PITTSBURGH (AP) – John Challis, who inspired professional players with his battle against cancer, died at his parents' suburban Pittsburgh home on Tuesday. He was 18.
Challis made national headlines when he threw out the ceremonial first pitch at a Pittsburgh Pirates game against the New York Yankees in June, leaving his home team a motivational message on their message board.
"Have fun," he wrote to the Pirates. "It's the reason we play ball."
The 5-foot-5, 93-pound teenager was diagnosed with terminal cancer when he was 16. He spoke candidly about his initial fear of death and then his determination to achieve his goals before succumbing to the cancer that had spread to his liver, lungs and other parts of his body.
Most of those goals were achieved. He played with the Freedom Area High School football team, where he was a starter as a sophomore before becoming ill.
He met Pittsburgh Penguins' owner and Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux and quarterback of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Ben Roethlisberger. When Challis was in New York last month, Alex Rodriguez showed him his apartment and drove him to Yankee Stadium.
"He was a very brave boy," Rodriguez said before the Yankees played at Toronto on Tuesday night. "Very smart. He had a huge heart. I was just proud that I got to spend a whole day with him and I'm touched by the fact that he came to my apartment and spent quality time. It's something that I'll be inspired by for the rest of my life."
In April, Challis fulfilled a dream to play on his high school's baseball team, coming in as a pinch-hitter and drawing cheers — even from the opposition — when he hit a single into right field.
In June, after graduating from Freedom Area High School, Challis got to take a last cruise with his family. He also set up a foundation to help high school students fighting terminal illnesses.
His only regret, he told reporters in the months before his death, was that he would not be able to get married and become a father.
"I'm a little surprised that people don't understand how easy I think it is for a young person, especially myself, to see this major situation as a positive — I mean I don't see it as a positive, but I'm not complaining about it," Challis was quoted as saying in an Associated Press story in June.
"I don't know why people think it's so hard," he added.
Within hours of Challis' death, dozens of people from across the country shared their thoughts and condolences on an Internet guest board.
"My thoughts and prayers to the Challis family. Your son was a true inspiration, blessing and gift. God bless," wrote Pat King of Roanoke, Va.
Pittsburgh Pirates president Frank Coonelly released a statement calling the teenager "an inspiration to each of us."
"John had every reason to complain about his situation, but he chose not to," Coonelly said. "What he did do was show unfathomable courage and great wisdom for someone so young. John's body could not win the battle with cancer, but John's tremendous spirit will live on amongst all those he and his story impacted across the country."
Copyright © 2008 The Associated Press