Not the kind from the movies who wears a cape and shows superhuman strength, but rather the real-life kind who takes the time, effort and heart to change someone’s life.
Just ask Kay Jemsek. She’ll tell you.
Labonte won’t. He’ll kindly answer questions when asked, but he certainly doesn’t publicize his endeavors to help others. He doesn’t even take credit for getting involved with the Jemsek family — that came about because of crew member Joey McCarthy. But Labonte, and all of his team, certainly went above and beyond when it came to trying to help Kay and her 6-year-old daughter, Jordan.
In January, McCarthy read about Jordan Jemsek and her need for a bone-marrow transplant and told his team about her. Jordan suffered from leukemia and was staying in a Charlotte-area hospital. Things kicked into gear pretty quickly after that. With the help of sponsor Reese Towpower, the team put Jordan’s photo and a promo for getswabbed.com on the rear of the No. 47 JTG Daugherty entry for the Budweiser Shootout.
Before that race, Labonte and some team members went to the hospital to visit Jordan.
And at that moment it became clear to her mom that this was more than the average hospital visit from an athlete.
“He is absolutely amazing,” Kay Jemsek said of Labonte. “He is just our hero, truly. For someone to step up and take the time to help Jordan — time is money for them. And someone pointed out the article about Jordan and then he came to the hospital and it wasn’t kind of like, ‘Hi, how are you, I’m leaving, bye.’ He spent a good part of the day with her and Jordan just fell in love with him – and I think he fell in love with her, too, because she is just an amazing child.
“She has terrific courage and he has terrific courage, too, for what he does. They just hit it off and he, after he met her, just, I guess, really wanted to do more to try to save her life and to save other children like Jordan.”
Sometimes a driver has a chance to touch a life, to really make a difference for a cause. Sometimes that life touches him right back. Labonte certainly understands the power of NASCAR in that respect. He knows that he, as a champion driver, can draw attention to something that is important to him. Once he and his team found out about Jordan, they went all in to help.
The involvement didn’t stop with the visit and promo, though. Labonte has kept tabs on her. He and his team knew when she went into the children’s hospital on March 8 after finding a close match. They knew when she had the transplant in mid-March. And they’ve touched base with her mom since then, following Jordan’s progress.
Labonte seems as in awe of the way things have come about as anyone.
“Every time you touch something or somebody that a good story comes out, that’s awesome,” Labonte said. “In Jordan’s case, things are moving around and taking hold as far as the program goes … We did the deal. She told me (after the transplant), maybe we ought to put her picture back on your car. It feels good. When you can do something like that, it feels good.”
He’s not done, either. The guys at the shop plan to continue following her progress and to keep up with her when she returns to Charlotte, N.C.
Labonte calls and not only listens and checks on her progress, he continues to try to find ways to help the Jemseks.
While Labonte knows the impact that his role can have in something like this, especially in terms of individuals signing up as potential bone-marrow donors through a national program, he is humble about it and quickly deflects credit.
“You know what happens in this sport, whenever somebody brings some kind of awareness to somebody else. … Our sport is no different than some of them,” he said. “I think the fans and everybody around it rallies in. I was just glad that they did and I was glad she was able to … If however it worked out where we did that, they did that — our part was pretty small, but we brought awareness to it, people signed up for it and it was good.”
He doesn’t go out of his way to publicize his role in any of this, but he does take it all to heart. For Labonte, the reward comes in the impact this could have on Jordan and her family. For him, it’s personal.
“It definitely, when you get home after a day like that, when you’ve got a kid especially, it hits more home,” Labonte said, referencing his visit with Jordan. “You can go sign autographs for two hours, you’re glad you do that, that’s OK, but this is a special intimate feeling that you’ll have from folks like that that you meet that you never met before and visit them for a few hours and talk to them a little bit and see what it is. Obviously the biggest thing is seeing the response, seeing the results turn out good. It’s just a good feeling.”
And it’s a story that’s not yet over. Labonte has kept in touch with the Jemseks, but he has done more than just offer words of encouragement from the start. He has encouraged other crew members to get swabbed to be bone-marrow donors and talked about the issue to a national audience.
The way Kay Jemsek sees it, he helped a lot of people with his appearances discussing both Jordan and the need for bone-marrow donors.
“I hope he wins all the races,” Jemsek said. “I never followed NASCAR, did not know that much about it, and now we’re such huge fans of his, so we always pull for him.”
But what he gave Jordan is beyond measure. Kay Jemsek thinks that Labonte even sped up her recovery process, that the thought of attending a race to see him helped spur on her progress. Imagine how that offer must look to Jordan, who spent 11 months in a North Carolina hospital before her 30-day stint to get the transplant and recover.
For the Jemseks, there’s just no way to measure or explain what Labonte has meant.
They are just thankful he walked into their lives.
“To do something as wonderful as that in a world as crazy and mixed up and as awful — we need that,” Jemsek said. “We need people like Bobby Labonte to step up and do something heroic and wonderful and set an example for our children.”