Justin Banks is only 11, but the Baxter fifth-grader already knows he wants to play professional football someday. Baseball, too.
He and his father, Travis, share a special bond, a love of the game - all games, really - and watch ESPN's SportsCenter together everyday.
Justin Banks, 11, Baxter, smiled as he ran through the "tunnel" created by Brainerd High School football players with his dad, Travis Banks, at Friday's game. The Forestview fifth-grader is battling leukemia and the football players autographed a football for him to show their support. Brainerd Dispatch/Kelly Humphrey » Purchase reprints of this photo.
Justin hopes to one day become a Brainerd High School Warrior, preferably the quarterback. But for now, he's sidelined from participating in all sports.
Justin was diagnosed June 26 with acute lymphoblastic leukemia and has been working hard to beat this disease.
On Friday night, Justin thought he was simply running onto the Warrior field before the game against Moorhead with his fellow Brainerd Youth Athletic Association fourth- and fifth-grade football players. It's a Warrior tradition on BYAA Night.
But Justin's family, friends and the Warriors had a surprise in store for him.
It was announced at Friday's game that the Warriors would be winning for Justin, which they did with a victory over Moorhead.
Justin and his dad ran together onto Adamson Field, leading the way through a sea of blue and white as Warrior players formed a "tunnel" in the end zone, giving them "high fives" as they ran by. When Justin reached the end, Coach Ron Stolski presented him with a football autographed by the entire team. Stolski told the boy that he knew he was going to get through this. Another coach told him that he'll see him on the Warrior team in a few years.
It was a gesture that meant the world to the beaming 11-year-old boy, who lost his hair last month from chemotherapy and felt sick for much of the day Friday because of his medications. He hasn't been able to attend school - this would be his first year attending Forestview Middle School - to try to prevent him from getting sick. And he hasn't been able to play football because he has a port implanted in his chest where he receives his chemotherapy. Instead, he's been helping his dad coach his BYAA football team, which has helped him some, said Justin's mom, Tracy Banks.
Justin played BYAA football last year as a Baxter fourth-grader and had been looking forward to playing this year. His brother, Austin Banks, 10, and his step-brothers, Nick Peterson, 11, and Zach Peterson, 10, also play on the same team that his dad coaches. Justin also has a 5-year-old sister, Caitlyn. His parents are divorced and his step-mom is also named Tracy Banks.
"Last year everyone was bigger than me and I was excited this year to be the biggest guy on the team," said Justin. "Coaching is the next best thing but a lot of times when someone doesn't do it right, I want to go out there and show them."
Justin first started having pain in his shoulder last spring and his family took him to a chiropractor, thinking it was related to him being the pitcher on his Baxter baseball team. When the pain moved down his arm and his arm began to swell, they took him in for tests. A blood test revealed he had leukemia, a devastating diagnosis. Last winter Justin had suffered from back pain, which they now attribute to the leukemia as well, but didn't know it at the time.
Since June, Justin has undergone an aggressive chemotherapy regimen and will continue with weekly chemotherapy for the next six months, which will decrease to monthly chemotherapy treatments around mid-February or March, said his father. Justin and his family are hoping that he'll be able to return to school around that time next spring. He will have to continue his treatments for leukemia for three years to make sure he remains in remission. Doctors have told the family he has an 85 percent chance of remaining cancer-free after his treatments.
It's been a little difficult for Justin to lose his hair. He hasn't made a trip over to Forestview yet this school year because of it. His brother Austin shaved his head in support of his big brother and Justin said all of his siblings are supportive of him.
And many others have been finding ways to support Justin and his family. All BYAA players wear a sticker that reads "JB" and "12" on their helmets, which stands for Justin Banks and his football jersey number. A benefit is planned for Nov. 22, although a location hasn't been determined yet, to help Justin's family with his ongoing medical costs.
BYAA members are selling T-shirts in support of Justin's fight with leukemia, with all proceeds going toward the family. Shirts are available at BYAA games and cost $10 each. Minnesota T's printed the shirts at no charge while the cost of the shirts were paid for through donations from real estate agents throughout the Brainerd lakes area and Minnesota. Travis works as a real estate agent with Weichert Realty.
Tina Anderson, an agent with Positive Realty whose son, Noah, is best friends with Justin, sent an e-mail to members of the Greater Lakes Association of Realtors requesting donations. Within one day, about $3,000 was raised for the shirts.
The shirts read "Whatever It Takes," which is Justin's motto for his cancer fight.
"It's been unbelievable," Travis Banks said of the support by the real estate community. "A lot of them I didn't even know who they are. It's very humbling. It's so nice to know there are so many people who care about him."
Justin has much to look forward to in the years ahead, including playing football, baseball and basketball once his port is removed. He recently learned that he's been granted a wish - a Super big wish - through the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
Justin will be going to the Super Bowl in Dallas in 2011. He's hoping the Minnesota Vikings will be playing in it. He will be given two tickets to the game. He knew immediately who he would take with him.
"My dad," Justin said with a smile. "I want my dad to go."
"We've been talking about it already and it's 1 1/2 years away," Travis said with a laugh.
On Sunday, Justin's friend, Noah Anderson, and his family were taking him to the Vikings game. He was pretty excited. On Oct. 15, the Minnesota Gophers are hosting a mini-camp for children battling cancer like Justin and he hopes he's well enough to go. He's already been able to attend a Minnesota Twins batting practice hosted by Hope Kids, an organization that provides fun activities for children battling cancer and other life-threatening illnesses.
To follow Justin's progress and leave a message of support for him and his family, visit his CaringBridge Web site at www.caringbridge.org/visit/justinbanks.
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