Published September 19, 2013
It was an uncharacteristically sizzling hot day in Southern California, and fans were gathering on a Friday evening to watch the first game of a three-game series between the Boston Red Sox and the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Among the lucky ones to actually go down on the field were the Youseff family from Southern California, escorted onto the diamond by Sarah Narracci, a community relations representative for the Red Sox, and Jeri Wilson, the executive director of the Pediatric Cancer Research Foundation.
Six-year-old Zein Youseff was bouncing around, at times nearly coming out of his skin, because he was about to meet his hero -- Red Sox pitching ace Jon Lester.
Zein and Jon have a common bond. Cancer.
Just as his Major League career was taking hold in 2006, Lester discovered he had non-Hodgkins lymphoma. Lester is now cancer free. But Zein and his family are in the fight of their lives, as Zein is under treatment for neuroblastoma.
When Zein and Lester met near the Red Sox dugout, the pitcher crouched down to meet Zein at eye level, and they had a not-so-private conversation.
Zein -- with all the directness of a kid -- went straight to the point.
"How was the cancer?" he asked. "Was it hard?"
Lester didn't hesitate.
"Was it hard?" Lester repeated. "Yeah, it was hard. But you know -- I think it helps you later, you know? Once it's over, nothing else holds you down.
"Is it hard for you?"
Zein could only nod.
Lester continued, "You're strong. Good."
The pair fist-bumped, and Zein gave his new best friend a blue wrist band that Lester wore the rest of the weekend -- including the next day when he pitched eight strong innings and secured a win for the Sox.
The scene with Lester and the Youseff family in Los Angeles has been repeated at least eight times this year alone. Several patients and families have met Lester, gotten an autograph, and, more importantly, received words of encouragement.
Lester's fight to beat cancer and later win Game 4 of the 2007 World Series is already well known to Boston fans, but it's now starting to take on a national profile.
His diagnosis was a total accident, literally. He had been in a car crash and suffered a back injury -- or at least so he thought. But when his back didn't heal, he finally saw a doctor in Boston, who, after several days of testing, gave the young pitcher the bad news. He had a treatable form of cancer that required six chemotherapy treatments during the off-season. Standing by their young prospect, the Red Sox devised a rehab program where Lester could work his way back to the Major Leagues by gaining strength and stamina in the minor league system.
Ten months after he announced he had cancer, on July 23, 2007, with his parents in the stands, Jon Lester returned to the majors and pitched six strong innings against Cleveland -- getting the win. There wasn't a dry eye in the dugout that night.
Years later, after getting married and having his first child, Hudson, Lester decided it was time to start giving back.
"There's a lot of attention drawn to the prostate cancer, the breast cancer awareness and all that for adults, but there's not a lot for kids, so we really wanted to get something out there that had a little punch at the end and we could get a point across, and try to really raise the awareness of pediatric cancer," Lester said, days after meeting Zein.
Three years ago, Lester partnered with the Pediatric Cancer Research Foundation and established the Never Quit group. There is a yearly fundraiser in Boston near Fenway Park, and the group produced a public service announcement last year.
This year, they've stepped up the energy level and effort. The visits by the patients started in 2012, and by 2013 the visits by the patients to the ballparks to meet Lester have tripled.
"We travel across the country to the parks where Jon is playing, and when he's not pitching that night we bring some kids down to the field on batting practice," said Wilson. "We get them tickets and have a whole night at the stadium. We also give them the Never Quit balls and we just keep reminding the kids to Never Quit."
For the parents, there is a huge impact. Zein Youseff's father, Tamer, after the visit at Dodger stadium, said, "it's beyond encouraging. It's definitely giving him the strength, giving him the momentum, that push that he needs to actually beat cancer. It's the fight of our life. When he sees other adults who have actually gone through this -- gone through it and beat it-- it is beyond motivational. It doesn't get any better than this."
In a day and age where professional athletes are making headlines for the wrong reasons, the effort that Lester is putting forward is refreshing.
Lester doesn't agree with other professional athletes who say they aren't or shouldn't be role models.
"I think that in the position that we're in, I feel like you don't really have that choice," Lester said. "You start to understand yourself ...being a husband first and being a father next, and kind of figuring out where priorities are in your life, kind of understanding what people expect of you, and want of you, and accepting that, and then doing what you can from there."
On that Sunday after the win against the Dodgers and two days after meeting Zein, Lester was still wearing the blue wrist band that the brave little boy had given him. That meeting -- and all the others around the country -- have clearly had an impact on the Red Sox ace.
Lester also revealed that he wrote Zein's name on his glove right next to his son Hudson's name.
"You meet a kid like that and just some of the stuff that he would say ... he's one of those kids that sticks with you," Lester said.
September is National Childhood Cancer Awareness Month.
(This article was written by Fox News Channel's Los Angeles Coordinating Producer Don Fair. Three years before Lester's diagnosis, in a routine blood test, Fair's doctor discovered a non-Hodgkins lymphoma tumor in his spleen. The spleen is gone, and after six chemo treatments and 9 and 1/2 years later, the cancer is gone, too. Interviewing and meeting Jon Lester was a true honor. )