May 11, 2010
By Jon Cooper
The rhythmic clapping started slowly and steadily built as the match-point serve began.
The serve landed deep in the back of the left service box and was returned. All the while the clapping continued. A couple of volleys later, the forehand shot landed just wide of the right doubles alley.
The audience erupted and broke into the chant of “Nolan! Nolan! Nolan!”
“That’s the first time I’ve ever lost,” said junior Guillermo Gomez, with a smile after shaking hands with his opponent.
Gomez didn’t really mind. After all, it was only a game of Wii, and on this day there really were no losers.
Actually, everybody won on Monday afternoon.
Following its afternoon practice, the Georgia Tech men’s tennis team threw a small party at the Bill Moore Tennis Center to “adopt” seven-year-old Nolan Blake and officially make him a member of the team. The day was coordinated as part of the Friends of Jaclyn Foundation, a group which teams up children with pediatric brain tumors and local sports teams.
The group was initiated in 2005 by then-nine-year-old Jaclyn Murphy, who was diagnosed with a medulloblastoma, a malignant brain tumor in March 2004 and reached out and struck a friendship with the Northwestern University women’s lacrosse team. There are now 34 different schools involved with hundreds of kids. When Georgia Tech got the call to get involved, they jumped at the opportunity.
“The organizers of Friends of Jaclyn had contacted me about a year ago,” said Leah Thomas, Tech’s Director of Total Person Support Services/Sports Dietician. “They were looking specifically for a men’s team. So I sent it to all the male coaches and had several teams that seemed interested.”
According to Thomas, men’s tennis head coach Kenny Thorne was especially enthusiastic. The result was meeting Nolan, who was diagnosed with Anaplastic Medulloblastoma last Oct. 8th.
“We got contacted about Nolan, we presented it to the team and the team was absolutely thrilled to be a part of his life,” said Thorne. “He’s already been an encouragement to us. Hopefully we can be as much of an encouragement to him.”
That encouragement began during the team’s introduction to Blake at the April 17th match against the University of Virginia.
On Monday afternoon, Nolan was presented with an official Georgia Tech tennis jersey, signed by the team, as well as a signed team picture taken at the Virginia match.
Then it was off to the team meeting room, dubbed “The Wii Tennis Room,” by Thorne, where the seven-year-old got to play against members of the team and Coach Thorne. Blake, who got a Wii as a Christmas present, ran the gauntlet, taking the measure of the entire team, which seemed to enjoy the games as much as he did.
“It’s nice that we get to be a part of this and help Nolan out,” said junior Eliot Potvin. “He’s just a great kid. We knew today was going to be a lot of fun, and we wanted to officially welcome him to the team.”
Blake officially became a member of the team when Potvin gave him his formal introduction prior to one of his matches.
“Introducing, the FIVE-time (it got bigger with each of his wins) defending champion, the seven-year-old wonder, ladies and gentlemen, he’s no fake, give us a break, show us some mercy for goodness sake, it’s Nolan Blake!!!”
Nolan smiled, then whipped his opponent.
After Wii, it was time for snacks, then a visit to the Athletic Association offices and a tour of Bobby Dodd Stadium and the athletic facilities.
Although tiring, Nolan found plenty of energy to smile when talking one-on-one with his new teammates and new coaches.
“It just lifts his spirits a lot because he’s been in the hospital,” said his mother, Brittany, who attended with her mother, father, sister and Nolan’s siblings. “It was definitely pleasing to see him get excited and be able to smile. [The tennis team has] been wonderful. It’s really helped Nolan get his mind off everything.
“He’s doing really well,” she added. “He’s been tolerating his treatments really well, he only has two more. We’re getting toward the end.”
Tech’s involvement with Friends of Jaclyn, on the other hand, is just getting started.
“I think teams love the idea but were afraid they couldn’t fulfill the needs once their schedules start up,” said Thomas. “But clearly it’s not a major undertaking. There are several kids in the Atlanta area that they want to match up with teams.”
Thorne pointed out that the lessons he and his team learned transcend sports.
“We talk about perseverance, enduring and all these sports terms that you throw at your guys and they’re absolutely true,” he said. “But it’s a different perspective when you’re looking at what Nolan is persevering through and enduring. So it absolutely helps us to gain perspective on a lot more things than just sports.
“For us, it’s extremely special,” he added. “You count your blessings, you realize how blessed you are. You meet young Nolan and you see everything that he’s gone through and you hope that he can just get out of that situation for a little while and enjoy some time here. So to see him smiling and playing the guys in Wii Tennis is just so special to me. It’s incredible to see him smile and laugh.”
For more information on the Friends of Jaclyn Foundation, click here.