Wasson’s biggest victory comes off the field

Published 12:00 am Friday, May 27, 2005

To win the 2005 state baseball championship, Demopolis had to overcome a series of late-inning deficits and strong opponents. But for one member of the team, two-outs-and-nobody-on is a piece of cake compared to what he’s already had to overcome.

Chris Wasson, a senior outfielder and pitcher for the championship Tigers, was a talented Dixie Youth player preparing to enter the seventh grade when he was diagnosed with cancer. But with the help of Children’s Hospital in Birmingham and the same friends he celebrated a championship last Saturday, he fought off the disease and was a major contributor to the Tigers’ magical season.

“It just makes it all that much better,” he says. “When I saw Seth hit it and the ball go over, I’ve never felt so happy. Not even when they told me I didn’t have cancer anymore. I couldn’t even compare them. It’s not even close.”

In honor of his remarkable perseverance, in April Wasson was named the statewide 4A winner of the prestigious Bryant-Jordan Achievement Award, given to student-athletes who have overcome substantial obstacles to succeed both on the field and in the classroom.

“”It felt good to win the award,” Wasson said.

“I was pretty shocked that I won it.

There are so many different kids out there that have done something extraordinary too.

I just felt honored to be the one they picked.”

For Wasson’s father, retiring assistant DHS baseball coach Danny Wasson, Chris’s struggles make every event–whether a state baseball title game or just Chris showing up for graduation practice–something to cherish.

“There was a chance that he wouldn’t be here today. You try not to think about that,” Danny says. “But several of the kids he first met [in the hospital] aren’t here anymore. It makes days like today, when you see him walk out on that field, about to graduate…it makes them more special.”

Not surprisingly, Danny’s love of baseball rubbed of on his son at an early age, and it was on the diamond that Chris first realized something was wrong.

“I found out because when I was little, I came out every day to practice with the high school,” Chris says. “My sixth grade year, during the spring, when I came out I couldn’t throw the ball.

And so I went to trainer Don [Spruell] and he told me to go have it checked out.”

What the doctors found was as bad as anything the Wassons had imagined.

“I went up to Birmingham and they found a golf ball size tumor on my brain,” Chris says. “And they cut that out and I started chemotherapy.”

Fortunately for Chris, the chemo was debilitating, but not the nightmare it is for many. That was thanks in large part to Children’s Hospital’s Dr. Watts, who Danny calls “one of the most amazing human beings I’ve ever met.”

Also playing a major role were Danny’s best friends and Dixie Youth teammates, the same best friends and DHS teammates he has today. Title game hero Seth Basinger played video games with Chris in the hospital. Outfielder Darrel Kent brought Chris a bag of McDonald’s.

“Little things like that don’t seem real big,” Chris says, “but they mean the world to you.”

Chris’s best friend William Meador, DHS’s pitcher and designated hitter, also spent many afternoons visiting Chris in the hospital.

“I can’t say enough about William. He will get on my nerves sometimes,” Chris says with a laugh, “but he’s been my best friend for as long as I can remember and he’s always been there for me.”

With the help of Watts and his friends, Chris responded so well to the chemo he was able to get around and even continue suiting up for his team. Danny says that although Chris wasn’t able to contribute much on the field, his teammates never once questioned his decision to play.

“He’d come to play, and he’d be so weak he couldn’t hit or run the bases,” Danny says. “But they never said a word. They were just so proud that he was playing.”

Danny says that the connection between this year’s group of seniors is so strong that Chris’s struggle has made an impact on his teammates as well.

“I believe they’re stronger human beings,” he says, “because of watching what Chris had to go through and being there alongside him.”

On one trip to the hospital, the Wassons were informed of a terrible turn of events: another young Demopolis baseball player, Bart Butler, had also been diagnosed with cancer.

But with Chris’s success providing inspiration, Butler was also able to overcome his disease and also played on this year’s DHS title team.

“I think it’s real safe to say,” Danny says, “that they’re the only team to win a state championship with two kids who have survived cancer on the roster.”

Chris says that as time went on, his energy and baseball skills slowly started to return.

“I think my strength and speed and energy started coming back when I was in about the eighth grade,” he says.

“You could really notice a difference in running or really throwing it. When you’re on chemo, it just feels like your legs keep pumping and pumping but they won’t move. Eighth grade is when that started to change–I started getting strength back, adding weight, and just kept getting stronger.”

Eventually, the chemo having done its job, Chris was told his cancer was in remission.

“Since then, I’ve been off of chemo,” he says, “and it’s only gotten better.”

With his cancer gone and a state title now in his back pocket, Chris is ready to face his future.

“I’m going to major in sports medicine at Troy. I want to be a trainer at the high school or college level, or hopefully, if I’m smart enough, be a surgeon – they get more money,” he says with a laugh.

–An interview by Denton Ramsey contributed to this story