Freedom teenager John Challis dies of cancer
Tuesday, August 19, 2008
As John Challis battled terminal cancer this spring, he
had some goals.
He wanted to graduate from Freedom High School in Beaver
County. Check. That happened in June.
He wanted to take one last cruise with his family.
Check. That happened in mid-June.
He wanted to start a foundation to raise money for other
teenagers with cancer. Check. That got off the ground in
But what John wanted most was to touch people through
his actions and words. Check. That happened countless
John Challis, a teenager who became nationally known the
past few months, died of liver and lung cancer Tuesday
afternoon at his family's home in Freedom Township. He
was only 18, but he passed away with a sense of
In late June, John did an interview from his home. Weak
from the cancer that had spread throughout his body,
John struggled to keep his eyes open. But his message
"Everybody is scared. It's not normal to not be scared,"
John said of his plight. "But I'm not scared as much
now. I have letters and other things from people,
telling me how I've helped so many people in numerous
ways. That makes me feel good."
John had been battling cancer for more than two years,
but his hit in a Freedom baseball game this spring led
to a story about John in the Post-Gazette, which led to
People were inspired by John's story and his words. His
family has two boxes of letters and cards from
well-wishers and people who wrote to let him know they
were inspired by his story. His family also has two
binders filled with hundreds of e-mails from people who
said John had impacted their lives.
One of the e-mails came from a man who said he gave
John's Post-Gazette story to a friend -- and it helped
turn him away from suicide.
"I just want to say thanks to the people for keeping me
going," John said. "All them little cards and stuff I
got, keeps me going day by day. To know I'm going
downhill a little bit, it doesn't bother me because I've
helped so many people. Since I've helped so many people,
this is easier to handle."
"Courage + believe = life" became John's trademark. He
wrote it inside his baseball hat and some of his Freedom
teammates did the same. A baseball glove company sent
John a black glove with "Courage + believe = life"
embossed in the leather along with John's name.
"Life ain't about how many breaths you take. It's what
you do with those breaths," was another one of John's
One of John's most remarkable moments came in April. He
had always loved sports, but because of the cancer, he
couldn't participate as a junior or senior at Freedom,
except for a few plays in the final football game of
Freedom's 2007 season.
John became friends with Freedom baseball coach Steve
Wetzel and Mr. Wetzel asked John to be part of the team.
He hadn't played baseball in a few years, but John
wanted a chance to hit one last time, and Mr. Wetzel
granted the wish, pinch-hitting John in a game against
It couldn't have been scripted any better. John lined a
run-scoring single to right field -- on the first pitch.
Although he had trouble running, John made it to first
base, yelling "I did it. I did it."
That hit helped John's story take off. Over the next few
months, John watched a Penguins playoff game with Mario
Lemieux, was featured on ESPN television, addressed the
Pirates before a game and spent an afternoon with Alex
Rodriguez at the New York Yankee's penthouse in
Manhattan. He was interviewed on national radio stations
and on some stations in other cities. ESPN did a story
on him for its SportsCenter show.
A teenager from a small Western Pennsylvania town, dying
of cancer, had become a national celebrity.
"We would get things [in the mail] almost every day from
people all over the country," said Scott Challis, John's
When John attended a Yankees game a few weeks ago, he
had a press conference, surrounded by more than 20
reporters and photographers.
"People would sometimes call, too, just wanting to talk
to him," his father said. "Some wanted to come meet him.
It was amazing. I guess he touched so many people. We
were in the airport at Newark [N.J.] and people were
coming up to him because they recognized him."
The Pirates brought John to a game in June, gave him a
uniform and let him address the team in the clubhouse.
He told the players to not worry so much about their
statistics and have fun. Mr. Wetzel listened as John
told the Pirates to cherish the game -- and life.
Wetzel said, "He said to them, 'You never know what life
might bring you. You might have a few sniffles and think
it's not a big thing. Then you go to the doctor the next
day and they tell you that you have a 10-pound tumor in
"Some of the Pirates got emotional."
Adam LaRoche took particular interest in John and stayed
in touch with him after his visit. Recently, LaRoche
called John an hour before a Pirates game, just to see
how he was doing.
John also spent some time with the Tampa Bay Rays when
the team was in town to play the Pirates.
"Their manager, Joe Maddon, called and said he saw the
story on John on ESPN and he was just in his hotel room
in tears," Mr. Wetzel said. "He said he just wanted to
But John's favorite moment in the past few months was
the trip to New York for a Yankees game.
"Just because it was with my dad," John said. "It was a
good time because we both got to experience it, and it
felt like something not just for me, but something he
enjoyed as well."
John faced his death with courage, dignity, a never-quit
attitude and an awareness that was hard to fathom.
John's mother, Gina, tells the story of how a nurse
started coming to the family home in June. Gina Challis
said, "The first time she was here, John said, 'I know
why you're here. You're here to make me comfortable in
my last weeks. But it could be more than a few weeks,
Mr. Wetzel became extremely close with John over the
past few years and had asked John to be in his September
"I really can't explain how his story took off, but the
kid was just unbelievable," Mr. Wetzel said. "His
attitude and messages I think changed how some people
looked at their lives. He changed how I went about life.
"I feel like a piece of my heart is gone now. The thing
I'll miss most is his smile. He had a smile that could
light up a room."
When asked a few weeks ago how he would like to be
remembered, John said, "I could see people having some
beers and hopefully remembering how I always tried my
best, no matter what I was doing. That's my message just
for people to always do their best, no matter what
they're doing or how stupid it might seem. And no matter
what, there will always be a reward, no matter how small
Besides his mother and father, John is survived by a
younger sister, Lexie.
Information on funeral arrangements was not yet