A year later, Challis’ legacy lives on
Times Sports Staff
Nearly a year after his death, John Challis introduced Brandon Chamberlain to Terry Francona, Jason Bay and the Boston Red Sox.
Chamberlain, a 2009 Springdale High School graduate who came through heart surgery in October to play baseball as a senior, spent time at Boston’s Fenway Park earlier this month as a guest of the John Challis Courage for Life Foundation.
Challis, a 2008 Freedom graduate, persevered through cancer to play football and baseball as a senior. He died in August 2008. The foundation is his legacy. Among its purposes is to provide opportunities for high school athletes who encounter life-threatening illnesses. Taylor Dettore, a girls’ volleyball player from Neshannock, attended a Penguins playoff game at Mellon Arena in May as a guest of the foundation. Chamberlain’s trip was the foundation’s second, and most ambitious, outreach to young athletes.
“I love baseball,” Chamberlain said. “The Red Sox are one of my favorite teams…and Jason Bay was always my favorite Pirate.” As Challis was dying a year ago, Chamberlain was struggling with his own frightening diagnosis. Physicians discovered that a congenital heart condition, which required surgery when he was 5, was worsening and required surgery. “I was shocked,” he said. “I asked them to push it back until after my senior year, but they said no, we have to do it now.”Chamberlain’s attitude changed when he saw an ESPN report celebrating the pinch-hit single that Challis, wearing his No. 11 jersey, delivered against Aliquippa.
“I thought that if he can fight through everything and come back and play baseball, then I can do it, too,” Chamberlain said.
Surgeons suggested that recovery would take at least six months but Chamberlain, despite a three-week setback by a medicine-induced stomach ulcer, joined his teammates for winter workouts in February and was in the lineup when the season started.
“I could tell I wasn’t fully recovered, but I felt I was strong enough,” he said.
When the season started, Chamberlain was wearing No. 11 to honor Challis. He helped Springdale reach the WPIAL Class A playoffs, and when the season ended, he was presented with the John Challis Courage Award by the WPIAL baseball coaches association.The foundation added a chapter to Chamberlain’s story by sending him, along with parents Bill and Mary Lou Chamberlain, to Fenway. Scott Challis, John’s father, served as their escort.
At Fenway, before a game with the Oakland Athletics, the Chamberlains were led onto the field and introduced to Bay. They were soon joined by American League MVP Dustin Pedroia, catcher Jason Veritek, designated hitter David Ortiz, shortstop Julio Lugo and outfield Jacoby Ellsbury.
Scott Challis brought Francona, the New Brighton graduate and Red Sox manager, to meet the Chamberlains.“(Francona) asked me what I was doing the next day, and I said we would probably see some sights,” Chamberlain recalled. “(Francona) said, I want you to come back here, and he gave us his tickets to the next day’s game.”
The Foundation tickets were about 30 rows behind home plate, according to Chamberlain. The manager’s tickets were about 20 rows behind the plate.“It was a great experience,” Chamberlain said. “It’s been my dream to go to Fenway Park.”