Ava Miller did not hesitate when asked to describe her twin brother, Jack.
“He’s annoying,” she said. “Very annoying.”
Her answer was not unexpected. Jack Miller appears to be a typical 9-year-old boy.
He plays soccer and baseball, and he’s a whiz at the hugely popular Madden NFL video game. He tries to avoid homework and piano lessons and, yes, he annoys his sisters – Ava, Riley and Lexi. He’s handsome and impish and shy, with the kind of smile that can get you out of trouble with your mom.
Jack, however, is anything but typical. He’s an adopted member of the Colorado State University football team, with his own jersey and bio page. He not only has his own Upper Deck sports cards, he has been the star attraction at an autograph session. He has a poster of himself, sporting his jersey and a CSU helmet, hanging on his bedroom wall. And he’s a celebrity among his friends in fourth grade at Coal Creek Elementary School in Louisville.
Jack also has a shunt in his head to drain excess fluid. And a chemotherapy port on his chest. And a cancerous tumor growing in his brain.
Jack has a very uncertain future, but you would never know that if you visited the Miller home. That’s because his parents, Darin and Jody, do everything in their power to make his atypical life as normal as possible.
“We don’t want to treat Jack any differently from our other kids,” Jody said. “We try not to make this more than it is. We refuse to let this battle define us as a family.”
The Miller family’s battle began when Jack was just a few days old. He was diagnosed with a rare heart defect and had his second open-heart surgery on his one-month birthday.
Fortunately, he’s never needed another heart surgery. But just three years later Jack began vomiting and complaining of severe headaches. That’s when the brain tumor – pediatric cancer – was diagnosed. He underwent emergency surgery to relieve the pressure in his head on Easter Sunday in 2008.
“A parent’s worst nightmare,” Jody recalled. “Before you go through it, you can’t even imagine what it’s like.”
Since that time, Jack has undergone regular chemotherapy treatments that often leave him sick for days. The family even moved to Washington, D.C., for a time to be closer to better treatment options.
Recent treatments, though, have been gentler on Jack and his kidneys. He’s even gone to soccer practice shortly after the chemotherapy session.
“I don’t feel as sick as I used to,” Jack said. “That’s good.”
Becoming a Ram
When Jody Miller first heard about the Friends of Jaclyn Foundation, she immediately thought Jack would make a perfect candidate. The Foundation was founded in New York in 2005 to improve the quality of life for children and their families who are battling pediatric brain tumors, connecting them with high school and college sports teams.
At first, Jody hesitated to fill out an application, remembering the promise she and Darin had made to themselves to keep Jack’s life as normal as possible.
“But then we thought, ‘This kid has been through so much crap. We should give him a little perk,’ ” she said.
Not only did Friends of Jaclyn accept the Miller’s application, they paired Jack with the CSU football team. Jack, a huge college football fan who grew up watching his dad’s Michigan Wolverines every Saturday in the fall, was thrilled.
“I couldn’t believe it – we felt like we hit the lotto getting paired up with CSU,” Jody said.
The Rams, too, were delighted. And they were determined to make Jack’s experience memorable.
“As soon as he came in the door you saw his grin go from ear to ear,” senior cornerback Bernard Blake said of the team’s initial meeting with Jack in 2013. “He was just so happy to be there, and I think he touched us all.”
Jack and his family have been to every home game since. He is on the field when the game ends, offering high-fives to every Ram. At 4-foot-1 and 53 pounds he is dwarfed by the massive players, but he stands tall among his teammates.
He then heads to the locker room, where he leads a “countdown” of the points scored in the Rams’ victory, followed by a rousing chorus of the CSU fight song. It is an other-worldly experience for the beaming Jack.
“That’s my favorite part,” Jack said of the post-game locker room. “And watching them win, of course.”
The Rams have done plenty of that. Since Jack arrived, the Rams have gone 18-8, including their current 10-2 record heading into Saturday’s Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl matchup with No. 23 Utah. The Rams also played to sellout crowds and cracked the Top 25 for the first time in more than a decade.
Riding high with Bernard
Ask Jack to name his favorite Ram and his response is immediate: “Bernard Blake,” he said. “He’s really nice.”
Blake, a 6-foot, 185-pound cornerback, is having his best season as a Ram, and recently was invited to play in the Jan. 17 East-West Shrine Game, a prestigious postseason all-star game. He hopes to get a shot at the NFL after earning his degree in apparel and merchandising.
While Blake has been a consistent standout for the Rams, his service off the field also is exemplary. Few, if any, CSU athletes do more volunteer work in the community.
“His community service has been unbelievable,” interim head coach Dave Baldwin said. “He means a lot to the youth and kids in this area. That’s what he’s all about. I wish a lot more kids were like that.”
Blake started a personal tradition of carrying Jack on his shoulders after the Rams opened the 2014 season with a win over rival Colorado in the annual Rocky Mountain Showdown. He struggled a bit when asked to describe their relationship.
“I start to smile every time I talk about him,” he said. “He’s a fighter, especially with that tumor and dealing with all those treatments. For him to go through it the way he does, battling the way he does, just leaves me speechless. I feel like, by putting him on my shoulders, I’ve taken a little bit of his weight and put it on me.”
Above and beyond
Jody Miller didn’t know what to expect when Jack was paired with the football team but she is constantly amazed by the commitment CSU has made to her son. The family sits in prime seats for every home game and everyone gets special treatment.
“CSU, as an organization, has really impressed me because I feel like they didn’t just adopt Jack for publicity purposes,” she said. “All of the players have made it a point to make Jack feel like part of the team. It’s way more than I expected.
“And Bernard is a special guy. We’re happy to have him be part of Jack’s life. I want to meet his mom and tell him what a nice young man she raised.”
Jack won’t be going to the Las Vegas Bowl. Jody hopes to enroll him in a clinical trial in January that will require monthly trips to Washington, D.C., and they’re saving money for those trips.
Instead they will be watching with friends in Louisville – in the heart of CU country, mind you – where they have converted dozens of families into CSU fans.
As for Blake, he’ll never forget the impact Jack had on him and the Rams.
“Having Jack around has made us more emotional, and we all appreciate the blessings we have been given,” he said. “We know what Jack is going through, and we know that every game we play, Jack is watching.
“He really is a member of this team. He’s No. 1. Nobody can wear that jersey but Jack Miller.”