ANN ARBOR — Jason Carr looked around inside Schembechler Hall on Saturday evening and couldn’t help but beam with pride. Yet, that pride was wrapped in sorrow.
Everywhere Carr looked there were people gathered in the name of his and wife Tammi’s son, Chad. People love Chad, and they easily gravitate to his story.
It’s a story no 5-year-old, his parents and siblings, his grandparents, or any unknown connection on social media should hear, but cancer doesn’t care. Pediatric cancer, in Chad’s case diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma (DIPG), is particularly without feeling. How else do you describe a disease that attacks a 4-year-old boy who wanted to do nothing more than catch footballs from his grandfathers and get into a little mischief with his brothers?
Chad Carr passed away on Nov. 23, 2015, after 14 months of fighting a disease that is, so far, undefeated. The ChadTough Foundation, which hosted its inaugural Champions for Change Gala on Saturday night, was born out of this tragedy. ESPN’s Gene Wojciechowski was emcee, with keynote speaker Dr. Francis Collins, the director of the National Institute for Health. Detroit Free Press columnist Mitch Albom was honored with the first ChadTough Spirit Award.
The Gala also recognized other children currently battling DIPG and their families.
ChadTough is Michigan
Chad Carr’s family is interwoven into the Michigan community. Jason and Tammi are both Michigan graduates. Jason’s father is former Michigan football coach Lloyd Carr. Tammi’s father is former Michigan great Tom Curtis, a College Football Hall of Fame member and member of the 1969 team that beat No. 1-ranked Ohio State in Bo Schembechler’s first season in Ann Arbor.
Maybe the reaction and support ChadTough has received, from the Michigan community and athletic department to the CS Mott Children’s Hospital and everywhere in between, shouldn’t be such a surprise. It can, however, be overwhelming.
“You’re bringing together our huge supporters, the people that really have made the foundation reach the level it has now,” Jason Carr said, “and then you’ve also got this group of kids we’ve gotten really close with and their families who have fought DIPG, and they’re here, and we’re here to celebrate those kids.
“I think the hardest part about the foundation is that you are in it every day, and every day, on one hand you’re being reminded of all the emotions, and on the other hand every day you’re getting a little bit closer to a breakthrough. But, it is hard.”
Attacking the disease
The ChadTough foundation was hoping to raise $750,000 with this Gala. The foundation has already made a three-year, $1.5 million commitment to Mott and has partnered with other DIPG-centric foundations as part of the DIPG Collaborative. That collaboration includes The Cure Starts Now Foundation, which received much notoriety from the story of Lauren Hill, a 19-year-old college basketball player from Greendale, Ind., who passed away from DIPG seven months before Chad Carr did.
Just as Hill captured the nation’s attention, so did Chad Carr. But nowhere was impacted more than the Michigan community.
“The roots of this kid at Michigan go back a long way,” Lloyd Carr said. “I don’t know exactly how it happened but someway this beautiful little boy caught the imagination and he appealed to the finer virtues of people.”
Lloyd Carr co-chaired the campaign that eventually built the new C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital and Von Voigtlander Women’s Hospital. That’s an example that had a profound effect on men’s basketball coach John Beilein, who has been active in Coaches vs. Cancer and who, through the help of Michigan fans, has won ESPN’s Infiniti Coaches Charity Challenge the last two years, resulting in $100,000 donations to ChadTough.
“It’s just a culture that we have, and it has a lot to do with the tremendous hospital that we have here. People can see how many people are in need right in their face, and as a result it’s an easy decision to get involved,” Beilein said. “I’m a strong believer in God’s will, and things happen so that better things can happen. Unfortunately, there are things that are sometimes disastrous to make good things happen.
“This thing with young Chad has resonated everywhere. It’s just incredible.”
‘The shining star is Tammi’
Tom Curtis couldn’t find his daughter. He had been at the VIP reception prior to the Gala for some time but tracking down Tammi Carr isn’t easy. She is always on the go.
“I’m so proud of my daughter,” Curtis said. “She has taken a devastating situation and I really think this has allowed her to move forward in life, to do the things that she has done to tell the whole story of Chad from the beginning to the end. That’s a very hard thing to do, and she did it so strong and now she’s raising money so other people may not have to go through the situation she did.”
Several former Michigan players and coaches were among the supporters at the Gala. Jeff Backus played all 12 of his NFL seasons with the Detroit Lions after playing at Michigan for Lloyd Carr. That’s when he first met Jason Carr and formed a lasting friendship.
“Regardless of the Michigan connection, it’s more a personal connection with them, with the Carr family,” said Backus, who was at the Gala with his wife, Regan. “Seeing what they’ve gone through and then establishing this foundation and really trying to create awareness and try to attack this disease has been inspirational. It’s something that, because of our relationship with them, we want to support.”
The name ChadTough grew from Chad Carr’s battle with DIPG. It’s not fair to ask a little boy to be the face of this fight, but DIPG doesn’t care.
“I’ll never forget my wife saying to him ‘Well, you’re ChadTough’,” Curtis said. “He called her ‘Nee-nee’, and he said ‘Nee-Nee, I don’t want to be ChadTough. I just want to be Chad.’
“This disease devastated my personal life and my wife’s personal life. It damaged our family a lot, but the shining star is Tammi because she’s the strong one. She’s battling and I’m very proud of what she’s done. Tonight is the highpoint of what she’s done.”