Local softball coach an inspiration to many

Guest columnist

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By MARC BLESOFF

Joni Fringer Owen called me about two months ago. I remembered her immediately from the years she played softball for the Windmills. The image of an exuberant, red-headed powerful pitcher jumped before my eyes. I hadn't seen or talked with her for four or five years, although I recalled she'd done pretty well pitching in college.

Joni quickly got to why she had called me?#34;she wanted to know if there were any openings for coaches in the Windmills organization. I said her timing was perfect, since the Windmills Board had recently committed to at least one female coach for every team and because we were right in the middle of Windmills' tryouts for next year.

We chatted a while about what she'd been doing over the past years. Joni told me she had pitched in college, moved back to Chicagoland and was now working at the Great Lakes Adaptive Sports Association in Lake Forest.  

"I really want to work with softball players and I want to give back to the organization that gave me so much."  This was not the first former college player I'd heard this from, and it made me very proud of the Windmills.

Then Joni said, "Oh, there's just one thing, Mr. Blesoff, I'm in a wheelchair now."

After missing a beat, I asked what she meant and what had happened. Here's some of what she told me.

After graduating from Maine West High School in the class of '98, Joni spent two years at Campbellsville University in Kentucky and then two years at Lambuth University in Tennessee. She played softball at both schools.

During her junior year, Joni was diagnosed with leukemia. She started chemotherapy and the cancer went into remission. Then, in 2002, it came back again in a more virulent form, with a terminal diagnosis. Joni entered clinical trials of a radical treatment at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. This treatment included a new drug and full-body radiation. Once again, the cancer went into remission.

Joni went on to explain that the leukemia had weakened her bones, making them brittle, and the radical treatment at Vanderbilt also added to the brittleness.

"But with the cancer in remission for a second time, I just had to go out and play softball," she said enthusiastically. 

During one at bat, she got hit on the helmet with a pitch and went down. She landed on her bat and severed her spinal column. Joni explained to me that she is a paraplegic and will be in her wheelchair the rest of her life.

I took a really deep breath. I pictured this strong young woman athlete lying at home plate. I pictured her beating leukemia and falling to a terrible accident. Then I heard the clarity in her voice and remembered the sparkle in her eye and her strength and I realized the courage behind this phone call that she had made.

Joni came to the Windmills tryouts the very next day. She met with Meghan Gallagher, coach of one of the 14-under teams. Joni and Meghan realized they had played against one another as teenagers. Meghan knew she needed help with pitchers and catchers, and she welcomed Joni onto the coaching staff.

This year, the girls on the Windmills 14 Blue team are going to learn a lot about softball from their coaches. They will have terrific role models. I suspect they will also learn about courage, perseverance and living with a physical handicap.

But this is not the end of Joni's story. In my next columns, I will tell you about Joni's mother, a terrific athlete in her own right, who inspires Joni to this day; about Joni's dangerous experimental high-tech surgery which allowed me to witness a miraculous event; and about Joni's recent relapse, necessitating a bone-marrow transplant. And I will be asking your help in finding bone-marrow donors in order to extend this amazing young woman's life. In preparation for that request, I urge all of you to go to www.giftoflife.org and learn about becoming a bone-marrow donor.

No, this is not the end of the story.  I suspect it is just the beginning.

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