The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

College

March 5, 2014

UPJ makes day special for young sports fan

JOHNSTOWN — The Pitt-Johnstown baseball team made one of the most important signings in the program’s history on Wednesday at the Sports Center.

Johnstown resident Jill Miller signed a letter of intent on behalf of her 4-year-old son Brandon, who is battling Chiari Malformation, a brain ailment that leads to pain throughout the young boy’s body on a daily basis.

The symbolic signing is part of Team IMPACT, a Boston-based organization that pairs children with life-threatening and chronic illnesses with college athletic teams. The goal is to enhance the lives of the children through the camaraderie, respect and support affiliated with being a part of a team.

“We’re here today to announce that Brandon Miller is going to sign a national letter of intent,” UPJ baseball coach Todd Williams said during a gathering of UPJ athletes and media at the campus’ Hall of Fame Room. “He will be a part of the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown baseball team. He’s going to be with us, and we’re going to welcome him with open arms.”

Brandon’s parents, Jill and Jeff Miller, and his 3-year-old sister Maci participated in the announcement.

“Brandon is a huge sports fan,” Jill Miller said. “He will never be able to play football, which is sad for him. But he loves baseball.”

Jill Miller learned of the Team IMPACT program and began searching for a team near Johnstown.

“Brandon is a Make-a-Wish child and he received a letter in the mail about Team IMPACT,” said Jill Miller. “We had the opportunity to meet the Steelers, and he is very much a sports fan.”

Brandon’s love of sports and superheroes made Jill even more determined.

“The program sets up kids with special needs with a college sports team,” Jill Miller said. “There were none in Pennsylvania yet. I contacted them on a Saturday, and on Monday they started searching.”

Once Team IMPACT contacted Williams, the UPJ program immediately was on board.

UPJ baseball player Brett Marabito was one of the project leaders appointed by Williams. Marabito quickly formed a bond with Brandon, who lost his ability to hear when he was 18 months old.

“One day coach pulled a few of us in his office and told us about a community service project,” Marabito said. “He said we were drafting a 4-year-old kid onto our team. At first, we were like, ‘What’s this about?’ ”

Marabito and his teammates found that baseball is more than wins and losses, runs and strikeouts.

“This is a great opportunity. It shows there is a lot more to life than what we are doing on the field,” Marabito said. “We can give so much more back to the community.

“It’s going to help us grow as individuals and as a team. It makes us band together. It makes us work for something more. We have somebody watching us and looking up to us. It gives us something to strive for.”

The entire baseball team attended the signing, with players dressed in full uniforms. Members of other UPJ sports teams also showed their support. Mountain Cats Athletic Director-wrestling coach Pat Pecora greeted the Millers.

Jill Miller said her family already feels like it’s a part of the UPJ family.

“It’s amazing. From the time it’s started, I’ve heard from them every day,” Jill Miller said. “It’s amazing that somebody is willing to take my son into their lives. It opens up his life and theirs.”

The baseball players visited Brandon at preschool three times this week. Those stops made a big difference, Jill Miller said.

“Brandon has disabilities that aren’t visible and one that is,” Jill Miller said. “It helps him out because with everybody coming around, the kids can see they’re not going to be hurt. Plus, these other kids are like, ‘Wow, he has some baseball player friends.’ ” Kids aren’t afraid of him anymore. They are not afraid to be friends with him or to play with him. They see he’s a normal child.”

Williams presented Jill and Brandon both home and away UPJ uniforms and a ball cap, though it might take a few years for him to grow into the items.

Marabito found a blue Superman shirt in Brandon’s size at a local sporting goods store. After learning Brandon is a Superman fan, the players wanted to give him a special gift.

“Brandon is our Superman,” Marabito said. “He had to have the shirt.”

Mike Mastovich is a sports writer for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/masty81.

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