April 13, 2010
Posted: 02:54 PM ET
By Jason Rovou, Larry King Live Producer
Brian Ernst loved baseball. He loved playing it, he loved talking about it and he loved to think about his future in the sport. As a star pitcher for his school team at West Hall High School in Oakwood, Georgia, he had hoped to play in college and fantasized about playing in the majors.
So it was no surprise that the 19-year-old asked the Make-A-Wish Foundation to meet his favorite player, Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira, as he battled the cancer that would eventually take his life in March.
Teixeira, who has routinely taken time to meet many kids in similar situations during his years as a professional player, said it was a meeting he would never forget.
“I’ve visited hospitals before and worked with Make-A-Wish foundation. You think you’re giving a kid something, but after I left Brian, he gave me something,” he said. “I think he gave me much more than I gave him.”
Brian had originally wanted to come to Yankee Stadium in The Bronx and play catch with Teixeira but his failing health prevented any trips. So instead the Yankee went to Children’s Hospital in Atlanta to visit Brian in February.
As Teixeira arrived at the hospital, he said he was met by a representative of Make-A-Wish, who told him that Brian had taken a turn for the worse and may not be able to see him in person. But, he said, something happened in the five minutes it took to walk from the parking lot to Brian’s room.
“I walked in and Brian had sat up in bed, had put on his Yankees jersey and was ready to hang out with me,” Teixeira said. “And his father told me that in the last couple of days, Brian had never been that responsive and wasn’t able to hold a conversation like that. It was a true miracle.”
Despite being in and out of consciousness for days, Brian was able to have a two-hour conversation with his baseball hero. They talked about sports – baseball, basketball and football. They talked about playing college baseball. But more than anything, Teixeira was struck by Brian’s hope and his desire to help other people – especially children – who were battling similar diseases.
“The most important thing we talked about was how his faith had gotten him through this experience in dealing with cancer. More importantly, how he affects other people and brings inspiration to other people with this terrible disease,” Teixeira said.
Brian’s mother, Donna Ernst suggested fate played a part in bringing her son and his baseball hero together.
“Watching the whole thing was just incredible. It amazed me of how of all the players he could have picked, Mark was special,” Brian’s mom, Donna Ernst said. “And I’m convinced there’s a special reason those two came to meet that day.”
Brian was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare type of cancer that is found in the bone or soft body tissue, just after his 17th birthday. And despite making progress with treatment early on, the cancer eventually returned and spread throughout his body.
When all medical options were exhausted, his mother said it was her responsibility to tell her son the bad news. But she was surprised by how it went; that instead of the family comforting Brian that day, Brian comforted his family. “What I thought was going to be the worst day of our lives, Brian gave a blessing to each one of us,” Donna remembered.
His father, Steve Ernst, added, “Here we are, at the lowest points in our lives at this moment and he’s comforting us by explaining that he’s not afraid. That he’s going to be okay.”
During his time at the hospital, Brian helped cheer up young children who had cancer. He told his parents that one day he wanted to be able to spread the message of living with childhood cancer and help people understand it better.
It was that kind of optimism and maturity that stayed with Teixeira long after his visit with Brian. “I just put myself in Brian’s shoes. How would I react ten years ago if that was me,” Teixeira wondered.
He was so moved and touched by Brian’s story that he is paying tribute to the young man who was not able to live his own dream by writing Brian’s baseball number in his own Yankee hat.
“Brian wore number 5 on the baseball field. He was a great baseball player,” Teixeira said. “I put number five in my baseball hat. And I wrote next to it ‘faith’ and his name next to that.”
Teixeira has stayed in touch with Brian’s family since his death and brought Brian’s parents to New York over the weekend to be his special guests at the Yankee’s home opener Tuesday in The Bronx. After the game, he plans to present his hat, the one with Brian’s number on it, to his parents.
Steve and Donna realize the importance and the symbolism of the trip to Yankee Stadium, the one that their son was not able to make himself. “That’s going to be a very emotional experience for us. It’s going to be very bittersweet,” Steve said. “We’re doing it, we’re going to be there for our son.”
Teixeira said he wants to spread Brian’s message, hoping to inspire other people to make the most of their lives. “It puts everything in perspective. You know, I play baseball,” Teixeira said. “I play baseball and people cheer me on. And they’re entertained for a few hours. But Brian changed lives. He really did. What Brian can do, compared to what I can do – it really doesn’t compare. He’s an amazing person.”
“Brian didn’t lose his battle with cancer. He won the battle. It didn’t break him down. He showed everybody that you can live through cancer and make a difference and inspire people no matter what circumstance you have,” Teixeira said. “And that will always stay with me.”
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