In His Last Days, Dying 12-Year-Old Continues to Inspire MTSU Baseball Team
Through seemingly-endless hospital stays, rounds of chemotherapy and bone marrow transplants, 12-year-old Luke Denson's smile has never faltered. Nor has his love for his teammates on the Middle Tennessee State University baseball team.
"Whenever we saw him, he was always in a great mood, no matter what," MTSU catcher Chaz Vesser told the Tennessean. "Literally, no matter what."
Denson, who suffers from Shwachman-Diamond, a rare genetic disorder, became an honorary member of the team during a "signing" ceremony in 2014. His mom Honey Denson said she'd never seen him smile like the day he became a Blue Raider.
Luke and the MTSU team have been a part of each other's lives since coach Jim McGuire received an email from Team IMPACT, a nonprofit that matches children facing chronic illnesses with a nearby team, in 2014. "I didn't really know exactly how it would turn out," McGuire recalled. "There was just so much more to it than I ever really thought it would be."
For the first year and a half, Luke's involvement with the team was constant. He would come to practice, games and team meals. Players would accompany him to lunch at his school, and sometimes he would serve as their bat boy. Other times, he'd just hang out with his teammates in the clubhouse. The players, although they were twice his age, loved him like a little brother.
"There was an instant connection," McGuire told to the Tennessean. "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."
"He knows he's got a whole group of guys that are behind him all the time," Honey said during an interview with MTSU in May.
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Lately, however, it's the Raiders who have been visiting Luke. When he's up to it, that is. Over the past year his health deteriorated and they began sending him cards in the mail and talking to him via Facetime.
So when they recently found out that Luke's health had taken an irreparable turn, they were devastated. "We found out he has progressed to AML (acute myeloid leukemia)," Honey wrote in a Facebook post last Sunday. "There is nothing we can do, and we don't have much time."
The heartbreak felt by the team and the coaching staff was crushing. Men openly wept speaking to the Tennessean about Luke. But they're thankful for the precious, albeit brief, time they had with him. And they're thankful for the perspective he's given them.
"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.
At the moment, Luke is comfortable and receiving excellent care at Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt. After regular conversations with Honey, McGuire keeps the team updated via a group chat.
"He means the world to us so, it's going to be hard," outfielder Phillip Kunsa told the Tennessean. "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."