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December 1, 2010

Finding strength in Kyle

On the surface, it appears to be just another ordinary Sunday evening inside the Mesa home of the Oden family.

Three-year-old Kyle is practicing tackling techniques on his father, Bennett, who has shared with his son a love of football since Kyle was old enough to crawl.

Bennett grew up in Texas, the kind of place where allegiance to a football entity falls just a tick below God and family. Bennett bleeds Aggie Maroon, a staunch supporter of Texas A&M. A pair of alternating A&M flags hang over the walkway to the front door. A maroon one when the team is at home. A white one when it hits the road. That program loyalty even found its way into his son's name.

When Bennett and his wife, Brittney, agreed to name their son Kyle, Bennett excitedly told her that their boy would share a name with the Aggies' home gridiron, Kyle Field.

"He goes around telling everyone his son is named after Texas A&M's football field," Brittney says. "That's dad story. We let him stick with that. It makes him happy."

But on this night, father and son are wearing a slightly different shade of maroon, one accentuated by gold. They are the same colors being worn by the four guys knocking on the door.

"Sparky friends are here!" Kyle shouts excitedly as he races through the living room, past the kitchen and up to the front door. He opens it reveal four of his newest friends: ASU football players Brock Osweiler, Thomas Weber, Cameron Kastl and LeQuan Lewis. They make their way into the living room -- Osweiler ducks to miss an overhang -- where Kyle's unbridled enthusiasm quickly produces Grand Canyon-wide smiles on the faces of the football players.

The ensuing activities are nothing complex. The players attempt to throw plastic balls laced with velcro and make them stick to Kyle's clothes, and the 3-year-old returns the favor. But there is beauty in the simplicity. Brittney and Bennett look on with pride, reveling in the bond their son has created with the players they count themselves lucky to have met.

The joy, though, is hardly one-sided. The players draw as much, maybe more, from these moments as Kyle does. They draw motivation from a young boy who battled through the horrors of chemotherapy with courage. They draw inspiration from a child who hasn't let the blindness in his right eye caused by a tumor temper his zest for life. Put simply, the Sun Devils draw strength from Kyle.

At first, Brittney Oden thought her son was suffering from a slight case of lazy eye.

"I thought maybe he'll get a cute little pair of glasses and we'll be good," she said. But when she noticed that his right eye was slightly protruded, she took Kyle to the doctor. When the physician dilated Kyle's eyes, he noticed hemorrhaging and ordered a CAT scan. Kyle's base diagnosis was neurofibromatosis, commonly referred to as NF, a genetically inherited disorder in which the nerve tissue grows tumors, many of which are often harmless. The news didn't come as much of surprise. Bennett also has the disorder, and when Kyle was born with "cafe' au lait" spots -- pigmented birthmarks often associated with the disorder -- the Odens knew there was a great likelihood their son would have NF. But what came next the Odens weren't expecting, news no parent can prepare for.

Kyle had a tumor on his optical nerve, which meant, in other words, pediatric cancer. From that point, Brittney says, everything moved at warp speed. Several weeks after the diagnosis, Kyle was having surgery to implant a port, through which doctors would administer chemotherapy. A week after that, Kyle was at the hospital for his first chemo treatment right around the time of second birthday.

"In about one-and-a-half to two-month's time, were from 'OK, he just has a lazy eye' to 'We're going to weekly chemo,'" Brittney says. "In the beginning I think I didn't really have time to reflect on it or maybe it was shock."

The initial stages of the chemo treatments were nothing short of a nightmare for the Odens. When Kyle went in for his first appointment, doctors were unable to access his port. Brittney and Bennett were forced to hold their son, writhing in fear, down while the doctors tried to position him in a way that would the chemo to be administered. The mother struggled to hold back her tears.

"It was hard. Really hard," Brittney says. "We had to hold him down and he was screaming. I was trying not to cry. I was thinking, 'If we have to go through 13 months of this, there's no way.'"

A couple months later, Kyle had pneumonia and had to be rushed to the emergency room at Phoenix Children's Hosptial with a fever that spiked at 103 degrees. He later came down with a double ear infection.

"Every time he would get a little warm or get sick, we'd always be paranoid," Brittney says. "As a mom, you just try to hold it together."

The Odens clung to their faith. They turned to friends and family for support.

