WHEELING - If we listen closely enough, sometimes our youth can be our greatest teachers. For members of the Wheeling Nailers, Randy Stephens personified this.
A two-time cancer survivor, Stephens, a senior at Wheeling Park, lost his third battle with the disease early Monday morning at the Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh. Perhaps 'lost' isn't the correct term, for Randy's mind wanted to continue the fight, but his body simply wouldn't allow it.
Understandably, the news shook current and former members of the Nailers, who in the last couple of years had come to be close with Randy.
Wheeling Nailers players Zack Torquato (7) and Andrew Hotham (16) present Randy Stephens with a jersey and a plaque for being named the team’s ‘Fan of the Year’ last season. At left representing the Nailers, is Dale Whitlatch.
File Photo by Joe Lovell
''He battled so hard,'' Andrew Hotham said through tears over the phone from Oklahoma City. ''Last year he was in and out of the hospital for a week and we were on the road.
''He told the nurse his goal was to go to our next home game. He had surgery the day before, but he was there.
''He could barely walk, but he could come to the game.''
I regrettably only had the chance to meet Randy in person one time, and it should come as no surprise that happened at a Nailers game. He had just been diagnosed for the third time, but wearing that trademark smile, he walked toward me with his shoulders up and chest out.
Turns out he just wanted to shake the hand of the man he had interacted with so often on Twitter.
I'll never forget when it looked as if the Nailers were going to have to fold last summer. Each day I would wake up and, without fail, there would be a message from Randy wanting to know what I had heard overnight.
''He's definitely our No. 1 fan. I've never seen a family like that,'' said Zack Torquato, who was the first Nailer to reach out to Randy. ''He became our friend. Being in a small community, his family, his girlfriend, I was happy to know them.
''Being away from home but being around them felt like being at home with my family.''
Torquato, along with teammate Ben Farrer, made the trip to Pittsburgh last week to check in and find out if there was anything they could do to help. There previously had been far easier encounters.
''It was devastating because he wasn't able to be a kid, laying there hooked up to all those machines and tubes,'' Farrer said. ''It's human instinct pretty much that you're going to care about someone who is always there to support you. Even if he's not there, he's listening.
''You can learn lessons from him and you can relate it to your life and on the ice. Just to see how hard he fights - his attitude is what helped him get there.
''He was a good role model.''
To a man, the players say they got more out of their relationship than Randy possibly could have. They were taught patience and perseverance. Most importantly, they learned what it's like to live.
''He had gone through so much in his life that he grew up quicker than the average kid,'' Farrer said. ''It's a testament to him and the way he lived his life.''
''I think he had the maturity level of an adult. It's those people that you look up to, that are an inspiration,'' he said. ''Those people are amazing.
''He was one of those people that could captivate a room.''
Added Torquato: ''He and his girlfriend (Emily Megna) matured so quickly. It's sad they had to, but I learned a lot from them.
''I remember last year we went out for dinner and I was injured. He got my spirits up.''
Randy had recently told his mother that if he was not going to survive, he had done all he wanted to do, but he wanted to marry Emily. That final wish came true as the couple were united in his hospital room.
''If someone his age, with all the struggles, if he can look at it and say I have done everything in my life, that shows how much he cares about life,'' Farrer said. ''That was great to have that one last wish.
''(Emily) is another person that is like Randy, that will carry on his attitude.''
Randy Stephens has been described on more than one occasion as being one in a million. Sorry, but I don't think that does him justice. To me, Randy was the kind of person you meet once in a lifetime.
Somewhere up above, Randy is smiling that beautiful smile.
''Despite everything he was going through, he never complained,'' Torquato said. ''That's how I know him and will remember him.''
Shawn Rine can be reached via e-mail at Rine@theintelligencer.net