Monday, July 29, 2013

True Hero: Memphis quarterback Jacob Karam goes out of his way to make the days of kids with cancer a little better by showing up on his own time unannounced at local hospitals...

The first thing to know about the video in this story is that nobody at the University of Memphis knew about the video in this story. Not until it went viral and people all over saw footage of the quarterback, the piano and the precious little girl singing beside him.
See that big guy sitting there? His name is Jacob Karam. He plays quarterback for Memphis. He just showed up Monday night at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital and started playing.
People within the Memphis athletic department, who normally are the ones to arrange this sort of thing, didn't arrange it. They didn't even know about it. They just sort of found out, like the rest of us did, after the family of the little girl sitting next to Jacob Karam posted the video on Facebook. The video went viral, as wonderful videos tend to do.
"That's how I heard about it," said Ron Mears, an assistant athletics director who oversees public relations for Memphis football. "Someone showed me the video."

The video shows that, in addition to being a pretty good amateur quarterback, Jacob Karam is a very good amateur piano player. Once he hears a song, he can play it -- no sheet music required. It's one of those amazing gifts some people have. Karam has a few others, too. He graduated with highest honors from Texas Tech in 2 1/2 years and then transferred to Memphis, where he threw for 1,895 yards and 14 touchdowns in 2012.
Karam also has a soft spot for kids like Breanna Bercegeay -- friends call her Bree -- the 11-year-old girl in the surgeon's mask sitting next to him. Last month she was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, and soon she left her home in Geismar, La., to begin receiving treatment at St. Jude. In Memphis. Where Jacob Karam plays quarterback.
"I'm part of a big Lebanese-Catholic family," Karam said. "The founder of St. Jude, Danny Thomas, was Lebanese -- and we were raised to support St. Jude. It's almost part of our heritage. When I transferred to Memphis, it was icing on the cake that I could help out at St. Jude."

He has lost track, but Karam figures about 10 times in the past year he has visited the kids at Target House, the long-term living facility -- 96 two-bedroom apartments -- offered to families of St. Jude patients. When he first went to St. Jude last year, he rounded up 15 or 20 teammates to visit the kids with him. Karam assumed St. Jude would be like the hospitals he had visited at Texas Tech, but this place was different. They walked Karam and his teammates through a tour of the hospital, then sent them home.

"I kept asking, 'When do we get to meet the kids?' " Karam said. "They had to do background checks, things of that nature. I had to come back another day."
He comes back every month or two, telling nobody at Memphis, just showing up at the cafeteria area of Target House. Some days he'll play a kid's favorite song on the piano. Some days he sits alone, playing background music while families eat, or he'll do arts and crafts with kids. One time he helped move boxes. Whatever they need.
When he showed up on Monday night, they didn't point him to the boxes. They pointed him to the little girl.

Family didn't know he was a QB

The next thing to know about the quarterback is that nobody in Bree's family knew he was a quarterback. Or a football player. Far as they knew, Jacob Karam was a guy who plays the piano.
"It's not like he was sitting there bragging about football," said Bree's mother, Dara Bertucci.
Skip ahead to the end of the night, after all the playing and singing, and that's when the family found out he played football. But that's about all they learned, and they only learned that much because Karam told a Target House staffer he wanted to get Memphis football tickets for Bree's family. Someone asked Karam how he could do that.
"I play football for Memphis," Karam said.
"Oh," said Bertucci, "will Bree be able to see you play?
The record-setting Memphis quarterback smiled and said yes. But that's all he said.
"He still didn't tell us anything," Bertucci said. "I had to get on Google and look him up."
She figured out he was a quarterback, and a good one. Last year he threw for those 1,895 yards and 14 touchdowns. He completed a program-best 64.7 percent of his passes and tied the school mark for fewest interceptions (three) by a full-season starter.
"He didn't tell us any of that," Bertucci said. "I think that's what touches me most about the whole night. He wasn't there for himself. He was there for us. He was there for Bree."

