The scene that unfolded atop Grace Academy's baseball field Thursday night was equal parts odd, wonderful, tragic, uplifting and extraordinary.
With the opposing squads of Copper Basin and Grace about to face off in a first-round District 5-A tournament game, one of those loser-packs-up-the-bats-and-gloves-for-the-season showdowns, the Golden Eagles' lush green grasss was nevertheless filled with nothing but No. 2 T-shirts on both sides.
Said Grace's game program in explanation of this unique occurrence: "Please join us tonight as we team up to 'Strike Out Cancer' for Copper Basin's Ben Key. In honor of Ben, both teams will be wearing commemorative jerseys with his No. 2 for the first inning."
Turns out the visiting Cougars wore their No. 2s for the whole game, an emotional tribute to the freshman outfielder who had been diagnosed a few days earlier with Ewing's sarcoma, a rare cancer that strikes roughly four in one million young people ages 15 to 19.
"That meant so much," Ben said Friday from T.C. Thompson Children's Hospital, his home for most of the past nine days. "The minute I saw the pictures of all those No. 2 jerseys, I started to feel better."
Added his mother, Melisa: "Oh, my goodness. [Those pictures] brought me to my knees. Such a humbling, touching testimony. We've always been a family that's been better at giving than receiving, so all these gestures and prayers are new to us. But I have complete faith that God is using Ben to make a profound testimony for a revival to begin."
The 15-year-old's problems began close to a month ago. Dull pain in his lower abdomen. Not constant. Not severe. But never far away.
"We first thought it might be a kidney infection," Melisa said. "After those tests came back negative, they thought it might be a groin pull."
Melisa, Ben's father Shawn -- who played football at Copper Basin for Cougars baseball coach Todd Rollins -- Ben and his 11-year-old brother Mason were not particularly worried.
Said Melisa: "Ben's always been as health-conscious a teenager as you'll ever see. He lifted weights. He never drank sodas. He got plenty of sleep."
But while Ben and his teammates were horsing around in the Copper Basin weight room on April 25, he felt something pop in his abdomen area while being hoisted onto the shoulder of close friend Ryan Brooks. Almost instantly the dull pain he'd been experiencing for three weeks grew much sharper.
"Ben told me about it, and I asked him if he wanted to sit out batting practice that afternoon," Rollins recalled. "He said no. But after batting practice he said it was worse. I asked him how much pain he was in on a scale of 1 to 10, and he answered '8.'"
Rollins told the family about the incident that afternoon, but Ben had begun to feel better and the Keys headed to a planned campout at Tellico Plains. But by Saturday morning Ben couldn't get out of bed. A trip to a nearby emergency room revealed that there had been some internal bleeding. The Keys were strongly encouraged to visit T.C. Thompson as soon as possible.
By Saturday evening of a week ago, a cantaloupe-sized tumor was confirmed in Ben's pelvic region, though it had not yet attached itself to any organs. On April 29, the biopsy revealed it was Ewing's sarcoma. Chemotherapy will begin Monday, running three days a week, every other week, for three months. If the tumor has shrunk by then, it will be removed. If not, a longer round of chemo will begin.
"It's localized, not attached to anything," Melisa said. "That's the good thing."
Ben's best friend on the baseball team, second baseman Peyton Sosebee, said, "It's a tough thing. It's affected our whole team, our whole community. But Ben's a tough kid. He'll get through it."
In small population areas such as the Copper Basin, it's never about one kid or one family. The whole community hurts. The whole community also helps. The Keys' church, Farner Presbyterian, sent an iPad so Ben can better keep up with schoolwork during his long hospital stays. The United Community Bank just across the state line in McCaysville, Ga., has set up a fund to help the Keys with their medical expenses.
At Copper Basin High School, most of the student body showed up in Superman T-shirts for "Super Ben" on Friday. They've also sold more than 100 of the No. 2 T-shirts the Cougars wore against Grace with another 200 on the way.
"It's brought our school closer together," said eighth-grader Kendra Swinehart, the initials "BK" written on her right cheek as she cheered for the Cougars on Thursday night. "He's just one of those kids everyone thinks of as a great guy."
He's considered such a great guy that Rollins estimates at least 80 percent of his team has made the 75-minute, one-way drive from the Basin to T.C. Thompson to visit Key, "and some of them have come at least twice. Ben's such a pure soul. He's one of the most humble, honorable kids I've ever taught."
And because Key checked into T.C. Thompson nine days ago, he received a surprise visit from Debby Ryan of Disney Channel's "Jessie" while she was in town for our newspaper's Kidz Expo last Sunday.
"I think that's all most of Ben's friends have wanted to talk about," Melisa said. "They just wanted to know what Debby Ryan was like."
At least six months may pass before we begin to know how Ben's battle will end. Yet his mother is fairly sure how much more of a struggle it might have been if Ben hadn't felt that pop in his pelvis when lifted over the shoulder of his close friend 10 days ago.
"A huge blessing," Melisa said. "We could have gone another month or more before it was detected. And what if the tumor had grown and he'd gotten hit on it during football practice during the summer? The minute I saw Ryan in the hospital, I gave him a big hug and thanked him."
In a perfect world, the Cougars might have beaten Grace's Eagles on Thursday instead of losing 7-0. But in a perfect world Ben never would have gotten sick.
So perhaps it's better to focus on the good -- on Ben's teammates, of whom Rollins said, "They're a pretty close-knit bunch," right before his voice cracked and he added, "I can't say a whole lot without getting upset."
At least a little bit also deserves to be said about Grace baseball coach Jeff Reese and Golden Eagles athletic director Les Compton for their decision to don the No. 2 T-shirts and place a donation box at the stadium's entrance.
As Rollins said, "That's pretty awesome. That speaks so much to their character and what Grace stands for."
What Ben Key most hopes for is to reach his sophomore season 100 percent cancer-free.
"They say it's very curable," he said from his room in the Ronald McDonald House. "I just know everything is going to be OK."
After all, the minute he saw pictures of all those No. 2 jerseys, he already was feeling better.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at email@example.com
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...