NFL star brightens end of chemo at Sanford Children’s

Patient gets a surprise call from an old friend: Cardinals' Larry Fitzgerald

Tennyson Erickson takes a video call outside while friends and family watch
Tennyson Erickson takes a video call outside while friends and family watch

Tennyson Erickson pipes right up when asked about Larry Fitzgerald Jr. these days.

“He’s nice and humble,” Tennyson said when asked to explain why Fitzgerald, a surefire future NFL Hall-of-Fame wide receiver for the Arizona Cardinals, is this 9-year-old’s favorite athlete.

More than two years ago, Tennyson, who lives with his family in Platte, South Dakota, was part of a Make-A-Wish visit to Arizona Cardinals mini-camp to spend a day with Fitzgerald.

It was an unforgettable experience for Erickson and his family, but Fitzgerald didn’t forget about the visit either.

This May, more than two years after meeting Fitzgerald in Arizona, the youngster was at the Sanford Children’s Hospital in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, celebrating the end of 1,206 days of cancer treatments.

It is customary to commemorate this kind of occasion by ringing a bell. In this case, the family and the Sanford Children’s child life team arranged to have it take place outside.

It has been a challenge during the pandemic to find suitable and festive ways to recognize these occasions, the child life folks will tell you. In this instance, however, the team had help from a 17-year-year NFL veteran.

Fitzgerald reaches out

Fitzgerald and the Cardinals organization wanted to be there for Tennyson’s big day. While pandemic conditions ruled out a personal visit, Cardinals media relations manager Mike Helm, along with Wendy Jensen, a specialist with Sanford’s child life team, came up with a plan.

It began with Tennyson, wearing an Arizona Cardinals jersey for the occasion, giving the bell a sound ringing. Then Jensen called him over and told him he had a phone call. Tennyson wasn’t sure what to think of that, but when Jensen handed him the phone he figured it out.

Looking back at the boy on the smartphone screen was Fitzgerald, who had watched the ceremony via Zoom.

“His eyes opened so wide when he saw who it was,” Jensen said. “It was so fabulous. It could not have gone any better.”

Tennyson!

Fitzgerald quickly seized the moment.

“Tennyson!” he began. “What’s up big man? How are you doing? I missed you man. I’m so happy for you. I’m so happy to be here to see you ring the bell. That must have been a long, long journey for you. … I think everybody around you can be there to celebrate and tell you what a special young man you are.”

Tennyson can be a little shy around strangers according to his mother, but Fitzgerald, who artfully filled in the gaps during the Zoom meeting, was no longer a stranger.

“Larry is so sincere,” Diana said. “That’s how he is all the time with us. Every time he’s spent time with Tennyson it’s ‘How are you doing? How are you feeling? Are you doing well in school?’”

Fitzgerald’s tweet, which included photographs from his visit to Arizona, said it all:

“Congrats to one of my heroes. After 1,206 days of treatment, 10 rounds of chemo, & 34 nights in the hospital, my guy Tennyson Erickson rang the bell signaling he is done with treatment and CANCER FREE! You’re a warrior full of strength and courage and an inspiration to us all!”

Discovering leukemia

The happiness of the bell-ringing was a long way from the day Diana discovered a lump on Tennyson’s neck while they were sitting together watching television.

Within days the Ericksons discovered their son had a form of leukemia.

In all, the treatment involved more than three years. It included 21 spinal taps, 34 nights in a hospital, 10 types of chemotherapy, two surgeries, three emergency room visits, hundreds of needle pokes and many hours at Sanford Children’s.

“I know the people at the Castle work with children all the time and that’s their job,” Diana said. “But it just seemed like they kept going above and beyond what we would expect. The level of care was just unbelievable. When I see those people now I just go up to them and say ‘hi.’ Before COVID I would give them a hug. They became part of our family.”

Sometime after Tennyson began getting treatments, the Ericksons were approached about the possibility of consenting to a Make-A-Wish adventure for their son. It was an intriguing idea, but also a little difficult to think about.

“We were still processing the whole thing,” Diana said. “It was still in the early part of the treatments when they approached us. We almost felt like we didn’t fit in that category, you know? And then you realize you kinda do fit but you don’t want to admit it.”

Fitzgerald’s Cardinals

After giving the venture a green light, Make-A-Wish people talked with Tennyson. They came away knowing the youngster was smitten with the Arizona Cardinals football team.

After Make-A-Wish heard back from the Cardinals, the organization contacted ESPN. The sports network indicated they were also interested and began putting together a plan.

In June of 2018, Tennyson made the trip with ESPN including the visit as part of their “My Wish” series. What followed was a uniformly heartwarming story as presented by reporter Chris Connelly with Fitzgerald perfectly suited for making a 7-year-old’s visit one to remember. It included Tennyson signing a contract with team owner Michael Bidwill and scoring a touchdown at the end of a Cardinals practice.

Tennyson, surrounded by Cardinals players, did “The Floss” in the end zone after scoring the touchdown. It would have been a fitting end to the connection between the team and the family, but it didn’t end there.

The Ericksons have attended several Arizona Cardinals football games since the mini-camp visit. On one occasion in a game against the Minnesota Vikings in Minneapolis, Fitzgerald actually made a catch on a sideline route near the end zone and then tossed the ball to the family in the front row.

The kind gestures of a star football player have helped lighten the load for the Ericksons. Mom and Dad’s resolve, as well as the unwavering support of Tennyson’s four older siblings, have also played a huge role in helping Tennyson get back to living life the way 9-year-old Arizona Cardinals fans are supposed to live it.

“He’s done really well through this whole thing,” Diana said. “He’s had his bad days where he didn’t feel so well but when he talks about it he’s never talked about it like it’s been a hardship. Through all the treatments and everything else, he might not have liked what he’s had to do but he’s always loved seeing everybody.”

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Posted In Cancer, Children's, Sioux Falls

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