Originally published on Nov. 13
A few days back, Liam Kaufman proffered his parents a school project, a short list detailing, in the spirit of the season, all the things he was thankful for. One line in particular caught his father’s eye, and damn near brought a tear to it:
No. 3: I’m thankful for my football friends
“Which is, basically,” Jim Kaufman explained, “the whole team at Miami.”
The feeling’s mutual. To Liam, the RedHawks are pals, his “football friends.” To Miami’s players and coaches, the 5-year-old with the 10-megawatt smile is their rock. Their rock, their soul and their muse.
“And we always talk about fighting through adversity and we always talk about getting through tough times,” RedHawks coach Chuck Martin said. “We always talk about that in sports. Adversity in sports, it can be really laughable, when you look at the big picture.”
The viral moment came in early June, when Martin and his program “signed” Liam, who’d been diagnosed in February with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL), a cancer of the white blood cells. Partnering with Team IMPACT, which pairs local college athletic programs with children battling critical illnesses, a mock news conference — attended by friends, family players, staffers and media — was scheduled to commemorate the moment.
“When you see Liam, in one day, he went through more than my entire team goes through in a year,” said Martin, whose RedHawks (2-8, 1-5 Mid-American Conference) host Akron (2-3, 4-5) at noon ET in the home finale. “Perspective is a wonderful thing. We get caught up in our busy day, and we’re trying to be successful at something, you lose sight of how good you really have it. And when you see Liam, he gives a good reminder of what toughness is really about.”
Fortunately, they see him often, or as often as health and the fates will allow, a heavenly match borne out of personal hell. Even on slow days — and there’ve been plenty — Liam’s world is football-obsessed: If he isn’t playing with his older brother or his friends at their home in Cincinnati, he’s Googling sports scores or pouring over statistics. When the family was out on a weekend jaunt to a local IKEA recently, Liam started looking at the clock and groaning.
“He said, ‘It’s taking too long,’” Jim recalled. “ ‘I’m missing football. It’s 1:18, I’m missing 18 minutes of football.’”
“He’s going through the Make-A-Wish process right now, and they said, ‘Come up with a couple locations,’” his mother Heather added. “And his three wishes were to go to the Rose Bowl, go to the Super Bowl and go to the Pro Bowl.”
Mom is a Miami alum who worked in the university’s development office; there, she’d gotten to know Jude Killy, now the RedHawks’ deputy athletic director, one of several sets of sympathetic ears. This particular set of dominoes initially started falling in January with the discovery of an ear infection. After three days on antibiotics, Liam’s fever wouldn’t break. A bundle of energy would come home lethargic and suddenly pass out, odd bruises forming up and down both legs.
“And we just went back to the doctors and said, ‘This isn’t right,’” Heather said.
It wasn’t. Blood tests were taken and roughly an hour later, the doctor was back on the phone. Get to a hospital, now. Liam spent the next two months at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, often with a port in the chest, a tap in his spine, and sports on the television above. ALL is a common form of pediatric cancer; they’re all awful, but Liam’s is the type that, statistically, has the lowest odds of returning. In fact, he was in remission eight days after treatment started.
“There was no evidence of leukemia found in his body, which is amazing,” Heather recalled. “(Sometimes) what’s happening (is) the leukemia will go into remission but then actually be hiding in your body. It will be much more difficult to fight when it comes back the second time. And it likes to come back.”
To that end, Liam is less than one year in to a three-and-a-half year preventative program. Which means a puncture in the neck that feeds fluids directly into the spinal cord. More IVs. More chemo. The family has been told there’s less than a 3 percent chance the cancer returns, but they’re not hedging any bets.
“The doctors have been really positive; they say they don’t see any reason why he’s not going to be successful with his treatment,” Heather said. “And a lot of leukemia patients, especially ALL patients, they go to treatment and they live very long lives, and they have children themselves … from Day 1, they’ve been very (positive) with us, so hopefully, it’s all going to work out fine.”
The bulk of the summer was spent battling a virus and undergoing intensive follow-up treatments, chemo that did the job but also did a number on young Liam’s scalp. When the family ran into Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton at a local amusement park, Liam was embarrassed at his almost barren head.
“I know that Andy Dalton knows that I have cancer,” Liam told his parents.
“How does he know that?” Jim asked.
“Because I don’t have hair,” he replied.
“He was noticing,” Jim said, “that he was a little bit different from kids his age.”
A little bit stronger. Wiser. In honor of Child Cancer Awareness month in September, the family launched a fund-raising team, “Team Liam — Tackling Leukemia,” to boost cancer awareness and the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, setting a goal of raising $5,000, mostly through friends and social media.
The RedHawks got word and sent coaches and players down to Cincinnati to walk with the Kaufmans during a “Light The Night” rally. To date, the family has raised more than $13,220. Red lights were held up in honor of cancer patients; white lights were held in honor of survivors; yellow lights were held in memory of those who’d lost the fight.
Most of the lanterns the Kaufmans saw were red and white. Miami colors. Miami kismet.
“They’re amazing,” Martin said. “You talk about inspiring you to want to be a better parent — just watching them and what they’re going through, and how strong they’ve been and how positive they’ve been and it’s pretty awesome. It’s been fun to watch, it’s been fun to get to know them and be around them. It’s not just Liam that inspires you; it’s the whole family, and how they’ve gone through it and how they’ve handled it and how they’ve (endured) is just fantastic.”
But perhaps the most fantastic moment came in the minutes following the RedHawks’ season-opening 26-7 victory over Presbyterian, with Liam and Jim joining the postgame celebration inside the locker room. Martin had his players get down on one knee, collectively, and presented Liam with a game ball.
“We have found that it’s not just about the game, but more like being part of a large, tight-knit family,” Jim said. “The coaches and players have all gone out of their way to make us a part of that family.”