OAKLAND, N.J. – Danny Thompson slowly walked up the concrete sidewalk along the hill that leads to Indian Hills High School’s locker-room entrance. His teammates also trudged their way toward relief, click-clacking their way to an air-conditioned sanctuary far from the football field where Thompson and the Braves feverishly practiced days before their first football game of the season.
Danny held his helmet after taking off his pads, revealing a sweat-soaked blue Under Armour shirt that suffocated his shoulders and chest. He is a 6-foot athletic-looking kid who comes from a good family, raised to be one hell of a quarterback and an even better person. The sun’s rays pounded off his face, but he couldn’t stop talking about his latest project with a refreshing zest.
“I knew I had to do something. I heard it in my head. ‘You need to do something.’ So I’m doing this for him.”
Christopher Brandle was four years old when the Boston Red Sox broke The Curse, clinching their first World Series title since 1918 days after thumping the New York Yankees in four straight to erase a three-games-to-none deficit in the 2004 American League Championship Series.
He was too young to vividly remember that part. He always understood, however, what it meant to be a true Yankee fan.
“He loved them,” Danny’s father, Bobby, said with a laugh. “Man, he was the biggest Yankee fan.”
It was something everybody knew. It was just how Brian and Mary Brandle raised him. Even the doctors who administered his chemotherapy sessions got a kick out of it.
Christopher had been diagnosed with Medulloblastoma, a form of brain cancer, in August of 2009, and the only facility that practiced the type of necessary treatment was in Boston. During one of the radiation sessions, a technician who developed a strong bond with Christopher stuck a rub-on tattoo of the Red Sox logo on his skin as a playful joke.
“He thought it was really funny,” Bobby said. “I think it kind of broke the tension.”
The Thompsons – Bobby, his wife Terri, their daughter Alyssa and sons Danny, Ryan and Bobby – all grew very close to the Brandles, who live just minutes away across town in Oakland.
“We were family friends,” Danny said. “They are a fun family who always had barbeques and we just started hanging out with them. At that time, I knew of Chris’s condition and it really hit me. We saw him once every couple of months. The times we saw him at the barbeques, he was dying to play sports outside with us, but he couldn’t. He couldn’t risk it. We just wanted to spend our time wisely whenever we’d hang out with him.”
Christopher loved how Danny and Ryan engaged in football, loved the thought of the two brothers separated by just one grade playing with each other on the same team. Christopher had signed up for pee-wee football, but was diagnosed shortly thereafter, so never got to put on a uniform.
On March 31, 2010, after a long, hard-fought battle with brain cancer, Christopher passed away at age 10. The very next day, the Christopher Brandle Joy of Life Foundation was created; its purpose is to raise money for pediatric brain tumor research, specifically Medulloblastoma. The Foundation may also provide financial assistance to families who have a child battling a brain tumor.
“I was shocked because he was doing really well, then he wasn’t, then he was great again. But then he just passed away and it really hit me,” Danny said softly. “At the funeral I just broke down.”
Added Bobby: “I don’t cry, really. But at the funeral, all of a sudden…”
Christopher was a beloved kid – Danny described him as vibrant – who touched the heart of anyone he came across. His name is still kept alive in the town of Oakland.
But his name is about to be celebrated even more so, in a way the Brandles couldn’t have ever imagined.
During the 2010 high school football season in the Garden State, Northern Highlands Regional High School was wading in the rough waters of North 1 Group 3, trying to keep up with the in-state powerhouses such as Wayne Hills, Ramapo and Old Tappan, while fending off on-the-rise teams such as Paramus.
The Highlanders finished 4-6, but still caused a stir in the community because the team’s running back, Zak Ross-Nash, made plenty of headlines throughout the year. Ross-Nash created the idea for “Rush for the Cure”, a cause which enabled fans to donate money toward St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis for every rushing yard he accumulated. It was a rousing success, one that triggered the interest of Zak’s cousin, Danny Thompson.
“I asked if I could take over when he left (for college), but when I learned of Chris and his foundation, I chose to do this,” Danny said. “(Zak) inspired me to start my own thing. I knew it’d be the perfect opportunity to do something like that and it’d get people involved. I don’t want any other child or human to die from pediatric brain cancer. I don’t want anyone to go through what the people of Oakland went through.”
Danny made up his mind. He was going through with it – he was going to dedicate his junior season to Christopher's memory by constructing a way to complement the already-existing Christopher Brandle Joy of Life Foundation.
He stared at his computer, tapped away at the keyboard and began the groundwork toward bringing a saddened community some hope and happiness.
My name is Danny Thompson and I am a junior at Indian Hills High School. I am reaching out to local businesses and families asking for your support in my effort to raise money for the Christopher Brandle Joy of Life Foundation. This fall I will be the quarterback for the Indian Hills High School football team. To raise money for the foundation, I am starting the Score for the Cure program. You can help me in my effort by pledging money for every yard I pass or run or touchdown the team scores or by simply making a flat dollar donation."
“I thought it was a wonderful idea,” second-year Braves coach Joe Sabella said. “A kid like Danny, it says a lot about his character. He’s taking a lot of pride in this, and it’s great for our program, for our families, and for our town.”
Just weeks into the project, Danny has already received tons of recognition for his massive undertaking.
“A lot of people have been asking me about it,” he said. “It’s definitely opened some eyes. Some classmates want to donate and Mr. and Mrs. Brandle are really excited about it. They’re on my side, and it’s been real good.”
So far, t-shirts were designed with the image of Danny and Christopher holding hands, stickers with the initials ‘CB’ were made for each Indian Hills football player to place on their helmet, and a donation system has been implemented.
“It’s a whole town thing,” said Danny, who was especially excited that even the younger kids in the town’s recreation programs will wear the 'CB' stickers. “Before Chris was diagnosed, he signed up for football, but then couldn’t play, so this will be nice.”
Bobby and Terri Thompson sat on the top row of bleachers overlooking Sabella yelling at his squad in a close huddle at midfield one afternoon. Sporting the same Duke basketball t-shirts, they laughed when asked about Danny and Ryan playing together.
“They want to kill each other a lot,” Bobby smirked.
Ryan is a rising sophomore who started at wide receiver as a ninth-grader. During the times when brotherly love doesn’t take a turn for the worst, the two enjoy the thought of a Thompson-to-Thompson connection.
“It’s very weird, but a lot of fun,” Danny said. “I put a lot of trust in him and it’s a good connection because we’ve been playing together since we were little. We’re very hard on each other. But this is an opportunity for him and the other wide receivers to do well. By having a good season, we can also help the foundation. It’ll help that much more.”
Danny has constantly been trying to find new ways to honor Christopher. The family figured out Christopher’s favorite number was 12, so during road games, Danny plans to trade in his No. 4 home jersey and sport No. 12 instead. On the field, meanwhile, the memory of his dear friend is motivation enough.
“When we had scrimmages, even though they don’t count, I took it as an opportunity to play my best,” Thompson said. “I definitely am very motivated by it. I’m motivated to play better and at the same time find a cure for this horrible cancer.”
Indian Hills opens its season on Friday against Tenafly at home. At kick-off time, when Danny and his teammates are ready to fight for every yard, scratch and claw their way toward the end zone during every possession, wins and losses won't matter as much as the one thing that has brought a community together.
Keep thinking about Christopher.
Contact Brian Fitzsimmons at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @FitzWriter
To donate, contact:
Christopher Brandle Joy of Life Foundation
Score for the Cure
P.O. Box 354
Oakland, NJ 07436