Resilient teen gets big lift from Gator softball
When she gets to the softball field, she hops the fence and heads right to the dugout with watermelon-flavored Sour Patch candy for her team.
Heather Braswell, 16, might not be listed in the lineup, but she's a member of the University of Florida softball team. She was "adopted" by the team in 2009 after she beat brain cancer and was recovering from radiation treatments.
The team rallied behind her then. They gave her gifts on her birthday, became her role models and brought a smile back to her face.
Now the team is rallying behind her once more. After 5½ years of being cancer-free, Heather is fighting once again after doctors found another brain tumor.
"At first I thought it was a joke," Heather said.
When she found out she would have to fight cancer once more, Heather broke down. Her mother, Terri Braswell, cried too.
To hear that Heather had another brain tumor was "the hardest thing ever," Braswell said.
Braswell is a nurse. It is a blessing and a curse, she admits.
Sometimes she feels like she knows a little too much because she understands all too well what the doctors are talking about.
Braswell said she cannot put into words what it means to her family to have the Gator softball team in their life.
She credits the Friends of Jaclyn Organization, which she learned about from a TV special, for bringing the team into Heather's life. The organization matches children with brain tumors with college and high school athletic teams.
"There's only so much as a mom that you can do," Braswell said.
On Thursday, Braswell was sitting next to her daughter, who wears a bandana that says "Harley Davidson." It hides her head from the sun, because the radiation treatments have taken all of her hair.
There was no softball game that day, but Heather and her mom came to the stadium to drop off orange-and-blue shirts Heather designed for the team. The back of the shirts say "Cancer messed with the wrong girl."
The visit to Gainesville was a pit stop on their way from their home in Apopka to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn., where Heather will find out if she has beaten cancer once again.
Bailey Castro, a slugger on the Gator softball team famous for hitting two home runs in an inning in 2012, tried to hide her tears while listening to Braswell talk about how the team always cheers Heather up.
"I was trying to hold it in, and my face got all red," Castro said.
Castro said it was the first time she had heard of the impact the team has had on Heather.
"To know we as a team can do that ...," she said.
Head softball coach Tim Walton said it's not something the team normally talks about — because it's just something they do. The team members don't do it for the recognition — they just do it for Heather.
They communicate with her even when she's not at the field by sending her text messages and pictures using Snapchat. Heather sends back pictures and videos of her pets — two cats named Zowey and Pepsi and two dogs named Snickers and Harley.
Walton said he still thinks of Heather as the 12-year-old girl the team first met. He wears a plastic bracelet that says "Team Heather." Today, Heather is a student in Florida Virtual School, which means her high school coursework is done online, allowing her the flexibility to deal with her cancer.
Walton said he's glad Heather keeps coming back every season.
"That tells you that we've hit her right in the heart," he said.