ESTERO — Grinning 6-foot-5-inch Florida Gulf Coast University sophomore forward Ed Rolax offered a long arm and huge hand to 9-year-old Patrick Chester Jr., helping “PJ” keep up during the Eagles’ Blue-Green scrimmage in Alico Arena early last month.
PJ, a Buckingham Elementary student who suffered brain injuries in an automobile accident two years ago that led to mental incapacitation and continues to cause seizures, was on the first legs of his “Basketball Star” journey, compliments of FGCU and the Make-A-Wish Foundation of Southern Florida. The non-profit organization works to fulfill the dreams of terminally ill and children who suffer from life-threatening illness and injury.
“(Rolax) made all of it so easy for Patrick,” said Connie Martin, Senior Events Coordinator for Make-A-Wish’s Southern Florida branch who was on-hand. “(Rolax) is an amazing, amazing boy. He really bonded with him. It was just beautiful.”
The Make-A-Wish Foundation provided a limo ride to and from Alico Arena, where the Eagles gave PJ — who they refer to as “Captain PJ” — an autographed basketball, a practice jersey with his name on it and matching shorts that almost swallowed him. He was announced along with the rest of the team, then actually made his first shot during the scrimmage as Chi Omega sorority sisters cheered and waved signs they made for PJ.
“I don’t think anybody stayed in their seat, they just jumped up and screamed,” Martin said. “We were really floored with his abilities.
“The smile on his face was just from ear-to-ear. He glowed. He was so excited.
Patrick Chester Sr. was with his son on an FGCU bench.
“He had a wonderful evening,” Patrick Sr. said. “It was exciting. Made me feel good to see my son get a chance to play basketball with college kids.”
Afterward, FGCU coach Dave Balza huddled his players and staff, saying it was a night PJ “would remember for a long, long time.”
Clearly touched, Rolax replied, “He’s not the only one.”
“It hit it home with our guys about just how privileged we all are and what a great opportunity we all have and how our lives could be drastically different too,” Balza said. “... The guys recognized that this was an opportunity to give something back to someone who it’s going to mean an awful lot to.”
The Eagles will get another chance Tuesday night when they host Depaul at 7:05 p.m., when PJ will serve as an honorary FGCU team captain. He’ll again arrive at Alico Arena with his parents in a limo and will be introduced to the crowd. He’ll hang with the team in the lockerroom and on the bench. At halftime, he will be presented with an official uniform (No. 1, of course), custom-made basketball cards and an autographed, framed team poster.
The Eagles, who are 6-3 after winning three consecutive games, will be extra-motivated to upset DePaul. They’d love to score that for PJ.
“Definitely,” said senior forward Derrick O’Neil. “We’re his heroes. He looks up to us. So if we could bring the victory home against a good team from the Big East like DePaul, that would be big for us and for him.”
Afterward, TGI Friday’s of Coconut Point is donating a “postgame celebration” for the Chesters and Eagles. The Chesters will spend three nights in a suite donated by the Coconut Point Hyatt.
“He’s been jumping up, saying, ‘I can’t wait,” said Patrick Chester Sr. “He’s excited.”
The wish started playing out in March, when two Make-A-Wish volunteers interviewed P.J., who suffers few physical limitations other than the seizures but has the mental skills of a 4- to 5-year-old. P.J.’s parents, Patrick Sr. and Sarah mentioned PJ’s love of basketball, something PJ had been participating in since his toddler days while hanging out at Royal Palm Elementary, where his dad worked.
“And his reaction to the idea of being a basketball star was pretty amazing,” said, Martin, noting “basketball” is one of the few words PJ can clearly verbalize at this point.
But PJ’s parents were concerned about having their son travel to Miami for a Heat or Hurricanes game. The Make-A-Wish staff began thinking the transition might be too difficult until Deanne Martin, an FGCU student and volunteer with the program, mentioned the Eagles, saying, “You know (FGCU assistant) coach Leo Miller is an amazing man, and he can make anything happen.” Miller and company took the ball and ran with it.
“He had the most wonderful ideas, and FGCU was really on board with having Patrick come out there and how we could make him into a big basketball star,” Connie Martin said. “Everyone I have been dealing with over there has been incredible. ... Coach Miller blows me away.”
PJ did that to the Eagles during the scrimmage.
“That kid was pretty incredible,” said junior guard Reed Baker. “For him to be so upbeat with whatever situation he is going through, that opens a lot of people’s eyes, including our own.”
PJ has come a long way.
“Just since we started going through the interview process in March, he’s made huge improvements in his mental and speech abilities,” Martin said. “He basically just grunted before. We like to think it has something to do with us, but you never know.
“It’s actually a pretty good prognosis. He’s not going to lead a healthy, normal life. But we do have some Wish children who grow up and lead healthy, relatively normal lives. He’s always going to be severely mentally delayed, but physically, he’s going to be pretty OK.”
Patrick Sr. said the Eagles have helped his son progress.
“They have treated him very good,” he said. “They treat him so nice, like he’s their kid. Being around them has really helped him. It makes me feel so good because I felt like I had lost him. I thank God.”
Connect with Dana Caldwell at www.naplesnews.com/staff/Dana_Caldwell