It was a little more than a year ago when 16-year-old Ryland Harris, a three-sport athlete at Brentsville District High School, was rushed to a hospital after suffering a seizure.
As the world suddenly found itself gripped with coronavirus, Ryland had to come to grips with his own new reality. Doctors had discovered a tumor — a grade-four glioblastoma — in Ryland's brain.
Ryland began an aggressive treatment plan under the care of some of the world's leading pediatric oncologists at Children's National Hospital in D.C., where he had as much of the tumor removed as he safely could.
He had to undergo 33 radiation treatments, and participated in a clinical trial from the University of Florida in which doctors take part of Ryland's tumor, and a collection of his white blood cells, and attempt to create a vaccine that will train his white blood cells to attack and destroy the remaining tumor cells.
"He's an awesome kid," said Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman during his weekly appearance with The Sports Junkies, presented by MainStreet Bank.
"Just a tough situation," he said. "You talk about a kid who was a high school athlete, stud athlete, and then all of a sudden something like this happens. You just can't imagine having to go through that, for Ryland and obviously for his parents as well."
Zimmerman met Ryland in the offseason and has kept in touch ever since. Now he hopes to bring attention to Ryland's cause, adolescent cancer.
Accounting for less than one percent of all cancer patients, adolescents with cancer are often considered pediatric patients, and typically a very small portion of cancer funding goes towards fighting adolescent cancer. All donations made through the Ryland Strong Foundation will go toward supporting adolescent cancer patients.
You can make a straight donation here. Or you can purchase a pair of socks emblazoned with Ryland's personal motto for fighting cancer (which captures the essence of his three sports: football, wrestling and baseball): "TACKLE IT, PIN IT, KNOCK IT OUT OF THE PARK!" Or you can purchase one of these sweet trucker hats.
Straight from a storybook, Ryland was at Monday's game against the Mets when the Nationals were battling to extend a narrow 5-4 lead, and also cut a little further into New York's division lead with a Curly W. Only, Zimmerman had no idea Ryland was sitting in the stands when he came to the plate in the bottom of the eighth.
With two runners on and one out, Zimmerman took Mets reliever Miguel Castro to deep center field, cashing in three runs to give the Nats a commanding 8-4 lead and eventually the win. It was the first game Ryland was able to attend since his tumor returned.
"So I got a chance to talk with him this offseason and we kept in touch," Zimmerman said. "And the crazy thing is, the other night, he came out to a game for the first time since the tumor came back, and it was the night I hit the home run off of Castro. And I didn't even know he was there."
After the game, Zimmerman says one of their head security guards approached to let him know he had a special visitor.
"So we sat outside and chatted for 15 or 20 minutes," Zimmerman said.
"That's the cool thing about sports," he went on. "Sports brings people together, from everywhere. And obviously Ryland was an unbelievable athlete and hopefully one day he'll get back to doing that stuff. But you just see him fighting, and you see what he and his family are going through, and it just puts things in perspective a little bit."
"I was lucky enough to catch up with him the other day," he said. "I'm sure with the look on his face and I told his parents, anytime they wanted to come back out, they're obviously more than welcome."
"But I told him if he comes back out and I don't hit three-run home runs, then he's not allowed to come back," Zimmerman joked.
"That's some of the cool stuff that baseball has done for me," Zimmerman said. "I get to meet people like that. Especially in this area. Playing here for as long as I've had, I've had a chance to meet a lot of people."
"But this kid's pretty special," he noted, "and he's fighting his butt off right now, so all the support and good will and prayers sent his way are much appreciated."