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Running out of innings, but game not yet over.

Struggling with cancer, student inspires county


FREEDOM, Pa. - The 18-year-old dying of cancer gets his wish: a chance to swing a bat maybe one last time in a real baseball game.

He hasn't played in a few years, but he is called on to pinch-hit. His eyes light up at the first pitch, and he puts all of his 5-foot-5, 93-pound frame into one mighty swing, sending a line drive into right field for a single - if he can reach first base. The cancer he has battled for almost two years has spread to his pelvis, making running nearly impossible.

He worries about falling as he hustles down the first-base line. When he gets to the base, he lets out with a yell: "I did it! I did it!"

Safe at first with a hit and an RBI, he is hugged by a crying first-base coach. The pitcher takes off his glove and applauds, and his teammates follow suit. The batter's teammates run onto the field to celebrate.

It sounds like the climax to a heart-tugger of a movie. But there was no producer or film crew at the game between Freedom and Aliquippa High Schools two weeks ago in Beaver County. The scene was as real as the tumors in John Challis' liver and lungs.

Doctors told Challis a few weeks ago that the cancer was winning and that the end was close for the Freedom senior. The disease, which started in his liver, was taking over his lungs.

"They said it could be only two months," Challis said, fighting back tears. "I told my mom I still think I can get two more years."

His story, words, actions, beliefs and courage have become known around Freedom and surrounding areas, bringing people together from other communities and other schools.

Three weeks ago, Freedom baseball coach Steve Wetzel organized "Walk for a Champion" on the high school grounds to raise money for one of Challis' wishes: a last vacation with his mom, dad, and 14-year-old sister, Alexis.

More than 500 people took part in the walkathon, including baseball teams from eight Beaver County high schools and members of Center High School's football team. Challis used to play football, too.

Wetzel, who calls Challis his hero, hoped to raise $6,000. That total was easily surpassed, "and people are still calling with donations," he said. The family has booked a cruise for June.

All of Aliquippa's baseball players wear Challis' No. 11 on their hats. At the walkathon, Aliquippa star athlete Jonathan Baldwin, a University of Pittsburgh football recruit, presented Challis with a ball signed by Pitt players.

After the walk, Challis addressed the crowd.

"He spoke from his heart," Wetzel said. "He said, 'I've got two options. I know I'm going to die, so I can either sit at home and feel sorry, or I could spread my message to everybody to live life to the fullest and help those in need.' After hearing that, I don't know if there were many people not crying."

Challis is philosophical about his condition.

"I used to be afraid, but I'm not afraid of dying now, if that's what you want to know," he said. "Because life ain't about how many breaths you take. It's what you do with those breaths."

It has been almost two years since Challis found out about his cancer. He knows the date like a birthday: June 23, 2006.

He discovered only recently that doctors hadn't expected him to last through that first summer.

"To me, that's already an accomplishment," he said.

In the first few months after the cancer discovery, Challis' father, Scott, would get up in the middle of the night, peek into his son's bedroom, and see him staring at the ceiling.

Through his own thoughts and through his deep Catholic beliefs, Challis said he believed he had "figured it out."

He answers questions with maturity, courage and dignity.

"Sometimes I cry, but people cry for all different kinds of reasons," he said. "Sometimes I just want to know why, but I think I figured that out.

"God wanted me to get sick because he knew I was strong enough to handle it. I'm spreading his word and my message. By doing that, I'm doing what God put me here to do.

"It took me about a half year to figure all that out. Now when I'm able to truly believe it, it makes it easier on me. And when you know other people support what you're thinking, it makes it easier."

Challis also tries to keep complaints to a minimum, but he acknowledged his moments of crying.

"If I'm mad at anything in this, it's that I'm not going to be able to have a son. I'm not going to be able to get married and have my own house," he said, fighting back tears again. "Those are the things I'm mad about. But not dying."