By Mark E. Vogler
LAWRENCE — Bryen Davies wishes he could lace up a pair of ice skates, put on a uniform, grab a hockey stick, go to a local rink and play his favorite sport.
Because of cystic fibrosis, a chronic genetic disorder that affects his lungs and digestive system, the 13-year-old Lawrence boy can only dream about slapping a puck past a goaltender trying to block his shot into the net.
“No tackle football or ice hockey,” Brenda Davies said in an interview last week as she explained the forbidden, physical contact sports for her son. Playing either sport could jeopardize his health because rough play might damage a feeding tube planted in his stomach to make sure he gets adequate nutrition, she said.
The only kind of hockey Brenda lets her son play is in the living room or on a neighborhood street with a stick and a plastic puck she bought him for his birthday
But the Salem State University Vikings men’s hockey team is giving Bryen a chance to live his ice hockey dream, at least as a teammate.
The 4-foot-6-inches tall-75-pound sixth grader from the South Lawrence East Middle School will be sitting on the bench this fall with the Vikings, wearing his own jersey with his name and number “13” – the one he picked out for himself – printed on the back. The team “drafted” him through a partnership with Team IMPACT, a nonprofit organization based in Quincy which seeks to improve the quality of life for children with life-threatening illnesses by matching them up with local college athletic teams.
On April 24, the team welcomed Bryen to its 2013-14 roster with a special draft ceremony held at O’Keefe Sports Center in Salem, Mass. Bryen and his parents were treated to a tour of the Salem State campus, a photo shoot session with his Vikings teammates, dinner in the cafeteria and the official signing of a “letter of intent.”
“By signing this letter, you will officially become a member of the team and one of the boys,” said the letter, signed by Coach William O’Neill, Salem State Athletic Director Tim Shea and Bryen.
“Your membership to this team will include exclusive access to our team and locker room at both practices and games along with other team building activities. Every member of the ice hockey team, coaches, athletic administration, and the student body of Salem State are extremely proud to add you to our team. Congratulations!”
The giant contract now sits in the living room of Bryen’s house.
When asked what he hoped will come out of his unique relationship with a team of college athletes, Bryen answered “I expect them to win all their games.”
Asked to describe how being a part of the team will affect him personally, Bryen called it “cool.”
“The experience is going to be a whole other world. It’s going to be something,” he said.
His mother said Bryen’s participation on the Salem State hockey team could be a very positive, life-changing experience.
“He’s overwhelmed that this is really happening,” Brenda said.
“He told me he felt ‘famous’ when he signed the contract. He just met them last month and he’s already texting the players. He became attached to them real quick. It’s kind of like they are all his big brothers,” she said.
On its website, Team IMPACT notes that the child benefits from the camaraderie, support and respect he or she gets from “being a valued member of a team.” It’s also provides “a charished diversion from their medical realities,” the website noted.
“The players gain invaluable perspective on the precious nature of life, and are humbled and inspired by the determination, strength and courage of a child fighting through such adversity,” it said.
Senior co-captain Kyle Phelan of Barnstable said he and his teammates embraced the opportunity to become a part of Bryen’s life and grow from the experience.
“Having Bryen as part of the Vikings going forward will be a very fulfilling experience for all of us,” Phelan said.
“Bryen faces adversity every day, and our team will be there for him with all the support and help he needs going forward. ... We anticipate that this will be an awesome relationship, and one that will transcend far beyond next season. We think Bryen will inspire us immensely, and we hope we can do the same,” he said.
Bryen is one of about 30,000 people in the U.S. who inherited cystic fibrosis, a genetic disorder that causes the body to produce a thick and sticky mucus that can clog the lungs and cause life-threatening infections. The mucus can also cause problems with the pancreas and prevent enzymes from helping the body break down food.
Brenda said she and her father, Maurcie Davies, are both carriers of cystic fibrosis. Bryen’s older brother, Jonathan, 20, of Lawrence, also has cystic fibrosis. He graduated from Greater Lawrence Regional Vocational Technical High School in Andover.
Taking care of a young child, afflicted with cystic fibrosis can be a challenging task, especially for a mom with a full-time job like Brenda.
“She’s very dedicated and gets up early in the morning to take care of Bryen,” Maurice said.
“It’s like another full-time job. She sacrifices her own personal time to make sure he’s well. It’s worth the price of rubies to have a mother like that,” he said.
Brenda acknowledged she’s had several close calls where she had to rush Bryen down to the emergency room of Boston Childrens Hospital. “A couple of times, I was scared,” she said.
Taking care of her son demands constant monitoring of his diet (a high-caloric intake) with night-time feedings necessary, various tests to make sure he’s breathing easily and keeping a close eye on the weather.
“When it’s really humid and hot, he can’t be outside because it’s hard to breathe,” Brenda said.
“And when he has a cold, he has to be careful because it can get chronic,” she said.
Brenda said she has to confer with Bryen’s new teachers every year to brief them on potentially hazardous situations that Bryen may face in his school.
Meanwhile, Bryen has a good outlook on life and has learned to accept his condition and how to make adjustments, according to his mother.
“He’s very aware of his situation and is not shy to talk about his illness,” Brenda said.
“His feeding tube, he considers his ‘extra belly button,’” she said.
Bryen’s dad James Hadley said this has been a good year for his son, who received a special trip from the Make-A-Wish Foundation in January. The family got to travel to Phoenix, where Bryen got to meet his wrestling idol John Cena. Born in West Newbury, Cena is the current WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) champion.
“He (Bryen) loves wrestling. A couple of players on the Salem State hockey team love wrestling too, so he has something to talk to them about now,” Hadley said.
“Being on the hockey team is going to be a great experience. I think this program (Team IMPACT) is good for kids. It’s going to help a lot of kids out and motivate them so they won’t be stuck at home all the time,” he said.