Feb. 6, 2014
DAVIS, Calif. - While the first week of February sees numerous collegiate teams announcing future student-athletes in the form of National Letter of Intent signees, UC Davis women's gymnastics welcomed a different type of Aggie to its program on Wednesday.
Unlike the prospectives who submit their NLI forms, this new addition is not a high school standout but rather a six-year-old girl from Auburn, Calif. named Alyssa Kalb, who the UC Davis gymnastics team has "adopted" through the efforts of the Friends of Jaclyn Foundation.
Founded in 2005, the FOJ holds as its mission to improve the quality of life for children (and their families) who are battling pediatric brain tumors, and to raise awareness of the disease. Its namesake, Jaclyn Murphy, was nine years old when she was diagnosed with medulloblastoma, a form of malignant brain tumor. Jaclyn became an honorary member of the Northwestern women's lacrosse team, which that year won the first of what became seven consecutive NCAA championships. Her story subsequently earned national attention on HBO's Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel. Jaclyn is now a sophomore at Marist College in New York.
According to Dennis Murphy, Jaclyn's father, the genesis of the FOJ Foundation came when his daughter met another patient in the pediatric ward of New York's Memorial Sloan Kettering treatment center. As Dennis recalled in his remarks at Wednesday's adoption ceremony, Jaclyn had been exchanging text messages with the NU lacrosse players. When the other patient was called away for chemotherapy, Jaclyn turned to him and said, "Dad, we've got to get her a team."
Almost a decade later, UC Davis women's gymnastics becomes the newest among hundreds of collegiate and high school teams in 31 different sports to participate in the FOJ's Adopt A Child program. Alyssa, her sister Alexis, and parents Rick and Terry attended the ceremony at the Buehler Alumni & Visitors Center. They later joined the Aggie gymnasts at their afternoon practice, where Alyssa was presented with some UC Davis gear plus her own cubbyhole in the team room.
"This program is about love, support and friendship. That's it. This is what the children lose when they're set back in the hospital and they have to go through treatment," said Murphy. "For Alyssa, Alexis, Rick and Terry to come to a UC Davis gymnastics meet or practice, and to forget about this for an hour, is absolutely priceless. It's life-changing."
Credit for pairing young Alyssa with the Aggies belongs to Austin Heyworth, a former UC Davis quarterback who now serves as a special assistant to California Assembly Speaker John A. Perez. When Greg Campbell, Perez' chief of staff and another former Aggie football player, was diagnosed with a brain tumor last March, Heyworth decided to honor his mentor by identifying a local child who was battling a similar infliction.
Heyworth found Alyssa, diagnosed in June of 2012, and discovered that her favorite sport was gymnastics. He returned to his alma mater and approached head coach John Lavallee.
"I brought this to the team and it took them a half a second to decide that this was the right thing to do," Lavallee said. "This is a very talented gymnastics team, they are very accomplished students, but really they are just amazing individuals. Connecting this back to Greg and Austin, I think this shows what Aggie Pride is all about. We talk about it all the time, but this is it."
The entire team expressed its excitement about taking part in the FOJ program and bringing Alyssa aboard as their newest teammate. "When John told us about this, I was immediately on board," said senior co-captain Anna Shumaker. "Meeting Alyssa was a whirlwind of emotions. She has been through so much that having the opportunity to be a part of her life and make her life better is the coolest thing ever.
"It's an honor and a privilege to take part in this. The fact that they picked our team to have the ability to give back to a program like this and to a little girl like Alyssa -- I just hope that we can give her as much as love and support to get her through any hard time that she has."
Shumaker also signed up for the FOJ's "Guardian Angel" program at the foundation's website (www.friendsofjaclyn.org), through which participants may send messages of support to the children and families battling pediatric cancer.
Alyssa and her family will be the guests of honor at the next UC Davis gymnastics home meet, a dual with Seattle Pacific on February 28. The meet will be renamed to the "Friends Of Jaclyn Awareness Night."
"Each member of the team brings something unique that makes us better as a team," said senior co-captain Madeline Kennedy. "Having Alyssa on our team gives us an extra appreciation for what we get to do everyday. It's a blessing to be a student-athlete at UC Davis. We were reminded of how much fun it is when we watched her play around in the gym.
"Alyssa's parents kept saying how lucky she was to have us, but I think we are just as lucky to have her," said Kennedy.