The Ravens' (very) secret weapon
You're 14 years old. You've got cancer. And your team asks for your help.
Hey, Baltimore fans, this might make you spit out your crab cakes.
You realize who's been calling the first play of Ravens' games lately? Like the one that went for an 83-yard touchdown against the Patriots?
If you said head coach John Harbaugh, you'd be wrong.
Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron? Wrong again.
QB Joe Flacco? Strike three.
The guy who's been calling the first play lately isn't a guy at all. It's a 14-year-old Baltimore kid. His name is Matthew Costello, he's got an inoperable brain tumor and he's on a lucky streak.
"You gotta meet this kid," says Cameron.
This all started when Matt, a third baseman and pitcher for Loyola Blakefield Middle School, was hit in the eye with a pitch that tipped off his bat. He ended up with double vision. A few dozen doctors later, they found a malignant tumor. Now his days are mostly going to chemo sessions and wondering if he's ever going to get back to playing any of the three sports he loves.
Cameron's son, Danny -- Matthew's classmate -- told his dad about him, how he lives for the Ravens. Next thing you know, Cam Cameron was driving through the biggest snowstorm to hit Baltimore in years -- getting stuck three times -- with a Flacco-signed football, a signed hat and glad tidings for Matthew.
Why? Maybe because Cameron survived serious melanoma cancer at age 28.
Matthew's dad is a morning news anchor at WMAR in Baltimore and he was on the air, live, when his phone spit out this befuddling text from his wife, Donna: Cam Cameron is on his way.
"I'm like, 'What?'" Jamie Costello recalls. "'In a driving snowstorm?'"
Yep. Cameron talked with Matt for 20 minutes, and then, as he was leaving, turned and said, "Hey, Matthew, whaddya wanna call for our first play Sunday?"
Mouth open. Eyes not blinking.
Since the chemo took his brown hair and a whole mess of his white blood cells, he only leaves the house to go to the hospital. Instead, he listens to comedy on his MP3 player. It's a crazy thing to see a kid, fighting for his life, constantly laughing.
"Seriously," Cameron said.
Since Matt played QB for the school team, he knew when it was time to audible. "Play-action pass," he said. "Be cool if you could get it to Todd Heap."
Sure enough, first snap against the Chicago Bears in Week 15 -- with the Ravens trying to make the playoffs -- Flacco fakes the handoff and drops back to pass. Only he bounces the ball off the turf for an incomplete pass. But later in that series Cameron looks at his play sheet. Scrawled on the side, he's written Matthew Costello. So he calls Matt's play again and it goes for a 14-yard touchdown to Heap, the tight end. Ravens win, 31-7.
End of story, right? Except, three weeks later, the night before the Ravens' playoff game with New England, Cameron calls again.
"OK, Matt, whaddya wanna do Sunday?"
"Run the ball," pronounced Matt. "Ray Rice. He's hot."
So, first play against the Patriots, Flacco hands to Rice. There's a hole and Rice is through it like he's being chased by a bear.
"And I'm thinking to myself, 'Don't tell me this is going to go all the way,'" Cameron remembers. It does -- 83 yards, untouched, for a touchdown. "The whole way, I'm thinking of Matthew," Cameron says.
Nobody knows any of this except Cameron's and Matt's families. Jamie Costello is in the press box, screaming like his underwear is on fire. He hadn't told anybody that his teenage son was the new brains behind the Ravens' offense, so every single person gives him the stink eye. There's no cheering in the press box, dude. Unless you're cheering for a kid who's trying to survive.
Ravens win, 33-14.
Says Cameron: "I just looked to the sky and said, 'Maybe there's something to this kid!'"
Oh, there's definitely something to this kid. Since the chemo took his brown hair (the family calls him "Barkley" now) and a whole mess of his white blood cells, he only leaves the house to go to the hospital. Instead, he listens to comedy on his MP3 player. It's a crazy thing to see a kid, fighting for his life, constantly laughing.
This month sometime, Matthew will gulp hard and find out if his tumor has shrunk enough to begin radiation. If not, it's back to the chemo, Frank Caliendo going through his brain, prayers going through everybody else's.
Cameron knows a little how the kid feels. Earlier this fall, he had another cancer scare -- this one prostate -- but a battery of tests turned up nothing.
"My three boys and I talk about Matthew all the time," he says. "Anytime we're going through something a little tough, we say, 'How do you think Matthew's doing?'"
As for Matthew's dad, he can't find the words. "I used to worship Brooks Robinson," Jamie says. "But Cam Cameron is higher than that now for me."
The Ravens play Super Bowl-favorite Indianapolis on Saturday, on the road. Cam is planning the Matthew call for Friday night.
So, Matthew, whaddya wanna do?
"I haven't decided yet," he says. Smart. The Colts could be reading.
Not that he doesn't have a game plan.
"When I get better, I wanna do what Coach Cam did for me. I wanna make some kid feel the way Coach made me feel."
Funny, right? How a kid with double vision can see so clearly?
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RICK REILLY, 52, has been voted National Sportswriter of the Year 11 times. His new book -- out May 4, 2010 -- is called "Sports From Hell: My Two-year Search for the World's Dumbest Competition." It's the account of his search for the dumbest sport in the world.
Not to give anything away, but a good bet would be either Ferret Legging or the World Sauna Championships. It also includes embarrassing attempts by Reilly to try Nude Bicycle Racing, Zorbing, Chess Boxing, Extreme Ironing, the World Rock Paper Scissors Championships and an unfortunate week on a women's pro football team.