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Sports Seriously, USA TODAY
When Colton Hall spoke to his dad on the phone, he sensed what he told him was a really big deal.
“Buddy, that’s Megatron!” Travis Hall said when he heard his son was meeting Hall of Fame wide receiver Calvin Johnson.
Soon after, Colton, 9, stood in front of the former NFL star in his hospital room. He came up to about Johnson’s hip.
“Daddy, my heart was beating out of my chest,” Colton told his father, despite not knowing who Megatron was before the encounter.
Still, when his father watched the video, he saw a kid who was straight-faced and confident.
“What brings you here today?” Johnson asked Colton.
“So that I can rub in my brother’s face that I met a football player,” the boy responded, cracking up everyone in the assembled crowd, including Johnson, who nearly doubled over.
Colton’s mom and dad still laugh about the interaction. It was a moment of needed relief for a family that has been through a whirlwind of unwelcome change in recent months.
“I have leukemia, which is cancer for the blood,” Colton, wearing an orange sweatshirt and a mask, told Johnson as the two got a little more serious.
“Yes, sir,” Johnson responded, before the two posed for a picture.
Colton was among 15 children Johnson met at the Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center in Atlanta on Sept. 1. From the moment he arrived, he was stopped in the halls by kids, their parents, doctors and nurses.
Sports can take many forms: Recreation, release and even a career like Johnson’s. For families like the Halls, it can be even more powerful.
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“I haven’t done a hospital visit in maybe 2-3 years,” Johnson told USA TODAY Sports in a recent interview. “I know the impact it can have, so I look forward to putting some smiles on faces and just having a good time talking to the families and even the staff that are out there helping the kids.
“It’s like a reality check for us that don’t have cancer, because when you’re able to hear those stories of the comebacks from those people that are stuck with it, and what they’ve done — (their) perseverance and the ability to keeping pushing and getting back up is definitely something that’s translatable on and off field.”
How sports helped two families move forward
Like Colton, 16-year-old Riley Nutt was diagnosed with leukemia this spring and met Johnson during the same hospital visit.
And like the Halls, the Nutts are a sports family. They juggle games and teams with work schedules, the same as many of us.
Colton loves soccer and his brother, Landon Hall, 12, plays football. Riley’s passion is softball. Her younger sister, Mackenzie Nutt, also 12, plays on a travel hockey team that takes her all over the Southeast.
Both families have felt an an outpouring of support from their local Georgia sports communities, which, like the visit with Johnson at the hospital, helped keep them moving forward.
Their stories paint sports as something that can help heal, as well as provide motivation and inspiration during life’s most difficult times. Sports, after all, carries that eternal hope for all of us that we can again get out there and play.
“Since I stepped on the field, I pretty much fell in love with the way softball is played and just the teammates, the coaches and all that,” Riley Nutt said. “Hopefully after a transplant we’ll be able to work back some of the strength and I can get back to playing softball for one more year.”
Despite not being able to play, Riley was drafted by her softball team, which made her a jersey with her name on it, and her teammates started wearing “Riley Strong” wristbands.
“It’s good to know that some of my old teammates still care and that they miss me,” Riley said.
The family has been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support.
“Honestly we really have not asked for anything other than prayers for her,” Riley’s father, Brian Nutt, said.
Brian grew up in Chicago and moved to Central Wisconsin in 2000, where he quickly became imbued with the religion of the Green Bay Packers. He even postponed the baptism for Mackenzie, his youngest of five children, because he won tickets to go to Lambeau Field.
“I originally told them I couldn’t go because it was Mackenzie’s baptism and the whole family called back and they’re like, ‘You gotta postpone this.’ They said, ‘Even God’s a Packer fan.’ ”
NFL Sundays are a big deal for the Nutts, who, looking for a change and tired of dealing with snow all the time, moved to Georgia in 2019. Brian’s wife, Michelle, cooks and friends come over.
But football is not for everyone.
“It’s not my favorite thing to watch, but I’ll definitely get into a good game,” Riley said.
She much prefers softball, which she started playing during her freshman year in high school for a rec league. She couldn’t play this year after she was diagnosed with AML Leukemia on Mother’s Day. Brian said they have been at the hospital every day except for about five since then while she undergoes chemotherapy.
Brian, a construction manager, is at the hospital Monday through Friday while Michelle takes care of Mackenzie. (Their three oldest children are now adults.) Michelle, a registered nurse and case manager, works from their home in the Atlanta suburb of Woodstock and takes over on weekends for Brian at the hospital, where Riley is awaiting a bone marrow transplant.
“She’s had some complications,” Brian said. “It’s been pushed out to the end of the month and I think it’s gonna be more into September now.
“It’s been kind of a moving target, which is unfortunate because you just want it to be done because it’s like another year … when they start the BMT process, it’s like another whole year of isolation and treatment and everything else, too. It’s pretty crazy.”
Riley’s bone marrow donor is her little sister, Mackenzie, who has hockey practice three days week and games on the weekends.
“I’d say probably 8-9 months out of the year, we’re travelling around the country doing sports,” Brian said. “We have always tried to do hockey thing as a family, but it is all divide and conquer right now. We are constantly split up as a family. Michelle and I do have some pretty amazing hockey family that helps us out a lot as well.”
