hurt you?’
“And he just looks up at me really calmly and says, ‘You can’t hurt me.’ To which I stopped and thought, ‘Wow, what can’t we learn from this young boy? He has everything that we aspire to be.’ It meant a lot to me.”
Tufts coach Mike Daly says the experience with Jacob has been a “great two-way street.”
“I tell you what is the most amazing part of this thing,” said Daly. “You’d think Jacob would be getting more from this thing, and you hope it’s Jacob, frankly, but what our guys have gotten out of it is even more.
“One of our seniors who really didn’t know what he was going to do has now applied and been accepted by Teach for America working with children.”
The Team IMPACT program was cofounded in 2011 by Dan Kraft (Tufts Class of ’87) and a group of mostly college buddies. Kraft, the son of Patriots owner Robert Kraft, said they incorporated ideas from other programs but the staff added the “drafting process” to make the children feel special.
“We all know the power of team,” said Kraft. “You don’t always have the best talent, but when we have the best team in the locker room, those are the teams that have the most success.’’
According to Kraft, some of the participating college teams have “overachieved” with Team IMPACT members. He cited the recent Cinderella run in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament by Dayton, which had 14-year-old Trevin Gray on the roster. And Southern New Hampshire’s baseball team recently won the Northeast-10 championship with 11-year-old Ian Price as part of the squad.
Source of strength
At the postgame press conference following the win over Cortland State, Beranger sits in front of the NCAA logo with a couple of his teammates.
Dan Leventhal, the senior heading to Teach for America, calls Beranger a “best friend.” He teases him for eating all his popcorn at “The Amazing Spider-Man 2.” But then he gets serious when he describes his teammate.
“He adds an unbelievable dynamic to the team,” said Leventhal. “He’s the strongest guy we know. He helps us out a lot. He’s a big inspiration to us.
“You can’t really tell right now but he’s a little wise guy. So me and him go back and forth teasing each other. He likes to call me ‘Old Man.’ He’s a funny little dude and obviously I love Jacob’s absolute toughness.
“Who’s the toughest guy on the team?” says Leventhal, who starts tickling Beranger. “Who’s tougher, me or you?”
“Me,” says Jacob.
“To be completely honest, I think he’s given way more to me than I’ve given to him,” said Leventhal. “I definitely have been the one who benefited from this relationship.
“He’s taught me to be tough every single day and I’ve really never even had a bad day compared to him with what he’s gone through all the time.
“He puts everything in perspective.”
Stan Grossfeld can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.