Karam draws song out of Bree

The next thing to know about the little girl is that nobody knew how well she could sing. Nobody but her mother, anyway. Breanna loves to sing, even has a karaoke machine back home in Geismar, but she would never do it in front of anyone else. The little cheerleader was too embarrassed. Too shy.
"She's been saying for years that she's going to enter the school talent show," Bertucci said, "and every year she backs out."
This year brought the leukemia. Her battle with the disease is a story that can be traced in the pictures on her Facebook page, Cheering For Breanna. The "about" information on that Facebook page says Bree was diagnosed with leukemia on June 4.
The pictures offer a timeline.
Two photos from June 8 show Bree in a wheelchair, glumly holding a Curious George stuffed animal as she is checked into the hospital. The caption under the first picture says, "Come on Bree let's see that beautiful smile!!" Under the second picture it says, "Still no smile."
On June 10 a photo finds Bree sitting in her hospital bed, Curious George next to her, two other stuffed animals nearby. She has paper and markers. Looks like she's about to draw.
On June 13 she is lying in bed, preparing for a round of chemotherapy. On June 17 she is wearing a surgeon's mask, not for fun but to filter the air she breathes.
On June 24 she is wearing a hat because hair has fallen out.
This is who was waiting for Jacob Karam on Monday night.
"This little girl came up to me," Karam said, "and somebody said she wanted to sing. She was very shy, I could tell, and she had the mask on. I asked, 'What's your favorite song?' She said Price Tag. I didn't know how it was going to go, but she started belting it out. I tried to figure it out on the key, started backing her up a little.
"She sang her heart out, and it sounded beautiful."
If you've not done it yet -- even if you have -- now's a good time to watch that video. That's Bree singing Price Tag by English singer Jessie J. That's Jacob Karam, gifted musician, figuring out how to play a song he knows only from the little girl singing it next to him.
The video shows one song. They did a lot more. Bree insisted.
"It was 'another one' and 'another' and 'another,'" Karam said, laughing about it. "Maybe 10 or 15 songs later her mom said, 'We have to go eat!' Bree's attitude, her courage, was so cool to see. I think I had more fun than she did."

QB is awesome, but there are others

The thing to know about the unique college football player in this story is that he isn't all that unique. Look, don't misunderstand. Jacob Karam is special. You've read this far, so you know that. But unique? Happy to say, the answer to that question is: Not really.
Karam was nominated last week for the 2013 Allstate AFCA Good Works Team, awarded each year to a handful of college football players for excellence in the community. The thing is -- the most wonderful thing is -- Karam isn't a lock to make it.
This year a record 151 players were nominated for the Good Works Team, guys like Kansas State receiver Tyler Lockett, who visits retirement centers and volunteers at elementary school carnivals. And Miami quarterback Stephen Morris, who coaches a T-ball team in Overtown and volunteers at the Miami Rescue Mission and Ronald McDonald House. Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater is the potential No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft -- and a Good Works nominee who reads at local elementary schools and joins tornado cleanup efforts in the region.
There are 151 nominees in all, names like Bridgewater and Lockett and Morris, but only 22 will make it. You know what would be a cool world to live in? A world where Jacob Karam can't make it onto the Good Works Team, because there are 22 more impressive young men in college football. Imagine that.
Bree's mom hasn't gotten that far.
"I still can't believe he plays quarterback for Memphis," she says. "He never told us."

About helping kids first

The final thing to know about the quarterback in this story is that he won't tell you the whole story. You already read about how he handled the news that he played football at Memphis -- by simply not telling Bree or Bree's family that he played football at Memphis. He wasn't there as a football player, so what did it matter?
He pulled the same thing on me. We talked for a while on Wednesday afternoon, and he let me think all he did Monday night was play the piano for Bree. Only after talking to Bree's mom did I learn that Karam had already been there for a long time Monday, helping the kids at Target House conduct a scavenger hunt. A good scavenger hunt has several adults showing the kids that this is the coolest thing ever. Jacob Karam can do that.
He just can't tell you about it. Or he won't. Not until Bree's mom talked to me did I find out Karam was there for hours on Monday, first doing the scavenger hunt, then playing songs with Bree until Dara Bertucci pulled her off the piano and took her to dinner. So even Bree's mom doesn't know what happened next, which I learned not from Karam -- of course not -- but from talking to someone at Target House:
After Bree left, a tiny little boy with a blanket wrapped around his bald head approached the piano and asked if Karam would play him a song. The quarterback smiled and asked a question:
"What's your favorite?"
And Jacob Karam sat back down at the piano.