Fist-bump kid Liam Fitzgerald beloved by Boston Bruins, sports world
NORTHBOROUGH, Mass. -- In the sports-crazy city of Boston, there's no shortage of die-hard fans, but there may not be a more staunch supporter of the Bruins, Pats, Celtics and Red Sox in all of New England than Liam Fitzgerald.
Surely you've seen Liam, even if you don't know it, and chances are, he probably made you smile when you did.
A video of the 8-year-old superfan sitting on the Bruins' bench, fist-bumping an assembly line of Boston players before the team's win over the Florida Panthers on Nov. 4 already has more than 5 million views on YouTube.
He also made the front page of Reddit in the spring of 2013, when a photo of him on his last day of chemotherapy went viral, with supporters around the world joining Liam in celebrating the fact that he had "kicked cancer's butt" after a 3½-year bout with acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
But to meet Liam in person, as I did at his family's home outside of Boston, is to get a true sense of how amazing -- and resilient -- that sweet little boy beaming on the end of the bench truly is, and how much he really loves his teams.
"He's tougher than most of us, that's what I always say," Liam's mom, Christine Fitzgerald, said in an interview with FOX Sports earlier this month. "I look at what he's gone through in his first eight years of living, and you look back and you just have to go, 'Wow.'"
Liam was born with Down syndrome on Feb. 16, 2006, and on Dec. 7, 2009, his family learned he had leukemia, a relatively common diagnosis among children with Liam's condition. Knowing that didn't make the news any easier for Christine and her husband, Bill, of course, but doctors said from the start that there was reason for hope.
"What they told us when he was diagnosed was that he had the 'good' kind of cancer," Christine said. "I didn't know there was such a thing. You're in shock, and you're just thinking, 'Really?'
"You know they're trying to make you feel good," she continued, "But all you can think is, 'It's the what?' But it has a very high cure rate, and it's not one that usually recurs, and the protocol is pretty standard."
Soon after his diagnosis, Liam started chemo, and while his treatment was not quick and did not come without complications -- for example, at one point, during a trip to a cottage in New Hampshire, Liam's broviac line (a catheter) split, which made him sick and led to a frantic ER trip -- doctors finally declared him cancer-free in May 2013.
"(I was) very happy," Liam said as he showed me pictures on a tri-fold board Christine had made documenting her son's cancer fight. "I'm a fighter."
While fighting himself, Liam also, throughout his treatment, enjoyed watching fights -- hockey fights, that is. (He says they're his favorite part of the game, but he hates when Boston players have to go in the penalty box.) And as he's grown older, Liam has become more and more invested in watching his Bruins play.
He knows most of the players by name, and as long as he has what his mom calls a "double-thumbs-up day" at school, he watches just about every game at night (until he has to go to sleep, anyway). And when he doesn't see games live, Liam makes sure to catch up on highlights on his iPad at the dining room table the following morning.
"No newspapers for this kid," Christine joked. "But he has breakfast and says, 'Can I use the iPad?' and the first thing he does is puts on sports."
And every so often, Liam and his family get to go into Boston to see a game live at TD Garden, where he's become something of a fixture on the video board -- he's been Fan of the Game twice -- and is as popular with fans and players as the players are with him.
Liam's first Bruins game was in 2011, when he got a chance to go through an organization in Worcester, Massachusetts, called Why Me Sherry's as part of what the Bruins called Brad's Brigade, which gives kids with cancer VIP treatment at club seats at games.
At another game, when his dad had gotten tickets, Liam's 18-year-old brother, Nick, took Liam down by the tunnel to try to reach over and high-five players. The pair caught the eye of former Bruins forward Shawn Thornton, who ended up giving Liam his stick. That moment started something of a friendship between Thornton and Liam, who once fell asleep on Thornton at Red Sox pitcher Clay Buchholz's "Buchholz Bowl" event.
Liam had another chance to go to a game through Why Me Sherry's during the 2012 season, but the most memorable -- before this season's Bruins-Panthers game, anyway -- may have been a game in February, when Liam and his family went as guests of Adam McQuaid after a photo of Liam dressed up as McQuaid for Halloween made its way to the Bruins defenseman.
At that game, a well-known fan named Mike Penta, who calls himself the Bruins Cowboy, gave Liam a Milan Lucic pin from his heavily adorned cowboy hat. Then a fan sitting behind Liam's family gave Liam a combat action badge he'd earned in Iraq, telling him that the medal would keep him safe.
A seat at a Bruins game thrills Liam.
Later, a third fan who was sitting near the family stopped Christine and told her, "This has been the best game I've been to in a long time because of that little guy," then handed her a $20 bill and said to put it in Liam's college fund. After the game, Liam was able to meet a few players, and as the family waited for the train home later, another fan gave Liam a medal that had been blessed by the Pope.
