Red and Black Hockey
by David Lee on 05/10/11 at 11:41 PM ET
Tonight, on ESPN’s “investigative journalism” program E:60, there was a feature story about the Charlotte Checkers and their most devoted fan. It’s a story that we all know down here, and I’m glad that ESPN shared it with the rest of the world.
11-year old Zach “Bug” Bennett was born with a neurological disorder called Neurofibromatosis (type I) Incidentally, I also have this disorder, but nowhere near as severely as “Bug” does. Normally, this condition manifests itself as cutaneous lesions, markings or non-cancerous tumors. People with NF1 are much more likely than others to develop brain tumors. In severe cases, it can also affect the spine and/or leg bones. I have lesions on my arms and torso, but nothing else (so far). Zach has had to have dozens of surgeries on his legs including the amputation of both.
His family was living in Albany, and young Zach was a huge fan of the River Rats. Last season, he only missed one home game. Every game, he would be there in his wheelchair and Rats sweater and goalie mask. By the end of the season, the team had caught wind of his situation, and the players were visiting him in the hospital, visiting him at the house, calling him from the road and so on.
Zach was devastated when the Rats moved to Charlotte and became the Checkers. They were giving him inspiration, and when the team was sold, he gave up hope. He gave up on his physical therapy. He got really depressed. No longer able to attend home games, he had to watch them on an internet stream and see them when they were the road team in Albany.
As much as “Bug” missed the players, they missed him too. Brad Herauf, with whom Zach was especially close, came up with a plan that blossomed into something nobody could have ever imagined. He made a deal with Bug that every time the Checkers won, Bug had to his physical therapy, which means practicing walking on his stumps. Every time the Checkers lost, he could have a day off. Bug started practicing even when the Checkers lost.
In January, the team invited Zach and his family down to Charlotte for a couple of games. While in Charlotte, they got a look at the medical facilities, and suddenly there was a new plan. If the family moved to Charlotte, they could make Zach happy by being back with the team that he loved. They could also be closer to the medical care that he needs. His mother also has NF1 and requires some medical attention. They had been making seven-hour drives from Albany to some hospital in Maryland, which was the closest facility that had Neurofibromatosis specialists. Charlotte has that. There was another very good reason for the family to move. And that was the decision that they made.
There was a problem, though. The Bennett’s house in Albany wasn’t selling. They couldn’t move until it did. This is when the Checkers kicked it into an extra gear. They proved that it isn’t just about winning and losing on the ice. They proved that the fans aren’t just dollar signs.
The Checkers started a funds drive and they started donating a portion of ticket sales dollars to the cause. In the end, they raised enough money from fans, donors and the owner’s own pocket to buy a house in Charlotte, renovate it, furnish it, and hand it over to the Bennetts. In an on-ice ceremony during the last week of the regular season, the Checkers presented the keys and turned the entire evening into Zach’s night. I was there that night, and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
Obviously I’m biased. This is my team doing this incredible thing. Also, I know a bit about this disorder, since it runs in my own family. With or without the bias, though, this is an amazing story.
Anyway, here’s the nine-minute clip of the remarkable young man and the incredible generosity of the Checkers:
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David Lee is a restaurant manager with an unused degree in political science. He can be found at Carolina Hurricanes games, Scrabble tournaments and indie-rock shows. Sometimes, all in the same day.