MITCH ALBOM: Big men, little buddies
How Draper, Shanahan touched their short lives -- and vice versa
March 7, 2003
BY MITCH ALBOM
FREE PRESS COLUMNIST
There are bonds you are born with, like your parents or siblings, and bonds you choose, like friends and lovers. Then there are the bonds that come along by accident, that somehow choose you, and draw you in like destiny.
For Kris Draper, the Red Wings' oft-grinning forward, the bond began with a phone call. A teenage girl from Shepherd, he was told, had leukemia and was in the hospital. She was a huge Draper fan. Could he possibly call her?
"I'll never forget when she answered the phone, I told her who it was, and there was absolute silence," Draper says. "And then she said, 'Is it really you? Is it really Kris?' She was kind of overwhelmed. She couldn't think of anything to say. So I said, 'I'll tell you what. Why don't you take some time, think of some questions, and I'll call you back.' "
And he did. That call led to another. And those calls led to a visit. And that visit led to a hug -- "I was all sweaty after practice, but she didn't care," Draper says -- and that hug never really ended, it formed a connection, the unexpected kind, between a veteran hockey player and an otherwise-typical 16-year-old named Kara Spindler, who found out on Sept. 11, 2001, the day terrorists struck the United States, that she had leukemia.
Draper's phone calls went on for months. They could come at any time, from the road, from the car. He and Kara talked about typical things: the game, the players, TV shows, movies. She would ask why he always seemed to get his face cut on the ice. At the end of the conversations, she would say, "I have to get off now and call my girlfriends and tell them I was just talking to Kris Draper."
All this time she was going through chemo treatments. She suffered a stroke. She was slowly dying. You wouldn't have known it. She was upbeat. She watched out for others.
One night, her father, Dave, was sleeping in a chair in her hospital room. The blanket fell off him. "She got out of bed, with all these IV tubes in her and everything," he recalls, his voice choking, "and she put the blanket back over me. That's the kind of kid she was."
When children get sick, families need support. Before Draper entered their lives, neither Dave nor his wife, Lyn, nor their two older sons had ever had any encounters with professional athletes. They watched them on TV like everyone else.
Now Draper was part of their small army of the heart, part of that support group that shares a terrible burden.
Which is why, just days ago, Draper got a call from the family. The bad call. The worst call. His phone pal, the bouncy teenager who had sent a stuffed bear to the Wings so that Draper's kids could play with it, had lost her battle.
She was gone.
A pair of Brendans
For Brendan Shanahan, it began with a name. There was a little boy, he was told, a 5-year-old from Macomb Township, also named Brendan. He was sick. Cancer. He was undergoing treatment for a tumor in his sinus cavity and 16 tumors in his lungs. Would Shanahan meet with him? Shanahan said sure.
This was four years ago.
"You could tell the moment you saw his face," Shanahan remembers. "Something about him. Just really charming. And he loved the Red Wings."
Young Brendan, whose last name was Filzek, began coming to games regularly. You could tell he was suffering; he was small for his age and had to deal with radiation and hair loss. But he soldiered on. He turned 6, 7, 8 and 9 -- all those years shrouded by a terminal illness. Doctors would twice say he was cancer-free, and twice he would relapse into the disease. Shanahan, known for being a tough hockey player, was in awe of the boy's bravery.
"He was such a little guy," the Wings forward says, "going through such a big thing."
Sometimes, during warm-ups, Shanahan would see him standing near the glass with his parents, Doug and Maureen. They would wave. Other nights, when, after the game, young Brendan could barely stay awake, Shanahan rushed out of the locker room still wearing his equipment, still sweating off the chin and forehead, just to say hello.
One time, Shanahan visited his house and sat on the floor, talking to his "buddy."
"I'd always ask him if he had any new girlfriends," Shanahan says.
He laughs. "He usually said he had a few."
They sent Christmas cards to each other. Little Brendan got to pose with the Stanley Cup. The night Shanahan scored his 400th goal, he gave the puck to Brendan. And last November, the night Shanahan broke a nine-game goal-less streak by scoring twice, he gave both pucks to Brendan, who also left wearing a Shanahan hat and a Shanahan sweater.
You kindle hope in moments like that. You think maybe, just maybe, because the kid looks so happy, he will get better.
And then, a few weeks ago, the Wings were on a road trip. Their PR man approached Shanahan after practice. He had some sad news. Shanahan braced himself. He had just become a first-time father himself. The miracles of growth were part of his every day, watching his newborn twins open their eyes or wave their tiny hands.
Now young Brendan Filzek, whose growth, in a certain way, Shanahan also had watched, was dead.
A few days later, Shanahan was at the funeral, holding the casket as one of the pallbearers. Little Brendan was buried wearing a Shanahan jersey.
"I wasn't there as a Red Wings hockey player," Shanahan says. "I was there as a friend. I was honored to be asked. I was honored, that day, to be part of that family."
Good guys, good deeds
And that's the thing, isn't it? The sense of family? You can't be naive. You can't think athletes are substitutes for fathers or mothers or even brothers or sisters. But when they care, like these Detroit players care, they become like uncles or cousins, distant cousins perhaps, but under the tent, they share the news, they call on the phone, they come to the funeral.
It is the best that sports can be, a spreading of the glory that comes with the game, an athlete's saying, "Here, you want to feel some of this? I'll share it with you. You're special to me, the same way I'm special to you."
When Draper remembers his teenage phone pal, he says, "Kara was always thanking me. That's the amazing thing. Here she was, dying from this disease, and she kept thanking me for calling her. How do you tell her that there's nothing to thank me for, that it's a privilege to be able to put a smile on your face, to distract you from the disease even for a few hours?"
You don't. You just do it. Draper and Shanahan are only two of the Wings who make these connections. It happens more than you know, more than you might think, especially with hockey players, who seem to think the locker room is a sort of playground of good fortune, so why not share it -- especially with sick kids?
"There are a lot of faces that have come through our room, kids' faces that you think about and then you realize they are no longer with us," Shanahan says. "Knowing kids like little Brendan reminds you that what you do is only a game, it's not life and death, but at the same time it shows you how important the game can be. Because it can make a sick kid happy."
Shanahan has a picture of little Brendan now; it hangs inside his locker. Draper has the stuffed bear that Kara sent him; his little daughter plays with it.
Big men. Little kids.
The bonds that tie.