- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 3, 2015

MISHAWAKA, Ind. (AP) - Mike Lightfoot scanned the faces in the Bethel College men’s basketball locker room, eyes pausing on a figure several heads shorter than anyone else on his roster.

Brady Burkhart, a bespectacled 8-year-old from Elkhart, leaned forward, awaiting the 28-year head coach’s pre-game speech.

“Are you Aziz?” Lightfoot playfully asked Brady, who was sitting in the locker of Bethel’s towering center, Aziz Thiandoum. “Funny, you don’t look 6-foot-10.”

Minutes later, Brady was scrawling his name to a national letter of intent before Bethel’s tipoff against Spring Arbor University Saturday. In front of cameras and a cheering home crowd, he became the newest member of the Pilots men’s basketball team.

In spring 2010, Brady was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, the most common type of blood cancer among children. He went into remission 30 days later, but due to having a “delayed responder” type of ALL, he needed extra treatment.

Over the course of three-and-a-half years, Brady underwent 100 rounds of chemo, 23 spinal taps and “countless” blood transfusions. He finished his treatment in October 2013 and got his chemo port taken out in fall 2014, The Elkhart Truth reported (http://bit.ly/1Ak7mCR ).

Half of Brady’s life has revolved around sickness and hospital stays, but his mother says the worst part for her son was his limitations in the sports he loves.

“In his mind, he’s a normal kid,” Farrah Burkhart said. “His physical limitations, that’s what gets to him. He knows he can do it, and he is really just a gifted athlete even after all he’s been through.”

Brady’s legs are often sore, sometimes making it difficult to walk. He gets headaches, his joints and pressure points hurt, he sometimes loses feeling in his hands. The pain changes daily.

In an attempt to lift Brady’s spirits, the hospital connected Farrah and her husband, Brad, with Team IMPACT, a nonprofit organization aimed at improving the life of children battling life-threatening and chronic illnesses through the power of team. The goal was to get Brady connected with a college basketball team. He immediately hoped for Bethel, Farrah’s alma mater and the place where he attended summer camp.

When Farrah received the call from Team IMPACT that Brady was matched with Bethel, her son did somersaults. “It’s my team! It’s my team!” he cheered.

“‘Perma-grin’ is what we called it,” Farrah said. “He was so excited he slept in his jersey that night - the one from the basketball camp.”

Within minutes of Brady’s arrival Saturday, he was locked in a one-on-one game against Pilot sophomore guard Clay Yeo.

“He told me ‘I’m not going to take it easy on you,’” Brady said. “I thought, ‘I have to battle my way to the basket.’”

Brady called the experience “breathtaking” as he recounted shaking Lightfoot’s hand and seeing all the players in the locker room.

“It was really fun seeing all the players and seeing them be so nice,” Brady said. “When they walked in, they wanted me to shake their hand, and Coach Lightfoot asked me to make a play.”

He drafted a play that involved a pair of screens to get freshman guard Chris Mitchell open in the paint. Bethel ran the play, and Mitchell scored as designed.

Brady danced for his new teammates to get them fired up and led them onto the court before the game. When the time came, he signed his letter of intent during a half-court ceremony. The No. 7 Pilots made short work of Spring Arbor, 70-50, as Brady watched from the bench.

Brady had so much fun that he already started talking about watching Bethel’s upcoming game against No. 13 Saint Francis on Tuesday, Feb. 3.

Lightfoot plans on keeping Brady on the team for years to come. His players have a lot to learn from Brady, he said. It’s a mutually beneficial partnership.

“This is a way that our young men can understand that parenting is a challenge and not everything is going to be perfect,” he said. “This gives our guys an appreciation of what Brady’s parents are going through. They can put themselves in those shoes and say, ‘This could be me some day.’ This is a life lesson we can teach our guys.”

For the Burkharts, Brady’s involvement with the Pilots gives him the long-term emotional support he’ll need as life slowly returns to normal.

“The emotional support is part of the journey,” Farrah said. “For him to be surrounded by the talent that is in that room and these guys are sharing their talent with him is awesome.”

___

Information from: The Elkhart Truth, http://www.elkharttruth.com

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