Panthers draft 6-year-old Gring
Looking back, it's prophetic that Clayton and Katherine Gring of Houston nicknamed their oldest son "Mighty George" when he was born.
Maybe it's his quick sense of humor, or the sparkle in his blue eyes, or his positive attitude. In any case, there's something about him that naturally draws people to him. "He's a little bit magnetic that way," Clayton Gring said of his 6-year-old son.
But it was George's turn to be captivated when he heard NFL commissioner Roger Goodell call his name as the draft pick of his favorite team, the Carolina Panthers, and when Panthers quarterback Cam Newton called him on the phone and asked him to come to Charlotte, North Carolina, for a day of minicamp.
After enduring five-plus months of treatment for a rare, aggressive form of lymphoma, George wished for a day with the Panthers and Newton, his favorite player. And the look on his face when he realized his wish was coming true is something his parents will never forget.
"He was totally shocked. He could not believe it," Katherine Gring said, still audibly energized by the memory. "He got this huge grin on his face. And watching him -- that look of pure astonishment -- I got very emotional about that. He was just floored. ... Remembering that makes me so happy and smile so big."
George admitted he was a little confused by being selected "because it's a draft and I'm not supposed to be in the draft. I'm only 6," he said.
That happy moment and the trip that followed was a far cry from the sadness and anxiety his parents felt late last fall, when they learned their son faced a serious disease.
Just before Thanksgiving Day, Clayton Gring found a lump on his son's side. When it didn't go away, the family sought medical attention, and the diagnosis that followed came as a shock -- Burkitt's lymphoma, a rare, aggressive cancer of the lymphatic system. Within two days, doctors had removed a tumor the size of a grapefruit and started an intensive course of chemotherapy.
For the Grings, what followed were 5½ months of too many days in the hospital and too few nights at home. But George remained positive through it all.
When it was time for an IV or a blood draw at Texas Children's Hospital in Houston, George asked for the iPad and started watching the Panthers -- initially for their mascot, Sir Purr, and then for Newton and his teammates.
"He'd watch them forever. That was his distraction," Clayton Gring said. "So Cam Newton became his favorite player."
In March, the Grings learned that George is in remission. He came home from the hospital on St. Patrick's Day, And when it came time to decide on a wish, he didn't hesitate: He wanted a day with Newton and the Panthers.
When he arrived at the team facility in June, George was greeted by the Panthers' cheerleaders -- chanting "Mighty George" as he walked to the front door -- and given a contract to sign. After attending a team meeting, George went to the locker room, where Newton was waiting to get George "swagged up" with a special pair of gold football cleats.
From there, it was out to the field, where George stretched out with the team, threw passes to tight end Greg Olsen, played catch with Newton and led the full-team huddle cheer at the end of practice.
"Watching [George and Cam] walk up from the locker room up to the practice field was really cool. Just watching them together," Katherine Gring said. "They both had big smiles on their faces, they both had the same shirt, they both had the same shoes. ... George looked like he was having the time of his life and Cam had a huge smile on his face."
While George will remember the excitement of meeting his football hero and bringing home swag from his favorite player, his parents will hold onto memories of the way Make-A-Wish and the Panthers made their son's special day happen.
"I can't stress enough what it's like to know there are people out there wanting to do nice things," Clayton Gring said. "This was a real day of practice ... and still, every person we talked to wanted to make sure that he had everything he needed."