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VIDEO: Freshman softball star Rachel Franck dedicates season to younger brother
VIDEO BY SAM MASTERSON
Before every one of her at-bats this season, Webster University freshman softball player Rachel Franck kisses the two blue bands on her left wrist. Imprinted in the light blue wristband are the words “iLive4 Danny Franck,” as well as the dates “7/6/2000” and “2/27/2013.” The dark blue band features the phrase “Cheer4Danny.”
On Feb. 27, 2013, three days prior to the Webster softball team’s regular-season opener, Danny Franck, Rachel’s youngest brother, died at the age of 12. He had been in an 11-month battle with brain and spine cancer.
“I used to kiss him on the forehead all the time right before he went to bed every night, and (kissing the wristbands) reminds me of him,” Rachel said. “… I picture him sitting there, and me every time just kissing his forehead and saying ‘good night’ or saying ‘hi.’”
Danny was diagnosed with Stage 4 medulloblastoma — an aggressive, malignant tumor that progressed from Danny’s brain to his spine — on April 2, 2012. Peggy Franck, Danny’s mother, said no one in her family had been diagnosed with medulloblastoma before.
Brandon Franck, a junior at McCluer North High School in Florissant, Mo., and one of Danny’s older brothers, was at home when he received the news that his brother had cancer.
“My dad got home and he’s like, ‘He has cancer.’ And my heart sunk, and then it hit me,” Brandon said. “I wasn’t (at the hospital), but … man. He was such a tough kid.”
In the days leading up to the April 2 diagnosis, Rachel said her typically rambunctious brother was acting “lethargic and just would lay down (and) take naps.” Danny vomited several times and complained of headaches during this period. Peggy took him to a few doctors, but they didn’t know what was wrong.
An MRI revealed a lima bean-shaped tumor on Danny’s brain. The next day, Danny underwent surgery to have the tumor removed.
“We told him that he had to get surgery to get (the tumor) removed,” Rachel said. “And he was like, ‘Oh, OK, cool. Let’s just do it.’ I would have been bawling. He’s such a tough kid.”
Peggy took a year off from working to spend more time with Danny. When Danny went to the hospital, Peggy would stay with him day and night, never returning home. During Danny’s two-week stay at Ranken Jordan, a pediatric specialty hospital, Peggy recalled hearing Danny sing along to music.
“He wouldn’t (sing) when I was in the room or anything. He’d be out there singing, and I just remember thinking he sounded so happy and just so normal — just a 12-year-old boy singing along with music,” Peggy said. “Now, it’s the same music. … You talk about him and it brings a smile to your face because you just have to smile when you think of him. He was a goofy kid — anything he would do was just … goofy.”
Peggy said she thinks of her son when she hears music he used to sing or when she sees his old coat and hats hanging in the closet.
“Anything you touch or do is Danny,” Peggy said. “You just won’t ever forget.”
Danny once again underwent surgery at the end of April 2012. Doctors inserted a shunt into Danny’s brain so excess fluid could drain from his head to his abdomen. He was then placed in the Intensive Care Unit of the St. Louis Children’s Hospital and fitted with breathing and feeding tubes. He had trouble walking and used either a wheelchair or walker to move around.
Danny began a six-week combination treatment of chemotherapy and radiation on April 30. He was given all the radiation his body would ever be able to handle. Every 28 days from July-November, Danny visited the hospital for three-day increments of chemotherapy. An October MRI showed he was beginning to make progress.
But a December MRI revealed Danny’s condition was worsening again, and he didn’t attend that month’s round of chemotherapy. Peggy said this is when the “wheels started to fall off.”
Danny couldn’t stand on his own and his speech began to worsen. Near the end of January, Danny underwent two shunt-related surgeries in a 24-hour span. Peggy said he began to hallucinate at this time. In mid-February, Danny lost his voice and communicated by writing words on paper.
“But (Danny) never ever let on or acted like he knew that it was as bad as it really was,” Peggy said. “The doctors kept going, basically, ‘This is bad.’ And we’re like, ‘OK, well, I’m sure you want us to get upset and cry.’ You just think he’s going to get better. You just think it’s going to get cured and he’s going to get better.”
Rachel said Danny tried to keep a positive attitude despite his poor condition.
