For a rare moment, the focus of the UC Riverside baseball team was not on batting averages, pitch types or the dreams of a successful Big West season, but on a boy with a story. The brotherhood of a scholastic sports team is a unique fraternal dynamic, usually based upon shared experiences. This was different though; all eyes were on the newest member of the locker room and all focus was on the young kid whose experience off the field garners the ultimate respect: A 10-year-old boy named Dylan Cavender, who is suffering from leukemia.
Partnering with the Friends of Jaclyn Foundation, the team held a press conference for Cavender on Tuesday, Feb. 14 in the team locker room during which he was officially “adopted” and added to the roster. During the presser, Cavender was given his own set of UCR baseball gear, including a personalized jersey, a bat and glove and a pair of cleats.
Early on, Cavender and his mother, Heather Rainey, reflected on a moment that replays vividly in the minds of so many who know the boy and his family. His mother replayed the wrenching events that she has recounted tirelessly.
“Our journey started in October of 2015,” shared Rainey. “Dylan (…) he had a growth the size of a golf ball on the side of his neck. We brought him to the doctor and they said, ‘Oh he just has a virus.’ Wherever it (was), they couldn’t find it. Wherever it is, it’s pretty much going to leak to the nearest lymph node, so we put him on antibiotics. This happened three times.”
The atmosphere inside the small locker room was thick and stuffy without ventilation, which was fitting of the palpable emotion that felt like a ton of bricks falling on your shoulders or a boulder on your chest.
“Then around Christmas time that year, I noticed it would not go down (like it usually would with antibiotics), and during Christmas time it was a golf ball again,” Rainey recalled. “So I began feeling around and he had lumps in the back of neck and behind his ear (…) so it was December 27th, 2015 when I took Dylan to the emergency room.”
“I thought it was the 26th?” responded Dylan with the innocent, cheery tone of any other 10-year-old.
The meeting between Cavender and the Highlanders was not some chance coincidence, nor is it a unique situation. Unions like this one are the proud handywork of Denis Murphy and his Friends of Jaclyn Foundation, which uses love and support to improve the overall quality of life for children battling pediatric brain tumors and other childhood cancers.
“It’s a pleasure and a privilege to be here. I don’t take these adoptions lightly. This is a really unique adoption,” Murphy explained.
This is the second time that Friends of Jaclyn have worked with the Highlanders, a fact that did not escape Murphy’s attention.
“I just want to thank the UCR women’s volleyball team,” expressed Murphy. “They adopted a little girl Cynthia who earned her wings. Unfortunately, that’s how insidious (cancer) is, but they gave her the opportunity to be on a team just like you guys are giving (Dylan) the opportunity to be on the team.”
Cavender received his own personal set of UCR baseball gear, along with his own locker, right in the center of the room. For that day, it was symbolic of rising above the experiences that created the strongest kid in the room.
“You aren’t on freshman row,” Head Baseball Coach Troy Percival joked.
Covering what Percival called “the best hair in the room,” Cavender carefully fitted the deluxe size batting helmet onto his head with a smile, only for it to slump onto his head and cover his eyes. He turned to pick up a brand new Adidas bat from his locker and slung it over his shoulder, turning to the camera for the obligatory photo, his facial expression not once shifting from the grin that makes these events visibly worthwhile. Laughter echoed through the small space of the locker room.
“To give him an opportunity to come here with his sister (Kaylee), can’t forget the siblings, and his mom to forget about the beast for an hour or two is really priceless,” Murphy said.
The commitment and emotional dedication that Murphy has to these kids is on display when he speaks, and that emotion resonated throughout the room during his speech.
“You guys are so blessed to have leadership here that is exposing you to being socially aware. To be socially aware, it gives you a competitive advantage. I’m around all these schools, I’m around coaches, motivating and X’s and O’s and all that. But the difference between a coach and a leader is that a leader instills qualities in young men and women to go make a difference. Well, the (women’s volleyball team) have already checked their box. They changed Cynthia’s (Cynthia Aguirre, who the team adopted in 2014) life, and that’s something that they can go out and share anywhere they go, and you guys can now check it off, because you changed this family’s life, and that’s powerful.”
He turned to Associate Athletics Director John Maxwell and gave him an impassioned thanks. The words getting caught in his throat, Murphy tells him, “You don’t realize…you’re going to change a lot of kids lives today.”
The players were not to be left out of the festivities, as they began asking Cavender questions in a mock press conference within the press conference. A conference-ception, if you will.
“We all know that you’re a great athlete, but how are your ping pong skills?” a player asked.
“Good,” Cavender said sheepishly. Laughter reverberated throughout the room once more.
“What’s your favorite MLB baseball team?” another shouted.
“Angels,” Cavender once again replied, a grin beaming on his face.
“That’s what I’m talkin’ (sic) about,” Percival replied as the locker room burst in applause. Percival, a former major league pitcher, was drafted by the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in 1990 — then the California Angels — and had a nine-year tenure with the team that included a World Series win in 2002.
Following the mini-conference, Cavender went out to the field of the Riverside Sports Complex to field balls and practice with the squad as an acting member of the team. But Cavender isn’t just a new teammate trying to learn the ropes. His continuing fight has impact beyond the field, tying the brother of a locker room together beyond the game of baseball.