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Penguins honor Beaver County teenager with cancer
Monday, May 12, 2008

John Challis yawned.

"Smiling so much makes me tired," he said.

A Freedom High School athlete dealing with terminal cancer, John couldn't stop grinning during his experiences last night at Mellon Arena. The Beaver County teenager's recent successful at-bat in a varsity baseball game has gained national attention, and last night he was a guest of the Penguins for their National Hockey League playoff game against the Philadelphia Flyers.

The Penguins brought John, his parents and younger sister, Lexie, to the game in a limousine. Bravo restaurant in Ross gave the family dinner before the game. The Penguins took John and his family to Mario Lemieux's suite near the end of the first period. At one point, John was holding court with Lemieux, Steelers chairman Dan Rooney and Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Making them all laugh. They all knew his situation.

"My head is spinning," John said later. "This week has just been incredible and now this. It was like someone dropped me off at the wrong party.

"I felt like one of the kings of the city for a few minutes with those guys. I really can't think of experiencing anything better than this, except maybe going to Rome or meeting God for the first time."

The game was the culmination of a whirlwind week for John, an 18-year-old whose liver and lung cancer is terminal. Since his story appeared in the Post-Gazette, John has been on a national radio show, radio stations in a handful of other cities, as well as local television and radio stations. He was interviewed live on Versus national television during last night's game.

"Everyone read his story in the paper last week and you couldn't help but be moved by it," said Tom McMillan, Penguins vice president. "We just wanted to reach out and maybe do something for him."

In Mr. Lemieux's suite, John also spoke with Atlanta Braves pitcher John Smoltz, in town for his team's series with the Pirates.

"Awesome," John Challis kept saying while looking around the suite.

As John Challis was standing between Mr. Lemieux and Mr. Rooney, he looked at them and said, "Wow. I never thought I'd be talking with two owners of sports teams in the city."

"There's only one missing," Mr. Lemieux said, referring to the Pirates.

John quickly replied, "Yeah, but at least the two winners are here."

On Wednesday, sportscaster Scott Van Pelt, who has a national show on ESPN radio, spent a segment talking about John and his inspiring story. On Friday, John and Freedom baseball coach Steve Wetzel were interviewed on The Dan Patrick Show on Fox national radio.

ESPN SportsCenter is at Freedom for a feature on John that is scheduled to air next Sunday night. ESPN The Magazine interviewed him for a story, and a New York production company followed him around Freedom's prom Friday night for a feature on the Japanese television show "Amazing Stories." John, by the way, was voted Prom King by his classmates.

The Post-Gazette received hundreds of e-mails this week concerning John. Some simply want to wish John well. Some individuals said they have been changed by his story and messages. A man on a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier in Iraq said he would fly a flag over Iraq with John's name on it and then send John the flag.

In the story, John talked about how he was facing his illness with a positive attitude and said, "Life ain't about how many breaths you take. It's what you do with those breaths."

John hadn't played baseball for a few years but got to pinch-hit in a game this year and lined a single on the first pitch.

"It's hard to believe the whole country knows what's going on in my life," John said. "It's pretty cool that I'm actually affecting other people and not just the immediate people around me."

John's father, Scott, said, "It's all been overwhelming. ... Every time he hears he's changed someone's life, it makes him smile. When he smiles, it makes us smile. It's very moving to hear how he has affected people's lives all over the country."

People from all walks of life have contacted the Challis family. John and his family are planning a cruise in June. It's one of his last wishes. After seeing John's story, a local man offered the family his private plane to take them to Orlando, Fla., for the cruise. The man also will fly John and his father to a Boston Red Sox game at Fenway Park.

Then, on Thursday, Florida Marlins pitcher Mark Hendrickson, who is tied for second in wins in the National League, called the Post-Gazette and wanted to speak with John. He also wants to bring John and his family to a weekend series in Philadelphia later this month. He wants John to "hang out" with the team.

"I read the story [on the Internet] and it was so touching and inspiring," Mr. Hendrickson said. "The date he found out he had cancer [June 23, 2006] is my birthday. As an athlete, maybe we can do something for him and his family. But he could help a lot of people, too, with his attitude. We have a lot of young guys on our team who are wide-eyed. His story and being around him could be humbling and good for them."

John, his family and Mr. Wetzl are in the process of setting up a foundation in John's name.

"I just hope people remember my message," John said. "Live life to the best you can every day and be positive."

Mike White can be reached at mwhite@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1975.
First published on May 12, 2008 at 12:00 am