Like most young baseball fans, John “Parker” Staples' room is covered in memorabilia from his favorite team, the Washington Nationals, but unlike most kids, Parker's room is at the University of Virginia Children's Hospital.
John “Parker” Staples, is nine-year old who was diagnosed with Burkitt lymphoma last year. Burkitt is a form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in which cancer starts in immune cells, called B-cells. Recognized as the fastest growing human tumor, Burkitt lymphoma is associated with impaired immunity and is rapidly fatal if left untreated.
For months after his diagnosis, Parker spent time in and out of a hospital room and through the various treatments, going to see his favorite baseball team was constantly on his mind. "I want to go see a Nationals game and like go talk to Bryce Harper, look in the dugout and meet and greet the players," Parker said. "He had kind of given himself the nickname Bryce Parker because he's a huge Bryce Harper fan, and he kind of thought Bryce Parker rhymed with Bryce Harper," said his mother, Jessica Staples. "He would always say he's strong like Bryce Harper." His love for the Nationals and his admiration of Bryce Harper gave Parker an idea: one to help the people who care for him and other children like him.
"Hi everyone I'm Parker, I just wanted to share with you this awesome bracelet that says Bryce ‘Parker’ Strong," Parker said in a video posted to a Facebook page updating about his progress with Burkitt lymphoma. "Bryce Parker Strong" is a combination of his favorite player and the strength Parker showed every day. Parker and his family only expected to sell maybe a handful of bracelets, but the bands took off, raising more than $1,000. Parker raised the money for the University of Virginia Children's Hospital, going toward toys in the playroom and other devices to help other children when receiving treatments and therapies. "It makes me real proud that he could put that together [the bracelets]," Jamie Staples, Parker’s father, said, "He is strong and he deals with this in ways that you hope you could." Parker said, “I struggle sometimes, I feel nauseous sometimes, but I remember these bracelets and I’m strong.”
How Parker became a part of something bigger
On April 16, 2018, University of Virginia head baseball coach Brian O’Connor announced the signing of John “Parker” Staples at a press conference held at Disharoon Park. Parker signed a draft day letter during a press conference while surrounded by the entire University of Virginia Cavaliers baseball team.
“In our program we talk about how sports mirror life and in order to be successful you must understand the importance of having courage and strength during challenging times.” O’Connor said in his opening remarks. “When we heard the story of our newest recruit we definitely knew that we needed for him to be part of our team.”
"We are so excited to have your family a part of ours," said Coach O’Connor, as he presented Parker with his own Cavalier jersey and hat. O'Connor described Parker as just the right type of person who should be part of the Cavaliers.
How Team IMPACT brought everyone together and created a perfect match
Parker Staples and the University of Virginia baseball team were brought together by Team IMPACT, a non-profit organization based in Boston that arranges connections between children with serious illnesses and collegiate athletic teams, forming lifelong bonds and life-changing outcomes. Since 2011, IMPACT has matched more than 1,400 children with athletes at more than five hundred colleges and universities in forty-seven states.
“Some of the leadership of our team talked to us this fall about being engaged in something like this … spearheaded by [junior right-handed pitcher] Chesdin Harrington,” University of Virginia baseball Coach Brian O’Connor said. “We made the connection with Team Impact that we wanted to be involved in the program, and then it was a matter of finding the right match.”
And match, they did. “The boy loves baseball, and he’s from just right over the mountains, so it was a terrific fit,” University of Virginia head baseball coach Brian O’Connor said. Chesdin Harrington said that the team was thankful for the opportunity to take on Staples. “We were fortunate enough to get Parker as a match … and we got some things in gear, got a couple guys to help out and make this thing special for him,” Harrington said.
Parker’s first-ever trip to Disharoon Park was not an easy journey. "I mean there were times that we thought we would never be here," says his mother, Jessica Staples. "He had finished his chemotherapy about three weeks ago [February], his PET scans, everything came back clear. No evidence of disease, so he is on the road to recovery."
Parker has attended team practices and every home game since his signing, though he cannot be in the dugout due to safety concerns. He was fully dressed and in attendance for the Cavaliers’ three-game home series against Clemson at Davenport Field at Disharoon Park recently. “He came into the team huddle after both wins … even though it was 9:30 or 10:00 at night, the boy stayed here,” Coach O’Connor said. “He came out onto the field and called it up for our team when we say one-two-three-Cavs.”
The team is inspired by his spirit
Though he has only been around the team for a short time, Coach O’Connor has noticed Staples’ impact on his team’s players, as well. “When you have a young person like that and has battled adversity … our players enjoy being around him, talking about baseball and just being little kids around him,” O’Connor said. “His spirit, the energy that that young boy has, is pretty impressive.”
Though the University of Virginia Cavaliers baseball season is almost over, Parker has left an indelible mark on the team, and will hopefully continue to do so into the postseason and beyond. "Like coach O'Connor said, there's 34 other guys he's making a huge impact on as well,” says Chesdin Harrington. "Definitely, I feel like we're in a big position where we can make an impact on him as well, but undoubtedly, he's making an impact on every single one of us."
Photo: The Cavalier Daily