On Christmas Eve, the limousine driver pulled up to the Independence Events Center and parked, telling the Hibbeler family that he needed to make a brief stop from their sight-seeing tour.
Sixteen-year-old Nick Hibbeler didn’t care. This limo ride was the coolest thing he’d done in a while. But when he got out to stretch his legs, he was ambushed by a quartet of little girls in red Santa hats.
Taking his hand, they led him through a back stage door into the building. He shot a quizzical look to his family, who only smiled. Something was up.
Just beyond the dark stage Nick could hear the murmur of a very large crowd.
* * * * *
Joy wasn’t an emotion that the Hibbeler family had felt for months. Not since an ominous shadow appeared on Nick’s sonogram, along with the diagnosis of testicular cancer.
Within hours, his life abruptly changed. Nick was whisked into surgery, followed by a strict schedule of grueling chemotherapy separated by rest periods in-between.
Nick tried his best to endure all the nausea, fatigue, depression. But most days all he could manage was curling up in bed. Sadness hit the hardest when he remembered he was missing soccer, a sport he played since he was a child.
Nick was considered an elite player. Already, several college recruiters had talked with him about scholarships. Sometimes between chemo sessions, he still showed up for practice. Playing with the team made him feel like a normal kid again.
His soccer teammates visited him in the hospital. They made him laugh. They tweeted him with funny messages. And when Nick's hair started falling out in clumps, his teammates shaved their heads too. Nick’s goal was to finish chemo and play in a few soccer games, before the season ended. But after months of treatments, a medical test found dozens of infected lymph nodes. More surgery. More rounds of chemo “just to be sure,” his doctors told him.
Nick’s soccer playing hopes were dashed, along with his spirit.
* * * * *
In early December the Elves learned about Nick. They came up with an idea for a Christmas present he’d never forget.
A top secret plan was unfurled. Nick’s parents, in on it too, would shut down their children’s cell phones, lap tops and iPads. Not even a tweet would spoil this surprise.
Word about the gift spread quickly through the elf network. A venue, the Independence Events Center, was offered for Christmas Eve, along with volunteers of support staff, paramedics, security, parking attendants, and lighting engineers who knew how to create those dazzling light shows on the Center's 360 degree digital-ribbon boards.
Just as the Hibbelers shut down their family's cyber-communications, elf volunteers switched on. Working late into the night, a team of more than three dozen men and women transformed the Center into a green soccer field. Elves cooked food for a free buffet, musicians practiced just the right tunes and elf printers churned out dozens of tee shirts.
Even the local television stations invited the public to a Christmas Eve event they wouldn’t forget.
* * * * *
On Christmas Eve as Nick was led into the center of the field, an announcer welcomed him. The crowd roared. Paparazzi cameras flashed. Television crews recorded the moment. Electronic signs scrolled Nick's name in shimmering lights.
Nick was astonished. What's going on?
The announcer introduced two soccer teams who came running on the field. One, was Nick’s high school teammates. The other consisted of All-Star athletes from soccer teams like Sporting KC, Missouri Comets, KC Wizards, Kansas Magic, LA Galaxy, New England Revolution and the U.S. Olympic team.
Nick’s eyes grew big. These were soccer players he idolized for years. Every athlete, coach and referee was wearing a tee shirt with the slogan, Fight Like Hibbs.
His teammates surrounded him, slapping him on the back then ushering him to the locker room so he could dress out for the game. And when they couldn’t find Nick’s soccer shoes, one teammate gave up his own.
Within minutes, player #8 was on the field, his feet shuffling the blur of a black and white ball, his face laughing with joy.
He knew no matter what the score this night, he’d already won.
LEE HILL KAVANAUGH