PHILADELPHIA (WJZ/AP) — T.J. Onwuanibe is known as “the kid with the football” at Children’s National Hospital in Washington, D.C. On Thursday night, he’ll be “the kid announcing the first selection” for the Baltimore Ravens at the NFL draft.
The 14-year-old Laurel eighth grader at McDonogh School in Baltimore was diagnosed two years ago with brain cancer. He recently told Make-A-Wish Mid-Atlantic that his dream was to stand up on the draft stage with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and tell the world who his favorite team was choosing with its first-round pick. With help from the Ravens, T.J.’s wish has been granted.
During his long stays in the hospital, he had a strategy to get by.
“I just have to go through this and I’ll be able to get to football,” Onwuanibe said.
Not just any football, Ravens football. A needed distraction from his tumor diagnosis.
When his mom called the Make-A-Wish Mid-Atlantic foundation, she knew exactly what would make T.J.’s dreams come true.
T.J. had gotten to meet the coaching staff and several players at training camp through another nonprofit organization, the Casey Cares Foundation, and it was obvious to the NFL team that he was passionate about the sport. So when the wish came through to the Ravens’ offices, they knew he was the kid for the job.
Coach John Harbaugh even was the one who informed T.J.
“For him, football is the one thing that makes him excited,” says T.J.’s mom, Chioma. “It was his life, it was everything to him and it became everything to us because it brought his smile, it made him happy.”
“Even when I made the wish, I was actually holding back because I’m just like, it’s not like they’re miracle workers,” Onwuanibe said.
Casey Cares provides uplifting activities for families with critically ill children. Throughout his treatments, Casey Cares provided those activities when T.J. was feeling up to it. T.J. and his family went to the Aquarium, the Maryland Zoo and other local attractions, but any time the nonprofit organization had access to anything Ravens-related, they would get him involved.
That included going to a game; experiencing a special football camp with wide receiver Steve Smith (now retired); attending Ravens training camp with a special player and coach meet-and-greet; and attending former Ravens receiver Torrey Smith’s annual basketball game for charity.
For T.J., it was all Ravens, all the time.
“For a long time, all I could think about was football, the color purple and the Ravens,” he says. “But that all changed with the diagnosis of cancer.”
Instead of focusing on football, he had to focus on doctor visits, treatments and medications.
“That was hard for me, but I found a way to get through it, just thinking it would be better,” he adds.
“He has always been caring and compassionate. He’s also, always been passionate about the Ravens,” his mom says.
“I’ve been practicing not fainting,” he said.
But he has a message for the Ravens:
“Thanks for being the thing that kept me attached to the normal world, when I couldn’t be doing normal stuff.”
It has become better: T.J. is now in remission.
Casey Cares recently coordinated a pajama drive at his school called “PJ’s for T.J,” with a campus-wide collection, games and other activities in his honor. About 700 pairs were collected.
Next, T.J. the avid Ravens fan gets to fulfill a dream.
“The Make-A-Wish Foundation always goes above and beyond to make these moments special, and we are so excited for T.J. and the Onwuanibe family,” says Heather Darney, director of community relations/executive director of the Ravens Foundation. “The Ravens are thrilled that T.J.’s wish to announce our first-round draft pick on Thursday night has been granted. We are grateful to have passionate fans like T.J., and his involvement will make this year’s draft experience even more memorable.”
If they don’t trade out of the first round, the Ravens will pick 16th overall.
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