TAMPA — They play catch as often as they can, Jeremy Hellickson and Carson Cooper, the big-league pitcher and the 10-year-old child. Longtime friends, but closer than that. Nearly brothers.
Hellickson, the Tampa Bay Rays pitcher who is working hard this winter to erase the shortcomings that tripped him up last season, will always make time during his workout to toss the ball with Carson.
Carson? He might have come from another chemotherapy treatment. Or, he might be headed to one later in the day.
“Unless his mom told me that’s where they just came from or where they are going, you’d never know,” Hellickson said. “The hardest part of my day is getting out of bed, and he gets out of bed and has shots to look forward to in an hour.”
Carson has acute lymphoblastic leukemia. He was diagnosed when he was 8. He has eight more months of chemo.
“It’s a long haul,” his mother, Pam, said.
Six months into Carson’s treatment, the Coopers started the Kids Living Brave Foundation (KLB), which helps families deal with the everyday struggles associated with a child suffering from cancer. Carson came up with the name for the foundation. He also came up with the idea of giving gift baskets to the families.
The Brave Baskets contain everyday items vital to caring for a child with cancer, including thermometers, anti-bacterial wipes, pill organizers, bandages, hand sanitizers, gift cards for food and gas, as well small toys, books and stuffed animals.
“Things that help ease you through the treatment process,” Pam Cooper said.
It costs $200 to $250 to fill a basket.
Today, Hellickson will conduct the second Pitcher Perfect baseball clinic at Grand Slam USA in Urbandale, Iowa, just outside of Hellickson’s hometown of Des Moines.
Proceeds go to KLB. Last year’s event raised $6,400 and was such a hit that this year’s clinic was expanded to include a third age group.
Hellickson will answer questions and give individual instructions to each child in each age group — 10 years old, 11-13 and 14-16. There will be 75 children in each group.
“Last year I didn’t know what to expect,” Hellickson said. “But when I walked into Grand Slam and saw all the volunteers, all the parents and all the kids, it was pretty overwhelming.”
The Hellickson and Cooper families go back a long way. Pam and her husband, Jack, went to high school with Hellickson’s aunt, Victoria. They see each other on holidays and birthdays. Hellickson has known Carson since Carson was born.
“He’s always followed what I’ve done, always looked up to me. He’s kind of like a little brother. He and my little cousins are like the little brothers I never had,” Hellickson said. “I try to be a big brother to them.”
Hellickson was in his rookie season with the Rays when Carson was diagnosed in May 2011. Hellickson sent a care package north that included autographed items gathered from the Rays clubhouse. Carson opened it when he was allowed to leave the hospital for a brief trip home.
“That brightened his day,” Pam Cooper said.
Carson and his family follow the Rays, watching nearly every game, especially when Hellickson is pitching.
Carson watched from his hospital room when Hellickson threw his first career complete-game shutout May 13, 2011, against the Baltimore Orioles. Carson told the nurses to leave him alone when Hellickson was pitching. If they needed anything from Carson, they could get it when the Rays were batting.
The Coopers — Pam, Jack, Carson and his sister Hailey — have traveled around the Midwest to see Hellickson pitch, to Kansas City and Minnesota. They drove through the night to Detroit to watch Hellickson make his second big-league start.
“It’s really kind of weird to see him on the field knowing that I know him,” Carson said.
Last winter, Hellickson accompanied Carson during one of his chemo treatments.
“I think it was kind of eye-opening for Jeremy,” Pam said. “I think he knew that it was hard, had kind of an idea, seen pictures of (Carson) changing over the last couple of years. … Seeing him poked in the chest with a needle and receiving chemotherapy was eye-opening, for sure. It kind of drove things home for him.”
Hellickson admitted he’s not good with needles no matter whose arm they are entering. He watched as Carson took needles in his arm and chest.
“(Hellickson) got all hot and sweaty. He was kind of pale,” Pam Cooper said. “He looked like he was going to pass out.”
Hellickson had to sit down. A door was opened to let some fresh air into the room.
“It hits you in the heart to actually see what he goes through on a day-to-day basis, and then you see him afterwards and he’s all smiles, just a regular kid,” Hellickson said. “The kid’s 10 years old and going through this every day, it makes you think a little bit. It’s kind of mind-boggling to think how he does get through it every single day. Some days are way worse than others, and he’s out there at 9 o’clock playing catch, smiling and having a good time.”
Hellickson spent time talking to some of the other children who were receiving treatment that day.
“That’s somewhere where he kind of shines, when he’s around kids. He just lights up,” Pam said. “It’s kind of funny. He’s not a man of many words, but when he gets around these kids he kneels down and lights up and starts talking.”
Pam said the children who were there still talk about their visit from the big-league pitcher.
“I think it’s really cool,” Carson said, “and I think he really tries his very best just to make the kids happy.”