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Katie Linendoll is a technology expert and contributor for TODAY.com.
When Cole Winnefeld died July 29, 2015, he left a lasting mark. To some, the 11-year-old redhead was C-3PO, to others, a Knight. To all of us who knew him, he was a superhero. Batcole, to be exact.
I met Cole though my volunteer work with a non-profit organization devoted to helping children with cancer. At 5 years old, he was diagnosed with Stage IV neuroblastoma — cancer that started on his adrenal glands and spread to his bones. His parents sought out the best treatment to help their son, which meant a lot of back and forth from a small town in Indiana to the chaos of New York City.
When I first met Cole, I was immediately taken by his kindness and warmth, despite the fact that he was constantly sick from his cancer treatments and the cancer itself. He was always thinking about everyone else. I would visit him after treatment and he would be so excited to see me. Weakly, he’d say, “I got you a WWE wrestler figurine,” or “I made you a 'Star Wars' wallet.” He remembered every last detail of what others liked.
My goal when I saw Cole was to take him away from the ninth floor of the hospital and bring a smile to his face. I wanted him to feel like a kid again. Not a sick kid. Not a worried kid. Just a normal kid. As a perpetual kid myself, we both shared a love of "Star Wars." It meant the world to me at "Star Wars" Weekend at Disney World when he said, “I’m C-3PO and you’re R2-D2.”
To his mom, Carol, his dad, Mike and his sister, Lauren, Cole was a superhero. Mike remembers the day he learned the extent of his son’s illness.
“When you first hear the diagnosis it rips your world apart," Mike said. "You think you’re living in a bad dream that you wish you’d wake up from. You see it on TV. You hear it from other folks—their child. You never think it could be your own. And then when the doctor said, ‘We think it’s cancer,’ it does, it literally just rips your world apart.”
Still, Mike went on to watch, in amazement, as Cole beat the odds. Doctors gave him only a 20 percent chance of living two more years. Cole, clearly, had other plans.
His mom, Carol, made it a top priority to bring stability to her son’s hospital-filled life.
“You start thinking in your brain how am I going to get him where he needs to go?" she said. "How am I going to keep life as normal as possible, if there isn’t normal? You do it. There’s no backing out. You do 110 percent of what’s needed to get done to save your child.”
For Mike and Carol, normalcy meant enlisting Cole in something that was larger than himself. They wanted a meaningful connection that he could be proud to be a part of. When they discovered Team Impact, they knew it was exactly what they were looking for.
Based in Quincy, Massachusetts, Team Impact connects children suffering from chronic or life-threatening illnesses with college athletic teams. Team members welcome the child and the child gains a new, expanded support network.
Cole was matched with the Marian University Knights football team in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Cole’s sister, Lauren, remembers the day her brother met the team.
“It was probably the happiest I’ve seen him in a really long time, when he got to meet all of them,” she said.
Cole would sit on the sideline during games, hang out in the locker room or break them down before the game. The guys truly made him part of the team. In their downtime, they talked about video games and played Mario Kart for hours, often over dinner at the Winnefeld’s home.
“Cole was so proud to be a Knight,” said his mom, Carol. “He was so proud.”
Cole wasn’t the only one who was proud. The Knights developed a close relationship with the 11-year-old team member. They all began wearing wristbands that said, “Cole Strong,” and stuck Batcole stickers on their helmets, often touching them during a game for good luck. Looking back, the players said they learned more from Cole than he probably did from them.
“He showed us what it’s really like to fight for something,” said Geoffre Sherman, PhD., assistant athletic director and director of sports info at Marian University.
“He was our little brother. The whole team’s little brother,” said Narvin Powell, linebacker for the team.
Coach Mark Henninger says the friendship was beneficial, all around. “It was totally mutual. It probably did a lot for Cole, from what I understand. But it probably did more for us.”
On July 28, Cole was too sick to travel to Indianapolis to see the guys, so the team traveled to see him. Though he was on oxygen and struggling to talk, he grasped his Knights jersey and perked up, joining the team as they played Mario Kart and joked around.
The next day, Cole passed away.
“This was a blessing. We always wanted him to belong to something that was bigger than he was. That he could be proud of being a part of,” said Mike, Cole’s father.
Today, almost five months after Cole died, the Knights still wear Cole’s wristbands and stickers in his memory, and many even got a Batcole tattoo.
The Knights were struggling on the field before they met Cole, but as their friendship grew, so did the team’s wins. This weekend, the Knights head to Daytona Beach, Florida for the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) Championship. Last year, they lost. This year, they hope to bring back a victory for Marian—and for Cole.
To honor Cole, his family decided to start the Batcole Foundation and, without question, I was honored to accept my role as a board member. The non-profit is dedicated to raising money to support research and new treatments for neuroblastoma.
A day doesn’t go by that I don’t think about my C-3PO, and I’m still amazed at the impact one person can make in such a short time. I know that all of us whom he touched agree that we are grateful to have been a part of his life.
A special thank you to Marian University and Geoff Sherman for footage assistance. To learn more about Batcole visit http://www.batcole.foundation.