As time went on, the Odens began to develop a sense of normalcy with the process. Brittney credits the staff at the Phoenix Children's Hospital for "becoming like a family" in the way it supported them through the chemo, which took place almost every week for more than a year. But mostly, Brittney and her husband marveled at their boy. His demeanor never changed. He still had his wrestling matches with dad. He still waved at passengers in cars at stoplights.

"He's very social," Brittney says. "He gets that from his dad."

One of the people Kyle became most social with was a nurse named Annie. Kyle became so familiar with her routine during hospital visits, that would take pride in telling Annie the part of the procedure would be employed next before Annie did it. The nurse became equally fond Kyle and his family and introduced them to an organization, Friends of Jaclyn, that would soon open the door to a memorable experience.

When the Oden family first paired up with Friends of Jaclyn, a non-profit foundation that matches children with pediatric brain tumors like Kyle's with high school or college sports teams in their geographic area, they weren't sure what to expect. Brittney looked forward to the possibility of Kyle getting to interact with a group of high school athletes in the area.

"Then we got an e-mail that said how do you feel about the ASU Sun Devils?" Brittney says. "We were like holy smokes!"

Kyle was first introduced to the team in April before the annual spring game. He made his way into the locker room, where his own locker was waiting. As soon as he arrived, he was met by cheers and applause by the Sun Devil players, and he was immediately engulfed by a swarm of massive bodies.

"I looked at Bennett and said, "Where'd he go," Brittney recalls. "He just disappeared into a sea of giant football players."

By the time his parents found him, Kyle was already wearing a brand new jersey with the Number 1 and his name across the back, surrounded by his locker by dozens of new friends. But the biggest introduction came when the players took Kyle to the field, where he was greeted by a certain pitchfork-wielding mascot.

"He just ran across the field and gave Sparky the biggest hug," Brittney says. Since then, everything has been Sparky. Sun Devil Stadium is "Sparky's castle." The players are Kyle's "Sparky's friends."

Brittney and Bennett marvel at how quickly how genuine these "Sparky friendships" have become. The visits come frequently, the e-mails even more so. Kyle has learned many of the players by name. To his mother's amazement, one afternoon, out of the blue, Kyle asked, "Where's Dan?" referring to offensive tackle Dan Knapp, a regular visitor to the Oden home. "I miss him."

"He just really loves all these guys," Brittney said. "Their friendship has meant a lot."

And not just to Kyle. As he spoke about approaching his final home game last week, Weber was quick to articulate what he thought the moment would be like. When asked about Oden, there was a long pause, the look of admiration on his face telling more than his words could.

"Man, I'm looking for the right word," he says finally. "It's motivating. He has incredible energy, and every time we go over there it's the same way. With Kyle it's just amazing to see with everything he's gone through that he always has a smile on his face. It teaches you that people can go through hardships and still come out on top.

"For us to see him out there having fun and just seeing how much life he has, it's been great," Weber says.

Adds Osweiler: "The first time we were over (at the Oden's) with about 10 guys throwing the ball around and the little guy never got tired."

Lewis says he relishes every opportunity he gets to spend time with Kyle, and he also enjoys talking football with Bennett. "Brittney probably gets tired of me talking sports," Bennet cracks, "so it's fun to be able to talk to these guys."

Lewis and teammate Ryan Skorupka visited Kyle in the hospital during his final chemo treatment early in the season and played games with him in the children's ward. What they did next warmed Brittney's heart.

"Once they got done with Kyle, they went and visited all the other kids in the clinic that day," Brittney says. "As a mom in the clinic, you're in there for hours sometimes and it just goes by slow. Any little diversions are awesome, so I thought that was great that they not only took time to come see Kyle, but they also spent time with all the other kids in the clinic. That meant a lot to me."

Kyle is now finished with chemo. He carries a scar on his shoulders where he had surgeries to insert and remove the port. The prognosis now, Brittney says, is good. The tumor has been stabilized. With NF, a disorder that has no cure, it is often a waiting game, Brittney says. Kyle's latest MRI -- he will have one every three months for the next year -- revealed no further growth of his tumor and no appearance of any new ones. The motto of Friends of Jaclyn is "Live in the moment … Play in the moment," and a few minutes around Kyle make it clear that the 3-year-old is doing just that.

When ASU takes the field against UA Thursday in the final game of the season, some players are likely to think of Kyle for inspiration, finding strength in his perpetually positive demeanor. But don't feel bad, Sun Devils, if Kyle isn't sitting in front of the TV to watch you play. He has too much energy to expend. He has too much life to live.


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