MURFREESBORO, Tenn. — There were two guarantees: Luke Denson would be smiling, and he would be wearing his MTSU baseball cap.
There were monthlong stays in the hospital, rounds of chemotherapy and bone marrow transplants. There was pain, procedures and heartache. But the 12-year-old proved a master of disguise, masking all the debilitating offshoots of Shwachman-Diamond syndrome with an unwavering spirit that continually inspired a group of men nearly twice his age.
“Whenever we saw him, he was always in a great mood, no matter what,” MTSU catcher Chaz Vesser said. “Literally, no matter what.”
Luke and MTSU baseball’s connection is now three years strong, which made the most recent news about his deteriorating health all the more excruciating to swallow for the Blue Raiders.
Luke, who in 2014 became an honorary member of the MTSU baseball team during a “signing” ceremony, has incurred a significant setback.
“We found out he has progressed to AML (acute myeloid leukemia),” his mother, Honey Denson, wrote in a Facebook post last Sunday. “There is nothing we can do, and we don’t have much time.”
For a team that has long considered Luke as one of its own, the heartbreak is overwhelming. MTSU players and coaches fight through tears to explain their feelings for Luke, how much they care for him, how much he means to them.
But then the tears are wiped away. Quivering voices give way to articulation of the strongest conviction. MTSU players and coaches have drawn something positive from this unfairness, not by digging and scraping for a silver lining, but by accepting a gift given to them by Luke, something as priceless as it was unexpected.
“You realize that there’s no excuses,” Vesser said. “You can’t make up any excuses when you’ve got a kid like that, who’s gone through as much as he has and is still willing to make the best of every one of his opportunities and just never stops smiling.
“We all love Luke, I can speak for the rest of the guys and coaches on that, and even if he passes, he’s never going to leave our minds.”
From the outset, the goal was to do something nice for a young boy in an extremely difficult situation.
In 2014, MTSU coach Jim McGuire received an email from Team IMPACT, a nonprofit that matches children facing chronic illnesses with a nearby team.
That’s how McGuire first learned of then 9-year-old Luke and his Shwachman-Diamond syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that affects fewer than 400 worldwide. McGuire consulted his team about teaming up with Luke, and everyone agreed: This was an opportunity they had to pounce on.
“I didn’t really know exactly how it would turn out,” McGuire said. “There was just so much more to it than I ever really thought it would be.”
Luke signed with MTSU in November 2014, and from there, “it just took off,” McGuire said.
For the first year and a half, with Luke’s condition holding steady, his involvement was constant. He would come to practice, games and team meals. Players would accompany him to lunch at his elementary school. Occasionally, he would serve as MTSU’s bat boy. Sometimes, he’d just hang out with players in the clubhouse.
“There was an instant connection,” McGuire said. “The players just kind of drew to him. They have a lot in common, a lot of things they like to talk about, from Pokemon to just being a kid and having fun.”
In the last year and a half, though, things have changed with Luke’s deteriorating condition. Players and coaches instead went to Luke, if he was up to it. If not, they would send him cards in the mail. They would send him videos or FaceTime him. Again, there were two constants: Luke’s smile and his MTSU baseball cap.
So by every measure, MTSU baseball hit its intended goal.
“This helps him feel like he’s part of a team,” Honey Denson said during an interview with MTSU in May. “He knows he’s got a whole group of guys that are behind him all the time.”
But, as McGuire said, much more came of the connection than initially expected.
“Their family says, ‘Thank you,’ ” outfielder Phillip Kunsa said, “but we say, ‘Well, no, thank you for bringing Luke to us. We’re so thankful for Luke being in our lives.’ When he signed his letter of intent (in November 2014) and we had everybody there for him, he had the biggest grin on his face. His mom told us he hadn’t really smiled like that in a while. For us to be able to do that for him, it means the world.
“He means the world to us so, it’s going to be hard. If God does take him in the next week, two weeks, month, a year from now, obviously we’re going to do something special for him because he means so much to us. All I can recall is his smile. He’s always smiling, always caring, and he’s a great teammate. That’s the best I can put it.”
Kunsa, now a senior, fought for playing time early in his MTSU career. He liked to call himself a “plug-n-chug” player.
“They basically put me in certain spots for a starter, hoping that there’s no drop-off,” Kunsa said.
It’s not the easiest role for a ballplayer, and one that Kunsa has been hoping to transcend.
“I felt that Luke always seemed to come around when I felt there was no hope,” said Kunsa, who wrote an 800-word article about Luke in The Raiders’ Tribune. “Luke would show up, we would hang out in the dugout, and I think that’s what reinspired me to keep pushing, to keep going.”
In that respect, Luke’s role affected most everybody on MTSU’s baseball team.
“When things aren’t going good, first thing I think about is Luke,” Vesser said. “I just think, he’s sitting there fighting. He spent over a hundred days in a row in a hospital, and he’s still smiling. So you’ve just got to keep pushing, like Luke would.”
The MTSU baseball team has a group chat, where McGuire, after regular conversations with Honey Denson, has continually provided updates on Luke’s status over the past three years.
With the most recent news, though, McGuire felt inclined to contact each player individually. It was not easy.
“It’s been pretty difficult for me to deal with it just because I think about him a lot, too,” McGuire said. “He’s been a special part of my life for these last three years and it’s something that I’ll take with me forever.”
McGuire said MTSU baseball might one day look into “signing” another young child the way it did with Luke. But not anytime soon.
“It will be a while for sure,” McGuire said, “because there’s been a tremendous upside and so many ups, but we’ve been through the downs with him as well. That brings you down a little bit, too. But you’ve just got to push through it and fight through it, but he’s meant the world to me.”
McGuire said the team’s relationship will remain strong with the Denson family, no matter what.
“I always include his family,” McGuire said, “because they’re unbelievably upbeat and with everything that they’ve had going on and the amount of time that he’s spent in the hospital, it’s just been a very difficult situation for them, but they’ve definitely made the most of it.”
As for Luke, “he is comfortable and is receiving excellent care (at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt),” Honey Denson wrote in her Facebook post. “Luke has faith in God and accepted Jesus into his heart. He knows that this isn’t the end but a new beginning. He has hope even in his sadness and anger.”
No matter what happens, he will remain in the hearts and minds of the people he has impacted at MTSU — and not just in a purely spiritual sense.
In the middle of last season, Vesser proposed an idea for wristbands dedicated to Luke, just so the Blue Raiders would have a tangible reminder of him wherever they go. The wristbands read “Luke’s Lightning, Strike Together.” Vesser made sure he took three extras, just in case.
“There’s no telling if I’ll break one in a game or whatever else,” Vesser said. “If one breaks, I’ve got three extras over by my bed. If something happens to it, I’ve got a couple of spares.”
It’s a reminder of Luke’s unbreakable spirit, his impact and, of course, his smile.
“There’s no way,” Vesser said, “I ever take it off.”
Information from: The Daily News Journal, http://www.dnj.com