"Justin has shown us that we can get through anything," commented sophomore catcher Jake Lowery. "Getting through a tough workout is nothing compared to him fighting for his life. We are so fortunate to have the presence of Justin in our lives."
While many JMU players have overcome long odds to achieve a dream of playing Division I baseball, none have achieved as much as Justin Brown, a cancer survivor.
Through the Friends of Jaclyn Foundation, JMU's baseball program has adopted Justin as an official member of the team with the goal of improving his quality of life and building a friendship between him and the team. The Dukes plan to include him, along with parents Scott and Kori as well as brothers Josh and Jason, in various activities and team functions throughout the upcoming season.
"Justin has been a great inspiration to us and great motivation for us to take advantage of the opportunities that we have as Division I athletes," stated redshirt junior utility player Trevor Knight.
On February 18, 2005, the Haymarket, Va. native was diagnosed at the age of two years, three months with a Craniopharyngioma brain tumor. The diagnosis came following over a year of sleepless nights and uncertainty about various health problems.
Just one week later, doctors at a children's hospital in Washington, D.C. removed the lemon-sized growth, which left him legally blind in his right eye. The tumor also destroyed his pituitary gland, placing him on complete hormone replacement therapy, which includes daily growth shots. He has also developed Diabetes Insipidus, leaving his body unable to retain water on its own.
Fast forward one year and Justin was back in surgery as Craniopharyngioma carries a high rate of reoccurrences. He endured a pair of 10-hour procedures on April 14, 2006 and July 12, 2006. The latter surgery discovered growth on his carotid artery, an area that doctors determined best to be left untouched.
Two weeks later, the Brown family traveled to Boston for six weeks of daily sedated proton beam radiation treatments. As his battle against cancer continues, the Dukes look forward to Justin's company as much as he looks forward to being around college ball players.
Sophomore pitcher Evan Scott commented, "Justin has provided us with inspiration by showing us how to never give up even when faced with great adversity. We all admire his courage."
The Brown family and JMU's Diamond Dukes first met at a team barbecue during the fall semester. The players have since been sending him regular notes, messages, and videos to stay in touch, with each party offering encouragement to the other.
The team will officially welcome Justin to the active roster with a letter-of-intent signing ceremony on February 20. He will be throwing out the first pitch at upcoming home games on March 17 against Virginia and April 11 against William and Mary. April 11 will also be designated as Justin Brown Day with free attendance for children and an opportunity for kids to run the bases after the game.
For JMU's players, Justin's journey helps to keep things in perspective. They know that their challenges, whether it be an injury, two feet of snow, lofty expectations, or seemingly endless bus trips, are nothing compared to what Justin Brown has endured.
Third baseman McKinnon Langston added, "Justin's experiences and victories in his life have been an eye-opener for me. We often take the things we have and can do for granted. Justin has made me appreciate life's journeys and he has helped me to be more thankful."
Team manager David Warner has been an instrumental part in forging the relationship between the Diamond Dukes and the Brown family. He summed up the feelings of the entire team by saying, "Justin is a superhero. He is incredibly brave and it is an absolute honor to have him as a part of the JMU baseball family."
THE FOUNDATION: The Friends of Jaclyn Foundation is a non-profit, charitable organization that improves the quality of life for children with pediatric brain tumors and their families. FOJ is all about love, support, and friendship. FOJ matches a child with a college or high school sports team based on geographic location. Once the team and child have been matched, there is a ceremonial adoption. The child is surrounded by 20 or 30 new friends that rally around him or her. A deep bond is formed between the child, the child's family and the sports team. The relationship is a priceless gift. The gift is in the relationship; a child is gaining a loving support network and the team is gaining an insight into the value of life and the power of love. The result of this connection is mutual respect, support, friendship and love.
THE INSPIRATION: Jaclyn Murphy suffered from a malignant brain tumor when she was 10 and quickly became friends with the Northwestern University women's lacrosse program once the group learned of her journey. . The team adopted Jaclyn and she stayed in close contact with them through the last four years, attending many of their games and practices.
The idea of the Friends of Jaclyn came in 2006 when Jaclyn was undergoing treatment at a hospital in New York. During the 10-hour ordeal, she received numerous text messages from the Northwestern players. Another girl undergoing treatment asked Jaclyn who was texting her so much. Jaclyn told her. After the girl left, Jaclyn told her father: "We need to get that girl a team.''
THE MISSION: The Friends of Jaclyn organization is a nationwide movement named after Jaclyn Murphy. The foundation matches mostly college, but some high school athletic programs with children with pediatric brain tumors in order to improve their quality of life. Executive Director Sarah Walsh said 165 children have Friends of Jaclyn relationships with teams.