"It was one of those surreal nights with all of these people come out of the woodworks, and it was random act of kindness after random act of kindness," Christine said. "It was just, like, you couldn't even fathom how nice people were, just because of his story and who he was and they just wanted to protect him, almost. It was very humbling.
"He didn't do anything, and we didn't do anything. It was just, we were there, he was having fun and to see people actually go out of their way to approach him, to talk to him, to just do nice things for him -- of course, any time I see him happy and smiling, I love that."
The family was able to go to one more game, on St. Patrick's Day of this year, but hadn't been again since until Nov. 4. Earlier this season, the Bruins had hosted a Bruins Against Cancer event, but the Fitzgeralds had a conflict and weren't able to make it. The team knew Liam's story, though, and knew how much he adored Thornton, now with the Panthers, so community relations manager Kerry Collins invited them when Florida came to town instead.
Before the game, Liam went down to the tunnel in search of high fives, as is his tradition at this point, but this time, Collins had a surprise in store, and moved him down to the Bruins bench to watch warmups.
"I'm up in the stands watching, and he's scooching over toward the end of the bench, and all of a sudden goes like this," Christine said, holding up a fist. "And I was like, 'Oh my God, he's going to get knuckles.' So he puts his fist out and I'm watching and one after the other, as they're going in, they're all getting him, and I'm like, 'Wow, not one of them is missing him.' And he'd just look up at me and smile, especially if he knew one of them."
Little did Liam, Christine or anyone else know, a fan across the ice had been filming, and by the end of the night, video of Liam's chance encounter with the team was making its way around the Internet.
"The next day, someone sent me the video and said, 'Hey, isn't this Liam?' because it didn't have a name with it initially," Christine said. "And I was like, 'Oh my God, yeah.' So then somebody else sends me the video, then somebody else, and soon it's like, 'Oh my God, this is everywhere,' and it just went crazy."
Now, several weeks later, it seems there are few people who haven't seen -- and shared -- the clip.
"I think (it was so popular) because it was organic," Christine said. "It wasn't something that was staged, and it wasn't a publicity thing. The Bruins didn't put it online. Somebody just happened to be there and caught that moment.
"He's very small, he's decked out in Bruins -- he almost looked like he worked for the Bruins, sitting on the bench -- and I think it was also the fact that, No. 1, he knew to do that, and people don't realize that he's 8, not 3. And then there's the fact that every single Bruin that came off the ice took the time to stop and recognize him, and I think people thought that was just fantastic."
Liam has a pair of the coolest -- if not the coolest -- shoes in Boston.
He was also the honored patient for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society team at this year's Boston Marathon and had his name printed on the runners' singlets, yet another example of Liam's fight inspiring others.
"What I tried to explain to the marathon team as an inspiration is that he didn't have any training for his marathon," Christine said, referring to his leukemia diagnosis. "He just got hit with the marathon and had to run it. He had no choice, but you guys are training and you have an opportunity to do something great for leukemia by raising funds, and you'll be prepared for it. If he can fight without training, you guys can run this marathon."
These days, Liam is in good health and, as always, is in great spirits -- except when the Bruins lose, of course. He's also getting bigger. As a result of his Down syndrome, he wasn't producing regular growth hormones, but just this month, he began receiving a nightly growth hormone shot, which he'll continue to get daily until he's at least 18.
The only downside to that is that he may soon outgrow his treasured custom Boston sports sneakers -- a gift from a company called Peach's Neet Feet, featuring his name and the logos of each of Boston's four pro sports teams. Fortunately, Peach's has already offered to make him new ones when his current kicks get too small.
In addition, Liam still has to go once every two months to have blood drawn to make sure his cancer is still in remission, but that occasional reassurance certainly beats the alternative and is just a minor inconvenience for Boston's biggest sports fan.
Liam Fitzgerald has reason to be proud.
Already, Liam has been back to another Bruins game since becoming a local celebrity -- a win over the Blues last Tuesday -- and he'll be there again on Friday when the Winnipeg Jets come to town, along with brother Nick, who will be home from college at Marist.
"It's so expensive, so I don't know how often we'd get there (normally)," Christine said. "We might try to go to one game a year. That's always Nick's Christmas present every year, he just wants tickets to a game. So to actually get invited in and be able to take him, it's really quite a treat."
Liam doesn't yet know whether he'll get another chance to hand out fist bumps, but he'll certainly be down by the tunnel searching for more high-fives. After the game, he'll probably get yet another chance to meet his favorite players, but at this point, it seems just as likely that the Bruins players will be seeking him out, not the other way around.
"I know," Christine Fitzgerald said with a laugh, looking over at her son. "Kerry even told him, 'They'll probably be asking for your autograph this time.'"
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Liam shows his stickhandling talents.