Taylor Dettore, a senior at Neshannock High School, shows off the autographed Evgeni Malkin jersey she received at last night’s Penguins playoff game at Mellon Arena.

When John Challis first entered the hospital to be treated for his liver and lung cancer, a high school student — her blonde hair gone because of her own chemotherapy treatments — walked over to offer encouragement.

“She was a big inspiration for my son,” said Scott Challis, father of the late Freedom High School athlete who touched some of the biggest names in sports during his battle with terminal cancer. “He was really down at the time. She told him, ‘Don’t give up. You can beat this.’ We owe her a lot.”

Things came full circle last night.

The Courage for Life Foundation, which was founded at John’s request to help teens cope with cancer, awarded its first gift — dinner, a hotel stay and a limo ride to the Penguins playoff game, plus two seats on the glass near center ice that the Penguins donated. The recipient was the same young woman who counseled John his first night in the hospital.

“It’s an absolute honor and privilege to be here,” said Taylor Dettore, a cheerleader and volleyball player at Neshannock High School. “I went over to his room that night to talk about the courage to get through and to give him some hope.”

Her cancer in remission for the last two years, the Neshannock senior attended the game with her uncle. Her game experience began with a jump for joy after the Penguins presented her with an autographed Evgeni Malkin throwback jersey and other memorabilia. Iceburgh, the team mascot, visited her at her seats. She was also featured on the scoreboard TV screen.

“John Challis inspired us all with his courage during his battle,” said Tom McMillan, vice president of communications for the Penguins. “We’re honored the foundation chose the Penguins with their first gift of a unique sports experience for such a deserving recipient.”

Taylor took in the game almost a year to the day that John Challis was the guest of the Penguins at a playoff game and sat in Mario Lemieux’s suite.

Last year, on Mother’s Day, he was able to meet Dan Rooney, Ben Roethlisberger and Atlanta Braves pitcher John Smoltz while attending the game.

“What John wanted has come full circle,” said Jody Jaworowski, vice president of the foundation. “Taylor’s a perfect example of fighting for life, of living life to the fullest. To see her here lights up my heart.”

Taylor admitted that it was “a little scary” to find out she had cancer. That’s why she had such empathy for John, who was buried in his No. 11 Freedom jersey when he died nine months ago.

“God, faith and the prayers of so many people got me through,” she said. “You can’t live your life in fear. You have to live life to the fullest. I hope I was able to help him with his battle.”

The John Challis story was first reported 13 months ago by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. National media outlets, including ESPN and the Versus cable network, picked up the story as the young man became the guest of such teams as the Pirates, Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays.

Earlier this week, he was inducted into the WPIAL Hall of Fame and the Courage Award was created in his honor.

Last night, Scott Challis found solace in the fact that Taylor, the first person with cancer to meet his son, became the first cancer patient to have a wish granted by a foundation that his son helped create.

“I know my son is looking down to tell us we did the right thing to make her the first recipient,” he said.

Robert Dvorchak can be reached at bdvorchak@post-gazette.com.
First published on May 7, 2009 at 12:00 am