Some victories are sweeter won off the field. Ali, now just four years old, put a "W" on her record in 2012 when she defeated leukemia. She added to her list of successes as she claimed the title against 49ers safety Michael Thomas in a series of Tic Tac Toe games at the 49ers Board Game Tournament at the JW House in Santa Clara. Thomas joined teammates Quinton Dial, Marlon Moore, Corey Lemonier, and Kevin McDermott for an afternoon of playing their favorite childhood games with oncology patients, allowing all to replace their biggest battles with an afternoon of laughs, smiles, and friendly competition.
"As part of the fourth annual Board Game Tournament, we are fortunate to join the JW House which provides a place where families and patients can rest, relax and prepare for the days ahead," stated Heather Curry of 49ers Community Relations, "The youth here are heroes in our community and the 49ers are thrilled to have the opportunity to provide an afternoon of fun and strength as a small way of recognizing the kids' strength and fortitude."
In September, the JW House celebrated five years since Jan-Willem "JW" Knapen's vision came to life. JW, a native of Belgium, moved to San Jose with his family in the midst of battling leukemia at the age of four. Battling with all of his strength, he grew into a healthy, leukemia-free young man, only to have tragedy strike in 2002 when he was diagnosed with brain cancer. The free-spirited, talented Bellarmine student sought out the positive in an unimaginable situation and established a selfless idea which would soon affect the lives of thousands. Through sheer determination, heart, and donations, JW and his doctor's vision of building a home-away-from-home for hospital patients and their families became a reality. Though JW passed before the House's opening in 2008, his infectious personality and genuine kindness continue to shine through the volunteers, staff and walls of the JW House.
"Our goal is to provide hope, hospitality and healing to our families," expressed JW House Project Manager Chloe Morel, "Through this event and the interaction with 49ers players, as well as on a daily basis, this necessary place can instill feelings of hope and inspiration to all those here."
The JW House was transformed into 49ers stomping grounds as players towered above the kids of the JW House, though it was a matter of minutes before they, too, became giddy like the kids over a game of Connect Four or UNO. For those who needed to fuel up before a big match, the kitchen hosted pizza from Pizza Party and an "I Scream Sundays" ice cream bar full of the sugary goodness any tough competitor needs before taking on an opponent. As linebacker Corey Lemonier handed a few victories to the dynamic Jenga duo, Vanessa and Kenna, he was reminded of what such optimism and enthusiasm can do even when faced with the toughest encounters.
"Despite the circumstances they have been dealt, every child here is full of enthusiasm," stated Lemonier, "It is a humbling experience to be here at the JW House and it makes you incredibly appreciative of every day."
After defensive lineman Quinton Dial surrendered to Hailey and the queens of Candy Land, it was time to recognize all participants for their game-time expertise, including Best Cheerleader, Best Game Day Uniform claimed by Hailey, and the Community Quarterback Award won by Ali, the smiley four year old who just last year was fighting her way through a game of an immeasurable scale. After accepting their well-deserved awards, the kids of JW posed for photos and collected autographs from their 49ers board game opponents. As the players departed it was obvious the relationships formed over an afternoon of friendly competition would not be left at the door.
"We played games and had a blast," expressed long snapper Kevin McDermott, "We can only hope we left the same impact on these kids that they left on us with their smiles, resilience and high spirits."
For more information on the JW House, their mission, and how to get involved, click HERE.