The hockey team has helped lift the family’s spirits, too. Before she got diagnosed, Riley went to home games and played the music and helped out with the scoreboard and timekeeping. Now the players and parents are regular visitors at the hospital.
“They bring new (board) games for us to try and it’s just really nice,” Riley said.
Colton Hall grew up on soccer when his family lived in South Korea. His father worked for the U.S. Department of the Army Civilian there after retiring from the U.S. military. They moved back to the states at the beginning of Colton’s second-grade year.
Colton likes sports, and he loves soccer so much that, through watching him play it, his parents caught his illness.
“He loves to run and he just has natural talent in playing soccer,” his mother, Jenny Hall, said. “And we started noticing, all of a sudden, in February of this year that when he was running, he wasn’t able to keep up with his teammates … and that was really uncommon ’cause usually he was running as fast, if not faster, than the rest. And then he told us that he didn’t want to play anymore. It hurt.”
Jenny and Travis started taking him to doctors and he would get different diagnoses — an upper respiratory infection, multiple ear infections and a stomach virus.
By the beginning of April, he was getting sick on the bus to school.
“We knew something wasn’t right,” Jenny said. “As a child, he was never sick. Ever.”
Tyler, their oldest son, had been diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes the previous summer and they advocated to have Colton’s blood checked, too. He had it tested on a Tuesday morning in April. Travis, who has worked as a pilot for Delta Airlines for about a year, was in Philadelphia on a trip two days later when he got a call from their doctor in Columbus, Georgia, with their blood results.
The doctor told him it could be leukemia, a diagnosis given to about 4.9 per 100,000 children per year, according to recent numbers from the National Cancer Institute.
“I didn’t know what to do,” Travis said. “I was like freaking out because I was a new hire with Delta but I told the captain; he gave me a number and as soon as I called the duty pilot, they, within an hour, I was back on an airplane going back to Atlanta, where I met Jenny and Colton at the hotel.
“And then we got up the next morning — it was Friday April the 14th — and they pretty much confirmed it for us that he had leukemia.”
Colton soon began treatment for B-Cell Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia and has been undergoing chemotherapy since April. Recently, doctors upped the frequency of his treatments so he’s been staying at Ronald McDonald House — where Riley Nutt will also stay for 3 months after her bone marrow transplant — with his mother to avoid the typical two-hour trip from their home near Columbus, Georgia. His father stays home with his two siblings.
“We didn’t know anything about children’s cancer,” Travis Hall said. “You grow up and you see the TV commercials of the kids and all, and you feel bad, but you just don’t know anything about it until you’re actually in it.
“Me and Jenny, we thought we had three perfectly healthy young men and then, the last year, it just kind of hit us all at once with our oldest being diagnosed with Type 1 and then this happening to Colton. The awareness of both diabetes and children’s cancer is what we want out of it.”
A personal connection to cancer
NFL players visiting a hospital is not uncommon, but for Calvin Johnson, it was personal.
Johnson’s mother, Arica Johnson, fell at the airport several years ago after watching him play in Philadelphia. During the process of checking her out, doctors noticed some abnormal cells and detected pancreatic cancer. She beat it.
“My mom, she led us,” Johnson said. “With everything that she was going through, she was still the one who gave the strength to the rest of the family. So, just watching her relationship, you know, her faith and her attitude, her never-quit, never-let-down attitude, that definitely brought us all together, being closer as a family.
“When you see those people with the mindset and the push, the perseverance, the giving thyself, the struggle, the pain that they have to go through on a daily basis until they’re able to recover and come back, you know, it’s truly inspiring. It’s way more inspiring than the things that we get to do on the football field.”
But it’s the things Johnson has done off the field that inspired Riley and Colton.
When Riley was asked by someone at the hospital if she wanted to meet Johnson, her dad quickly said: “Yes! Send him in!” Riley hadn’t really heard of him, but she quickly became a fan when he walked into her hospital room and talked to her about school and softball.
“He asked a bunch of questions and really got engaged into the conversations that we were having,” she remembered.
Johnson asked Colton if he played the soccer video game, “FIFA.”
“He was just really awesome with Colton,” Jenny Hall said. “He spent time with him. He never made him feel rushed.”
Ending his career at age 30 in 2015 gave Johnson more time to spend with the Calvin Johnson Jr. Foundation, which he founded in 2008 with the focus of trying to help at-risk kids by providing them with financial assistance and a mentorship program. He spends time with them on the football field but tries to use sports as a pathway to a larger, more sustainable goal.
Instead of forcing football on his three sons, he said he is using the intrinsic values of sports, and team sports in particular, to help mold his three sons: Caleb, 9; Calvin III, 5; and Carter, 2.
“So 100% my kids will play multiple sports, team sports, and whether they take it all the way or not, they’ll be better off for the lessons learned during that time,” Johnson said.
Johnson said he hopes to incorporate more hospital visits into his work with his foundation. There are at least two kids who are better off from his visit, and from the powerful lessons of sports.
Steve Borelli, aka Coach Steve, has been an editor and writer with USA TODAY since 1999. He spent 10 years coaching his two sons’ baseball and basketball teams. He and his wife, Colleen, are now sports parents for a high schooler and middle schooler. For his past columns, click here.
Got a question for Coach Steve you want answered in a future column? Email him at email@example.com