There’s been plenty of political eye-ripping this year. As I sat down to put a profound or clever cap on it, I realized my next date with the newspaper would be December 19.
On a chilly December 19 fifteen years ago, I picked up my Charlotte Observer and found on the front page a photo of a little girl with bright-red hair gazing into the eyes of a tiny kitten she was pulling up close. The story was by Elizabeth Leland.
“When Make-A-Wish Foundation asked 12-year-old Hope Stout what she wanted, instead of answering, she asked a question: “How many children are waiting on wishes?”
“Another 155,” they told her.
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“My wish,” Hope said, “is to help raise money to grant all their wishes.”
Hope had osteosarcoma, an aggressive bone cancer. To grant her wish would take raising a million dollars, a year-and-a-half’s worth of wishes, fast.
The Carolina Panthers were making their “Cardiac” run to the Super Bowl led by Jake Delhomme and an offensive line known as the Fat Cats anchored by 13-year veteran Kevin Donnalley. They were also battling cancer in their ranks. Defensive end Mark Fields developed Hodgkin’s disease. Former player-turned-coach Sam Mills was diagnosed with intestinal cancer.
At a game in October, Hope, riding a burst of vigor after five rounds of chemo, was on the sidelines on crutches, proudly waving her “Drop the Hammer on Cancer” poster to support Mills and Fields. She met Donnalley and swiftly stole his heart.
A few hours after Hope’s story appeared in the paper, I found myself talking with her on the radio. In her bright, optimistic voice, she explained her illness, her wish, and her 100 percent faith in God the money would be raised. Before hanging up, she sacked me, saying, “Thank you for having me on the show, it’s a big honor.”
I suddenly had something in common with Donnalley, and I wasn’t alone.
The next day 238 envelopes arrived at Make-A-Wish and were soon accompanied by hundreds more. Kids donated their allowances. Families gave up Christmas presents to contribute. A small businessman who heard Hope donated $100,000.
The Panthers’ first-round playoff game was against Dallas on a sparkling Charlotte Saturday night. In the locker room, Sam Mills told the team to “Keep Pounding,” as he was in his cancer battle. On ABC’s broadcast, Lisa Guerrero told millions about Hope, Donnalley and her wish.
She died the next day. But the spirit of Hope kept rocking on.
Her story spread around the world. At the gala Hope had planned but wouldn’t live to see, Donnalley stood with her family as it was announced $1,116,835 had been raised. Hope’s wish, granted. One-hundred-fifty-five others would be.
Two weeks later, the Panthers almost beat the New England Patriots in one of the great Super Bowl games. There was also plenty of political eye-ripping that winter. Over trains, arenas, and schools in Charlotte; over Iraq and immigration nationally.
What I remember most, though, is Hope Stout and her wish, the Panthers’ run to the Super Bowl, and the beautiful blur they all became as people in the Carolinas and far beyond were swept up by them.
We could stand to get swept up by a wish again.