GAINESVILLE — When Florida senior leftfielder Francesca Enea learned about an organization that pairs college sports teams with children with pediatric brain tumors, she immediately went searching for details.
"I looked up the website for 'Friends of Jaclyn' and immediately said, 'This looks great, let's do it,' " Enea said.
About the same time, 12-year-old Heather Braswell was recovering from a brain tumor and watching an HBO documentary that featured the group.
Heather wanted to find a team that could help ease her transition back to health. Enea wanted to find a child who needed the Gators. Ultimately, what they found in each other was an experience that exceeded their expectations and created a bond that has changed them all.
"It's surpassed anything you could expect because they really welcomed her," said Heather's mother, Terri Braswell. "They include her in everything. She gets to go out for home runs — when they run out to the plate to high-five, she gets to go with them. She's built a friendship and a closeness with them that I don't think she could get anywhere else. It's like she's part of a team. It's just one big family."
Enea was told the matchup process could take at least six months, but a few weeks after she submitted paperwork on the Gators' behalf, she got a call from an organization member who told her an Orlando girl was interested in being adopted by the team.
There was one small catch. Heather is the daughter of two Florida State graduates who are diehard Seminole fans. Her mother wanted the assurance that the Gators knew of the family's FSU allegiance and had no problem with it. They did not.
On Nov. 13, 2009, Heather was "adopted" by the Gators.
"When we first came, it was around my birthday (Nov. 11) and they said we've got this big surprise for you," Heather, now 13, said. "I walked in and there was this big plaque with my name and my number, and they had all these gifts. They gave me No. 1. And I got my name on the back of my shirt."
"It was great just to see a smile on her face and a genuine happiness from within," her mother said. "After the treatment, that was hard to come by, to see her light up like that. It put a pep back in her step."
Since then, Heather has attended numerous games, and she was in Gainesville last weekend to see the regular-season finale. The Gators are defending their SEC tournament title this week in Fayetteville, Ark.
"It's been amazing," Heather said. "Not just the stuff, but when I'm not feeling good or not doing so well, they'll text me and it makes me smile. And it feels nice."
In September 2007 Terri Braswell, a nurse, noticed signs of her daughter's appetite change. Doctors discovered the brain tumor on an MRI exam. Heather and her family spent a total of nine months in Memphis where she was treated at St. Jude Children's Hospital. The treatment was grueling.
"The hardest part was probably throwing up 15-plus times a day," Heather said.
Now cancer free, Heather is a diehard Florida fan, including a bedroom wall decorated in orange and blue. If they can't attend or watch Gator softball games on TV, Heather and her mom listen via the Internet. For the record, her mom, dad and brother remain FSU fans, though Terri obviously loves the Florida softball team.
"It's hard to even put into words as a parent (what this has meant)," Terri Braswell said. "It's made her stronger as a person. She's very shy, but she comes here and she just pops over the gate and goes right in. And she's not like that. And Francesca is the most amazing person. She has a special bond with her because she's the one who was like the captain of it all."
In return, Heather has had a major impact on the Gators.
"I think she brings us back to reality," UF pitcher Stephanie Brombacher said, fighting back tears. "Someone that young who could go through all of that. And here we are, healthy, and we actually get to play the sport we love and we get the chance to do this. She may never get to have that dream or live out this dream. So we get to share this experience with her, and she makes us realize that there could be a lot worse things going on in our lives."
For Enea, just named to the SEC Good Works team for her community work, including more than 600 hours of service, the reward goes both ways.
"I think it's been great for her to know that she has 16 girls to support her anytime, and if she needs someone to talk to, she can text any one of us," she said. "And on these long trips, we'll always text her because she's always by her phone. It's like a little-sister relationship, and it's great to have. To be someone that's that young and having to go through something that serious, we've gained some great perspective on life and things from her."
GATORS IN SEMIFINALS: Florida scored eight runs in the fifth inning, capped by Durant grad Kelsey Horton's three-run homer, to invoke the mercy rule in a 9-1 defeat of Auburn in the quarterfinals of the SEC tournament. UF, the second seed, faces No. 3 seed LSU at 3 p.m. today.
Antonya English can be reaches at email@example.com or (813) 226-3389. See friendsofjaclyn.org for more on the Friends of Jaclyn organization.