Feb. 16, 2017
By Jon Cooper
The Good Word
Sassiness isn’t usually a trait upon which Georgia Tech softball coach Shelly Hoerner looks favorably on a first visit.
Yet that was easy for Hoerner to overlook with Hayden Hudgens.
“Hayden, was kind of sassy in the beginning but I really just took a liking to her,” recalled Hoerner of the newest member of the GT softball family. “I asked her if she wanted a t-shirt. She said, ‘No,’ like very sassy. I was like, ‘Okay.’ So her mom was sitting and just watching her so I went over to her mom and said, ‘Hayden doesn’t want a shirt, but here’s a shirt for Hayden and here’s a shirt for you.’”
Part of what made this sassiness so irresistible was that Hayden Hudgens is four years old and has been in and out of hospitals for the better part of the last 2 ½ years as she’s battling Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (A.L.L.). She was diagnosed in January of 2014, underwent grueling chemotherapy, and was declared cancer-free in April 2016 only to suffer a relapse three months later, forcing her to go through more chemo. On Thursday, she had a bone marrow transplant at St. Jude Hospital in Memphis, Tenn., her home state, which hopefully will lead to her being cancer-free once and for all.
GT softball’s relationship with Hayden goes back to a team visit at Scottish Rite Hospital last December. While the team enjoyed being around all of the kids, they all seemed to take a shine to Hayden.
“Hayden wanted to play ‘Hide and Go Seek’ with all of us,” said junior shortstop Kelsey Chisholm. “She had on these black boots and her little gown and she was running around this little area and her boots were loud hitting the ground and she was cracking up trying to find us. It was really neat to see that even though she was going through all of these treatments and they were taking everything out of her, that she still had all of this energy to be able to play tag with us and she still had THE BIGGEST smile in that room. We all left there and we couldn’t stop talking about how adorable and how cute she was. It’s nice to look at the fact that she’s going through all these things and she can still find a way to be happy.”
“That day, Hayden made such an impression on all of us,” added junior outfielder Draven Sonnon. “She was just bouncing off the walls. She didn’t have a care in the world. She was just being crazy and so outgoing. We just had to have the opportunity to continue and build that relationship with her mom and her. So I think that’s one big thing that drew her to us and us to her.”
On the way home, the team decided to “adopt” Hayden.
This weekend it will be on behalf of its new sister that Georgia Tech will be raising awareness and money for pediatric cancer. The Jackets will wear gold shoe laces as part of Lace Up 4 Pediatric Cancer, part of the umbrella of Go 4 The Goal, which has the mission of “Helping kids with cancer achieve their goals.” She’ll also be their inspiration as they participate in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. The Jackets host Penn State Friday at 3 p.m. and Saturday at 3, then meet Iowa at 5:30 on Saturday and in their weekend finale at 12:30 p.m. on Sunday (Virginia Tech also is in town representing the ACC). All proceeds from this weekend’s Georgia Tech softball clothing sale at the field (checks and cash accepted) go to Lace Up 4 Pediatric Cancer.
Hudgens’ mom, Lauren Stithem, is grateful to Georgia Tech for offering a helping hand.
“Cancer in itself is devastating but when you see an innocent little child having to go through it, it just really tugs on people’s heartstrings,” she said. “Childhood cancer only gets four percent of funding by the government so I think people realize that it needs to be more recognized.”
Hoerner had no problem getting on board.
“The ACC had sent out an email asking if any of the teams in the ACC or the Big Ten would want to get involved in this event,” she said. “It was a no-brainer for me. It was a no-brainer especially after December when we met Hayden. She’s in our softball family. They’re in my own family.
“We’re hoping the weather’s great this weekend so we can have a big crowd and just make people more aware because these children that do go through this are so brave,” she added. “So getting more awareness out to everyone is going to help. I’m sure MANY teams have something similar that they do and I think that’s awesome.”
The team is fired up to play for its newest member and is hoping to be bolstered by good post-op news from St. Jude.
“We’ve had a lot to play for this season,” said junior outfielder Draven Sonnon. “With Sam [Pierannunzi]’s mom battling breast cancer, along with Hayden, it just opens our eyes to [the fact that] it’s not just softball, it’s not just school. I definitely hope that everything goes smoothly for Hayden (Thursday). It will definitely be a big motivation.”
Through it all, Hayden’s bravery has been inspirational.
“She just blows my mind,” said Stithem, who donated her bone marrow for the transplant. “I’ve had to take shots the past few days to ramp up my bone marrow. She’s had to have these shots three or four times and literally doesn’t need pain medication or anything. I can’t even get out of bed. I have a whole new respect for her just getting a tiny, little sample of what she’s had to go through.”
Hoerner was similarly blown away.
“We went up to her room at one point. We were playing Legos with her and she’s getting injected with chemo, with not a care in the world, she just kept playing,” she recalled. “The nurse had to move around trying to inject her — I can’t believe that I was watching this. She continued to smile, to laugh, to play. It was unreal!”
Stithem and Hoerner bonded almost as quickly as Hayden and the team. They found they shared common ground, in being mothers of young daughters — Hoerner’s daughter is three — and softball, as Stithem played D-I softball at Cleveland State then Tennessee Tech, where she was a right-handed pitcher and a left-handed hitter who hit for a good on-base percentage, primarily batting leadoff. They’ve since become Facebook friends and connect daily via Facebook or text.
“This is such a small world,” Hoerner said. “It probably hits a little closer to home as I have a three-year-old and I’m just so blessed that she’s healthy. But so was Hayden for the first couple of years. So anything can happen. The strength that she has to have FOR her daughter is unreal.”
The team offered its full support by making a video for Hayden to boost her spirits as she prepared for the operation.
“We sent her a full team video of all of us speaking together, saying, ‘We love you, Hayden,’” Chisholm said. “We sent that to her so she could have a little motivation going into the treatment and something to give her a smile.”
They’re looking forward to her being healthy enough to come to one of their games. Until then, she has a reminder in the form of a gold Love Your Melon beanie that Sonnon and Chisholm bought for her.
“Love Your Melon is the company that donates hats and money to pediatric cancer,” said Sonnon. “We got her a gold Georgia Tech color. I actually have the same one, which is pretty cool. We just thought it would be awesome just to give her a little token of appreciation and to welcome her to the team.”
“We thought it would be pretty cool to get her one of those. She’s out there probably rockin’ it,” added Chisholm with a laugh. “It was something small but we thought it would definitely make her day.”
In addition to the joy she’s brought them, Hayden has given the Jackets a lesson in perspective.
“We think we have it hard being a student-athlete, it’s just unimaginable what these kids go through at such a young age,” Sonnon said. “It was just incredible to see how they go through their daily lives. Now that we’ve adopted Hayden, I think it’s really awesome to get to play for her. This is a tough time that she’s battling her cancer so I think it’s pretty awesome that we have the opportunity to have that platform this week.”
Hayden and her family will be aware from St. Jude’s, where they’ll be for the next few months as Hayden recovers. They hope to make a family reunion at a Georgia Tech game down the road, but, Lauren admitted she has another trip in mind, one the Jackets will have no trouble waiting on.
“As soon as she gets lines taken out I’m going to take her on the baddest, most awesome vacation ever, then she’s going to start kindergarten,” she said. “It’s really just wherever she wants to go.”
For more on Lace Up 4 Pediatric Cancer please visit http://www.go4thegoal.org/laceup.html
To order your Love Your Melon beanie please visit https://www.loveyourmelon.com/