Awareness • Early Detection • Treatment • Research • Survivorship

A Super Bowl wish comes true for youngsters battling illness

By Andrew Kragie, Houston Chronicle

Of all the football players who visited the NFL Experience on Friday, only one had a highlight-reel video that opens with a close-up of the helmeted player smiling to reveal a row of missing baby teeth.

Friends made the video for McAllen native Ben Karam when he was diagnosed with leukemia at age 8, after his parents brought him to be treated for what they thought was a routine ankle injury.

In the video, as 4-foot-tall players sprint up the field, a song plays in the background: “The Middle” by Jimmy Eat World.

“It just takes some time,” the chorus goes, as Ben charges into the end zone. “Everything, everything will be just fine. Everything, everything will be all right.”

After years of chemotherapy, hospitalizations and other treatments, Ben, now 13, will attend Sunday’s Super Bowl at Houston’s NRG Stadium along with 12 other boys suffering from life-threatening diseases.

The boys rubbed elbows with professional players and got a VIP pass to the exhibits Friday as part of an all-expenses-paid family trip with the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Ben’s parents and three siblings came along for the journey, as they have for his three years of treatments.

“It involves the entire family, because the entire family is going through the illness,” said Make-A-Wish CEO David Williams, a University of Houston business school graduate who entered the nonprofit sector after two years working for Shell.

The charity has granted about 400,00 wishes worldwide for children ages 2 to 18 diagnosed with a life-threatening medical condition. The aim is to encourage healing, foster hope and offer a break from treatment regimens.

Attending the Super Bowl was just the ninth wish the organization fulfilled with a ticket to the 1982 game in Pontiac, Mich. Thanks to a long partnership with the NFL, Williams said, a total of 200 “Wish kids” have gotten VIP welcomes to every Super Bowl since.

Ben, a lanky seventh-grader, picked the big game because the sport is a family passion. His dad, Aizer, played at McAllen High School, where he met and started dating his future wife, Liza. Their oldest son, Trey, now plays quarterback on the freshman team at the same school.

Ben debated whether to accept the Make-A-Wish trip, because his cancer is in remission. But his parents encouraged him to attend as a reminder to the other kids that there’s hope for recovery. And, his dad said, Ben deserves the trip after his perseverance throughout the long, drawn-out struggle with cancer.

“It’s like an exclamation point at the end of his treatment,” Aizer Karam said.

Aside from bimonthly blood tests to make sure the cancer has not returned, Ben is now a normal teenager who looks forward to returning to the gridiron in high school and likes to put his younger brother, Nicholas, in a headlock.

After a star-studded welcome and an armful of gifts – Ben got a football signed by Deion Sanders, a Hall of Fame cornerback who played five years for Ben’s favorite team, the Dallas Cowboys – the Wish families got time to wander through the NFL Experience.

The Wish kids and siblings got to run for passes from Tampa Bay Bucaneers quarterback Jameis Winston, dodging retired Atlanta Falcons linebacker Chris Draft, who brought several lung-cancer survivors to the Super Bowl in memory of his wife Lakeasha, who died in 2012 of the disease at age 38.

After getting final high-fives from Winston, Ben strolled away and used his smartphone with a cracked screen to send pictures to friends – just a normal teenager.

The Karams used their VIP passes to skip the line and get a picture with the Vince Lombardi trophy. Liza was impressed when she noticed staffers wipe the trophy case clean after each group of visitors.

The family wandered to another station where the three brothers and their independent-minded little sister, 7-year-old Ella Grace, tried their hand at precision passes.

Nicholas poked fun at Trey, the freshman-team quarterback, when his first throw went off-course. Ben tossed a football with a tight spiral. Then their dad stepped up and hit the target on his first try. Football runs in the family.