“(Danny) was in the hospital, barely could talk, but when somebody gives him something, he’d say ‘thank you’ or he’d say ‘please,’” Rachel said. “He’s such a nice kid; he’s so strong. He was a hero.”
Dealing with heartbreak
Rachel said life has been vastly different for her and her family since Danny’s death.
“At the dinner table, it’s one less chair there,” Rachel said. “But for what we’ve been through, we’ve coped a lot and we’ve been doing pretty good. … We’re definitely a strong family, and we’re always there for each other.”
Danny loved watching Rachel play softball. Rachel has played since she was 4 years old, and the entire Franck family often attends her games. After she graduated from McCluer North, Rachel considered not playing softball for Webster this year because of what Danny was going through, but she knew she’d miss the sport too much.
“This is her life,” Peggy said. “Other than all she’s gone through this last year with Danny, I mean, she’s always been just a go-getter. She may not think it or see it or know it as much as I feel it, but I always have been so proud of her. I barely miss any games, much less practices. We’ve been there through every game, every tournament. She definitely makes us very proud of her.”
In her first season at Webster, Rachel, who hits left-handed and throws right-handed, has a team-high .449 batting average. She leads the Gorloks with 31 hits and 14 stolen bases, and is tied for second with 13 runs scored.
Even though Rachel said she doesn’t enjoy pitching and would rather play in the outfield, she is 6-1 on the season with the lowest ERA (0.66) in the St. Louis Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. In her 32 innings pitched, Rachel has allowed only 3 earned runs. She has played this season with a stress fracture in her right forearm, which has kept her off the pitching circle since April 9.
The Gorloks are 18-11 and 7-3 in SLIAC play with six regular-season games remaining. Senior third baseman Kayla Mahoney, one of Rachel’s closest friends on the team, said Webster’s players have drawn inspiration from Rachel’s standout play.
“I just told her all the time, ‘You know you have (15) girls behind you each and every day. Nothing is going to take that away from you. You have a loving family,’” Mahoney said. “I hate to see such a terrible thing happen. It’s very tragic. If you didn’t know her, you would have no idea something like this would have happened. She acts like nothing has ever happened, but (Danny’s) still always in the back of her head.”
A performance for Danny
Danny was on the front of Rachel’s mind when she pitched against the Catholic University of America Cardinals (D.C.) on March 9 in Kissimmee, Fla. Rachel wasn’t originally scheduled to pitch that game because she had a flight to St. Louis at 3:55 p.m. EST that day.
Rachel needed to travel to her hometown of Florissant so she could be a part of “Danny Franck Day.” Rachel’s family members conducted a “Cheer4Danny” trivia night fundraiser that evening, with all proceeds going to the Franck family to help them pay medical bills. Peggy said about 400 people attended.
But before she returned to Florissant, Rachel had two softball games to play. The Gorloks’ March 9 doubleheader was moved from 1 p.m. to 9 a.m., which meant Rachel would get to pitch Game 2. In just her second start of the season, Rachel threw a no-hitter.
“It was (Danny),” Rachel said. “He definitely helped me throw that game.”
Rachel also scored the game-winning run and went 2 for 4 at the plate, as Webster defeated Catholic University of America 2-1.
After she flew to St. Louis and attended the “Cheer4Danny” fundraiser, Rachel flew back to Florida the next morning to play in the second game of a doubleheader. In that game, Webster trailed the College of Mount St. Joseph Lions (Ohio) 8-1 after 3 1/2 innings.
But 6 2/3 strong innings of relief by Rachel, as well as a 3-for-5 performance at the plate, helped propel the Gorloks to a 10-9 come-from-behind, walk-off win (9 innings).
Three team wins, two pitching wins, two flights, one trivia night, 5 hits in 12 plate appearances — all in a 31-hour span.
“They’ve taken care of each other all these years, and (Danny’s) not going to leave (Rachel) now,” Peggy said. “She gets the strength from him, too. Just knowing that he went through all he had to go through, she can get through what she needs to get through to do what she needs to do.”
Rachel said she feels Danny’s presence when she’s hitting, which is because of her pre-at-bat ritual of kissing her wristbands. She said she’s dedicating the rest of this softball season to her brother.
“Obviously, I plan on playing for Danny,” Rachel said. “Just anything and everything I do is for him. … I hope he’s proud, because I was proud of him. And I want to show him how much I love him.”