I was starting my second season as a pitcher at the University of Illinois at Chicago (2017, UIC). It was mid Fall, and I had just woken up at 5 a.m. to meet with the team for weights at 6. I came down from the 3rd floor of my apartment building that was nestled on top of a Chinese restaurant, Jade Court. There was a car parked right in front of the flight of stairs that led to my building. This was abnormal because I lived right on the main road, and usually, there were few cars on the road this early. I noticed a man and a woman sleeping against the windows inside of their car. I hopped on my bike and started for the athletic building across campus and wondered how people could go so far down the wrong path to end up in a situation like that.
Our team workout had ended, and I was headed back to my apartment. It was dimly lit as I rounded the corner to my building about 7:15 a.m. and the car was still unmoved. I saw the car doors were open, and it looked as if they had just gotten out to stretch. I did not know why, but I felt compelled to speak with them. I approached and said “Hey…”. The man immediately cut me off and began apologizing, stating that he would move the car. I told them everything was fine, and I asked the man and woman if everything was okay and if there was anything that I could do to help (thinking something may have been wrong with the car). They opened up saying they had driven in from a neighboring city to bring their kid to Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago. The hospital was about a 10-minute drive from my apartment building on South Racine Street. They continued to tell me how they had run out of funds for hotels and parking near the hospital. They were cutting back in almost every aspect possible. Vienna sausages and Saltine crackers were their meal the night before. I offered the parents to come upstairs and shower and take a moment, but they declined quickly. I went upstairs to drop off my gym bag and grab snacks, but by the time I returned, the car was gone.
The information the man was pouring out to me about his family’s situation was gut-wrenching. They were roughly my parent's age (40-45), which instantly made me imagine my parents and siblings. I know in my heart that my family would drop everything in our life if we heard the word “Cancer” come out of a doctor’s mouth. Job, school, meetings, every issue or stress would become non-existent. Those few minutes put my life into perspective and what truly needs to be valued.
At that moment, something washed over me. A flame had been lit inside me that was burning. It nagged at me throughout the day, throughout my classes, throughout practice. It continued to the point where I called my dad to tell him about the encounter I had. I vented about their struggles and how something had to be done. We then brainstormed over the next few days and finally came to an idea, “Strikeout for Cancer”. For every strikeout, a person can give one dollar. We played with the idea for the next few days and began planning it out. Then it hit us… “Why just baseball players? Why not basketball players? For every 3-pointer made, someone can donate a dollar”. Then it continued to spread even further, “Why not football players?”. The concept constantly grew, and Play for KIDS was born.
Then, a few days later, my dad called early one morning, telling me about a crazy dream that he had about me. He began to paint the picture of the dream in my head. “ESPN cuts over to a smaller Division 1 school up north, UIC. Austin Smith is on the mound and the announcers ask why they are watching a ‘no-name’ kid pitching? They then get information that if Austin Smith strikes out this batter, he would earn one million dollars for Pediatric Cancer.”
Shortly after describing the dream he had, we realized how powerful Play for KIDS could really be. The impact that we could have on the lives of these families could be a difference maker. Less than 4% of federal government total funding for cancer research is dedicated to childhood cancer each year.