With several choices of where to take his team over winter break, including Florida, Washington, D.C., and the Bahamas, Pickerington High School Central girls basketball coach Johnathan Hedgepeth chose the Diamond State Classic in Wilmington, Delaware.
"I thought that would be more of a good life experience than having fun in the sun in Florida again," Hedgepeth said, referring to last year's trip to Naples, Florida, for the Naples Holiday Shootout.
Hedgepeth had no idea of the lasting impression the trip to Delaware would have on himself and his team.
Through the Diamond State Classic's partnership with the Andrew McDonough B+ Foundation, which helps raise money for pediatric cancer patients, the Tigers were paired with 9-year-old Danny Feltwell, a survivor of T-cell lymphoblastic lymphoma -- a rare and aggressive form of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma -- from Margate, New Jersey.
Feltwell sat on the bench during Central's 48-45 win over Belmar (New Jersey) St. Rose in the first round Dec. 27, joining in huddles, talking to players and otherwise rooting the Tigers on as they erased a 13-point deficit. Junior guard Maliya Perry's 3-pointer as time expired gave Central the win and sent everybody into celebration, including Feltwell.
"When (we were down) 40-27, he was like 'I'm not worried,'" senior forward Kyla Whitehead said. "He was up there with us slapping hands, jumping off the bench, cheering loudly and huddling with us. He was very active, more active than any other kids out there. We accepted him right away."
But as the game progressed, Feltwell's face began to swell and become red. His father took him to nearby Alfred I. DuPont Hospital for Children, where he had stayed for 17 months five years ago after his initial diagnosis, and scans revealed a tumor larger than his heart that was resting on his superior vena cava, which carries deoxygenated blood from the upper body to the heart, and his bronchial tubes.
Feltwell's cancer had been in remission.
Team captains Grace Luther, Bexley Wallace and Whitehead visited him in the hospital the night he was admitted, before he underwent a 4 1/2-hour surgery. The next night, the entire team visited.
"We got attached to him really fast," said Luther, a senior forward who called Feltwell "a trivia machine" because he had Central players pick a sport for which he devised a trivia question. "I didn't know how it would work at first, but it was great meeting up with him. He was cheering loud and he'd stand up and put three fingers in the air every time somebody would shoot a 3. The coaches would talk to him about the scouting report and he'd predict our scores."
The Tigers put a B+ shirt on Feltwell's seat during their next two games, an 81-58 win over Hockessin (Delaware) Sanford School on Dec. 29 and a 59-47 victory over Santa Ana (California) Mater Dei 59-47 in the championship game Dec. 30.
Central had to catch a bus back home immediately after the final, but sent the championship trophy, a basketball and a net to Feltwell in the hospital.
Less than two weeks later, on Jan. 10, his cancer again was declared to be in remission.
Luther and Whitehead, among other players, have kept in touch with Feltwell via text, and all of them now write "#DANNY" on their wrists for games. Hedgepeth facilitated Facetime sessions with Central graduates Taco Charlton and Roger Lewis, who play in the NFL for the Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants, respectively -- NFC East Division rivals of Feltwell's favorite team, the Philadelphia Eagles.
Central defeated Gahanna 75-68 on Jan. 13 to improve to 6-0 in the OCC-Ohio Division. The Tigers are 14-1 overall after a 58-36 win over North Canton Hoover in the Classic in the Country on Jan. 15 at Berlin Hiland.
The Tigers plan to announce Feltwell's name during their senior night Tuesday, Jan. 23, against Westerville Central, and hope he can sit on the bench with them at least one more time.
"If we make it to (the Division I) state (tournament), he is going to be there," Whitehead said, slightly choking up. "How does this little boy who goes through all of this stuff still be that upbeat and positive? That's crazy to me.
"Before that tournament, we were trying to find our way and lacking a little motivation. He inspired us in a way we never thought we could be inspired. He is our 'why' from now on."