Commentary

Charlie Pena: Five years later, still a fan

Originally Published: July 15, 2011
By Mike Ehrlich | ESPN.com

Charlie Pena was just trying to get a little bit of sleep. He had already been through seven days of chemotherapy and had several lines pumping blood into his body. Drowsiness was starting to set in from the variety of pills required to regulate a 13-year-old body undergoing a bone marrow transplant.

Finally, the nurse had left the room, a baseball game flickered on the TV and Charlie was ready to nod off in his hospital bed.

The telephone had other plans, though, and Charlie wouldn't soon get to sleep after this call.

"Hey Coach Charlie, what's up?" began the voice on the other end. "It's Donovan McNabb."


Charlie Pena was born with sickle cell anemia. Growing up, he missed out on all of the "normal stuff" that his peers experienced: playing sports, going to the pool, having a normal diet. Most of Charlie's childhood was spent in and out of the hospital.

[+] EnlargeCharlie Pena
Pena FamilyThe Eagles were never far from Charlie's thoughts, even after chemotherapy took his hair before a bone marrow transplant in 2007, one year after Charlie coached the team for a day.

But Charlie -- now a fully healthy high school graduate -- also had a lot on his side. An indomitable will, a caring family, a younger brother who was a perfect genetic match and a large support group more commonly known as the Philadelphia Eagles.

In 2006, one year before his bone marrow transplant, Charlie was selected to appear in ESPN's "SportsCenter" series, "My Wish." A special video was played for Charlie, in which Philadelphia Eagles coach Andy Reid hired him to be the Eagles' coach for a day. Charlie's wish was coming true.

In early June, Coach Charlie Pena was welcomed to the Eagles' minicamp. He had a one-on-one strategic conversation with Reid and interacted with the players, including his hero, Donovan McNabb.

Charlie even called a play during a scrimmage (22-Z-IN), which led to a McNabb completion.

"I think that day just outranked every other thing in his life at that particular time," said Charlie's mother, Yvonne Mercado-Pena. "And that wish, believe it or not, it gave him something. I can't say that it was confidence because he's always had that. But it gave him some psychological edge. After that wish, he was out of the hospital for almost four months."

For someone that had rarely spent a single month out of the hospital, four months might as well be an eternity. "I was like, 'This is crazy. Maybe they cured me or something,'" Charlie said. "It was a life-changing experience."

The experience wasn't over. The ensuing football season, the Pena family was invited to a "Monday Night Football" game at Lincoln Financial Field. During the game, McNabb found Charlie in the first row and tossed him a game ball.

When the clock expired on the Eagles' victory, Charlie entered the locker room with the team, while his family waited outside.

"He came out with McNabb," Yvonne recalled. "McNabb's still suited up, and he's walking next to McNabb. I had this person actually come up next to me and go, 'Is that McNabb's son?' I was like, 'No, that's my son!' They said, "He's really been holding on to him," and I'm like, "Yeah, precious cargo.'"

Even if Charlie's wish knocked his illness back for a while, it didn't knock it out. In April of 2007, after another stint in the hospital, doctors told the family he needed a bone marrow transplant.

[+] EnlargeCharlie Pena
Courtesy of the Pena familyCharlie walked in his high school graduation ceremony and received his diploma in June.

There was a chance the transplant could kill him, but without it, the disease would certainly finish him off. Charlie didn't flinch.

"At that point, I was kind of used to it," Charlie said. "I had been told before that I could die. It was another challenge. It was like another curveball. I was ready to hit that sucker out of the park."

The transplant didn't kill Charlie, although it came close. Even though his younger brother, Kyle, was a perfect donor match, Charlie still developed graft versus host disease, a condition in which his body initially rejected the transplant. He became diabetic. He developed a septic infection in his blood and nearly died. He needed a feeding tube. He was placed in isolation. He was twice placed in intensive care.

"Right before he went into surgery to get his lines in, I told him that we were going to go through hell, but we will come out together at the other end," Yvonne said. "And he kicked ass, and he came out smiling."

Charlie remembers the transplant and the ensuing recovery as a horrible experience. But there was one bright spot during the process -- an unexpected call from his hero.

"I don't even know what I thought at that moment," Charlie recalled. "I froze. And then the machine started beeping because my blood pressure shot up all the way. McNabb was trying to talk to me because I think he noticed that I was a little shy. And when I finally answered, I was crying so much.

"He said, 'Keep it going. You got this.' And then my nurse came running in."

Yvonne, too, was crying as she listened to her son talk to McNabb. "He was on cloud nine," she said. "For the rest of the day, I don't think it mattered if he got stuck or if his medicine came and went. He got a call from his team."


By all appearances, Charlie Pena is now a normal 17-year-old. He likes to hang out with his friends, go to the park, listen to music. He plays on a baseball team and works occasionally as a disc jockey. He wears braces and worries his mother over his schoolwork.

Charlie will attend the close-to-home City College of New York next year, and he plans to transfer to a SUNY campus for his sophomore year. (Yvonne said Charlie knows she needs one more year before she's ready to let go.) He's still undecided on a major.

But Charlie isn't thinking too far into the future. He's too busy having the time of his life.

"These days, I feel like I can do anything," Charlie said. "I feel so good that the other day it was raining outside and I didn't have an umbrella, my mom's trying to get me to come inside and I'm like, 'Mom, leave me alone. I'm immune to sickness. This rain ain't gonna do nothing to me.'

"I have this new cockiness, this swag. I'm nice now -- I'm better. It's like, 'Try and stop me. You're not going to do it even if you try.'"



For more on the stories behind SportsCenter's My Wish series, be sure to check out:

  • Adam Hubbs meets Tim Tebow
  • Michael Acosta manages the Twins
  • Brandon Galanaugh kicks it with Landon Donovan